American Cheese

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Most of the varieties of cheese we eat were originally created in Europe: Brie, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Emmenthaler. But this country can be proud of several distinct varieties that can be called uniquely American (Colby, Brick and Monterey Jack among them). Unfortunately, though, the one variety that goes by the name of its home country is probably the worst cheese anywhere in the world.

American cheese, a.k.a. process cheese, a.k.a. processed cheese, can be found all over the industrialized world now, but in a sense it is a distinctly American food, born of a culture obsessed with efficiency, scalability, and reliability, and without a distinctive gastronomic tradition to guide it. If you're like me you grew up eating the waxy, iridescent orange, individually plastic-wrapped slices of American cheese, and you may wonder why it continues to be a staple of the American diet.

According to Wikipedia, process cheese was invented in Switzerland in 1911 by Walter Gerber, but was perfected and commercialized here in America by Kraft Foods. James L. Kraft patented the method of production in 1916, but it wasn't until 1950 that the sliced version became so popular. In truth, we think of process cheese only as those Kraft American Singles, but in fact most of the readily available supermarket cheeses are just variations on a theme. There are brands of pasteurized process Swiss, pasteurized process Gouda, even pasteurized process Gruyère (I'm sure the Swiss are NOT happy that we are giving them credit for these monstrosities). But of all these varieties, one truly rises to the top and is uniquely qualified to possess the vaunted title of "American."

Process cheese, as defined by the FDA, is usually made from several different kinds of cheese, which are melted and optionally combined with cream, anhydrous milkfat, or dehydrated cream. An emulsifying agent is added to prevent separation, and other ingredients can be added as well, such as water, salt, "harmless" artificial colorings, spices or flavorings, preservatives, and anti-caking agents. The FDA actually specifies several different kinds of process cheese: pasteurized process cheese (e.g., Kraft Singles), pasteurized process cheese food (e.g. Velveeta), pasteurized process cheese spread (e.g. Kraft Cheese Whiz). (Makes you wonder whether there's such a thing as raw process cheese.)

Not surprisingly, process cheese was created not for reasons of taste but for reasons of efficiency. When cheeses are cut and packaged for supermarket display, one ends up with a lot of little scraps of cheese that can't be sold. Process cheese provides a solution to this problem, combining these scraps together into something edible and salable. And furthermore, it has a very long shelf life and can be sold quite inexpensively, which might explain why this food has become so ubiquitous. A side-benefit of the added emulsifiers is that the cheese can be melted uniformly, something which fast food establishments find particularly useful.

But what about the taste? For me, delight in food ultimately comes down to how something tastes (and, secondarily, how it looks). I don't care if it saves me time or money, I don't care if it behaves in a predictable manner when heated, I want something that tastes good. (And if you think Kraft Singles taste bad, you should try some Miller's Kosher process cheese.) For the life of me, I can't think of any manner of cooking that wouldn't benefit from using a better cheese than process cheese. To be sure, a grilled cheese sandwich is a much better way to consume process cheese than eating it raw, but melting some cave-aged raw-milk gruyère over a couple of slices of buttered bread would be far superior, no? Mac & cheese? You can simulate the behavior of process cheese with some flour and milk to emulsify.

Perhaps one day pasteurized process cheese will go the way of asbestos, lead paint, and other "technically advanced" toxic substances. Or maybe they will figure out a way to make it with scraps of good cheese, without preservatives and stabilizers. Till then, keep your singles to yourself!