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To Single out American Cheese

March 8, 2010

I think we can all say that at one point in our lives, we have eaten and experienced the individually, cellophane-wrapped slice of American Cheese.  Growing up, I can’t really remember having a sandwich that didn’t have a Kraft single somewhere within the mix. (No plain label cheese, remember?)  It was a great complement to lunch meat, it was perfect to melt in a grilled cheese or over a hamburger on the grill.  Pure, orange, melty goodness… How could anyone not enjoy this?  When Velveeta came out, the possibilities were endless.  We could cut larger slices instead of doubling up on a single slice, or cube it and melt it to make cheese sauce for nachos at a ball park, or the perfect macaroni and cheese.    I remember soon after that, there was an innovation to where we had Kraft “Swiss” cheese singles.  How remarkable!  How…European!  It was white!  White cheese…seriously…?  I didn’t think that existed!  It tasted different…it was white…how could it not?  Brilliant!!

Funny how things change as we open our eyes and palates to a different world.  I remember watching a television commercial that proudly exclaimed that their singles now contained real milk.  Wait a minute.  Isn’t that a prerequisite for cheese?  I also saw packaging that contained the words “cheese food” or “cheese food product”.  The fact that this distinction needed to be made for the average consumer did not bode well for the reputation of what was at one time known as our national cheese.

Inspired by my new found passion for cheese making (and blogging apparently), as well as comments and suggestions from others, I decided to take a closer look at American cheese and what it means for us as we continue to evolve and create our own cheese making culture and traditions.

If you look up American Cheese on Wikipedia, the practice of this originally became an experiment in pursuit of a perfect texture as opposed to taste.  While it was created to taste like a Colby/Cheddar blend, the practice now is devoted more to creating a substance that has a mild taste, coupled with an extended shelf life.  When a traditional cheese is heated over a period of time, the protein and fat separate into two components that will not blend.  A processed cheese does not have this problem as the emulsifiers used to engineer it prevent separation.  When it melts, it maintains it’s shape, texture and taste.  This is one of the main reasons why it is so perfect for melting over hamburgers.  If you read the Wiki article a little further, you will find that American Cheese slices are actually poured into the cellophane wrappers and allowed to emulsify…  If that last piece of information doesn’t make you pause for thought, then I don’t know what will.

Is this a tradition that we should be proud of?  Interesting question I think.  No matter what you have to say about it now, processed cheese has made an impression on the majority of us growing up.  It isn’t something that we need to celebrate necessarily, but we can’t ignore it either.  For better or for worse, processed cheese is a part of who we are and creates a sort of nostalgia for our childhood.  It does for me at least.  I had thought that there might be a re-imagined version of American Cheese out there that was hand crafted with fresh milk and cultures that would recreate and capture the the cheese of my youth.  I don’t know that it exists to be honest.  Real, honest to goodness cheese takes time and effort to make and develop, not minutes to pour into a mold and package.  Real cheese is developed to be individual in it’s character and flavor, not engineered to be incredibly mild with a one note flavor profile and texture.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with American Cheese if that is what you are looking for.  As the old adage goes, “As long as you understand the limitations, you will never be disappointed.”  My issue is that I understand the limitations, but I am unwilling to accept them.  We are living in an exciting time when it comes to true American Cheese.  Melt some Cabot cloth-bound on your next burger for a change of pace.  Start a new tradition and see where it leads you.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2010 8:31 am

    You’re in very good company: many great writers wax nostalgic over food (Proust with his cookie and linden tea spring to mind). It ‘s powerful stuff, sense memory–even when the food we associate with more innocent times is something as suspect as American cheese! I love this blog…

    • March 9, 2010 11:15 am

      I couldn’t agree more. Sense memory is what makes all of our associations so tangible and immediate. Thanks Cait!

  2. Tom permalink
    March 9, 2010 1:26 pm

    I grew up with a major portion of almost every meal coming from a box or can. Even snacks were lab-created. Which is why the queso combo of Velveeta and Rotel holds a special place in my slightly-congealed heart.

    Oh, and you realize we’re going to mine your cheese brain for everything it’s worth once Tess’ store opens, right?

    • March 9, 2010 4:03 pm

      Glad to help Tom! Anytime.

      I think my mother still makes that Rotel dip for every single Holiday…

  3. Linda K Estes permalink
    March 13, 2010 11:57 am

    But of course! What would the holidays be without Velveeta & Ro-Tel dip?
    Not to mention a family gathering without my famous cheese popcorn made
    with, what else, “cheese in a box”!

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