The Velveeta Century

Regular readers know that I am a fan of classic twentieth-century “factory food” – that stuff that resulted from modern science being applied to the use of turning fresh meat, dairy and produce into things sold in boxes and cans. But even I have my limits.

I was reminded of this following a recent purchase of a staple of my childhood. Marianne got a taste for a grilled cheese sandwich. Not the kind of grilled cheese you might get from a restaurant, but the kind she grew up on – the kind with Velveeta oozing from the edges with each bite. We keep more than a few old-school boxed and canned items in our pantry, but Velveeta is not one of them. One trip to the store later, I became one more proud owner of a the familiar yellow box.

I will be honest – when I was a kid, Velveeta was the only kind of cheese that my mother kept on hand. When the word “cheese” was used in our house, it meant Velveeta. Except for when the word “cheese” was used in connection with crackers – then it was the stuff that came out of a spray can. But anything else that required cheese was made with the big soft block of the Big V.

Omelets (or what I grew up believing were omelets) were like a big, thick scrambled egg pancake (in the shape of my mother’s rectangular electric skillet) with a layer of Velveeta on top. Are you surprised that it took years for me to work up the courage to order an omelet in a restaurant? Neither my sister or I approached my mother’s omelets with the bright-eyed wonder of the happy children on the box. Any sandwich that included cheese made use of a thick Velveeta slab. This includes regular “cheese sandwiches” that were nothing besides Velveeta on white bread and “grilled cheese sandwiches” that were Velveeta on white bread that got buttered and toasted in that same electric skillet.

Do you remember those years of adolescence when you would stand in front of the open refrigerator door hoping that some delicious snack would magically appear? When I would do that (and accompany it with a whiny “I’m hungry”) my mother’s cheerful response would often be “How about a slice of cheese?” Meaning a cold, naked little hunk of Velveeta. I almost never went with that suggestion. Almost never.

At some point my eyes were opened to the world of real, actual cheese and I realized that Velveeta had not really been cheese at all. When I began buying my own groceries, Velveeta was almost never a passenger in my shopping cart. As much as I may have liked the idea of a cheese loaf that is wrapped in foil and comes in a box, I became a fan of the real thing in its many varieties.

But with a Velveeta box on my countertop I vowed to find some love for this classic product. A little investigations reveals that the stuff was invented in 1918. One Emil Frey of the “Monroe Cheese Company” in Monroe, New York. It must have been a hit because “The Velveeta Cheese Company” was incorporated as a separate company in 1923. It should surprise nobody that Mr. Frey was not from Wisconsin.

The stuff hit the big time when Kraft bought the company in 1927. It marketed the new “cheese food” as an improved and healthy alternative to old fashioned cheese and, of course, promoted it incessantly. By the early 1950’s it was reformulated and marketed as “cheese spread”. It was not until 2002 that the company reached an agreement with the government to relabel the stuff as “cheese product” because it did not meet the FDA’s definition of “cheese”. I suppose this blog post might come under the category of “cheese product”, but that is probably a different kind of cheese.

Anyway, we made our classic grilled cheese sandwiches. I did indeed get a jolt of nostalgia as the sandwich’s innards oozed onto the plate (and stuck to it). But I have to admit that this is one area where my tastes have progressed from what they might have been in 1967. My normal grilled cheese still uses white bread and lots of butter on the outsides (thus requiring a few napkins to wipe the sheen from my fingers after eating) but my go-to for the insides is some kind of FDA-compliant cheese like havarti, colby, provolone, muenster or gouda, or whatever else may be found in the refrig at a given time. Mind you, these will typically come in plastic bags from a big box store and not from the place from which someone might source the contents of a charcuterie board, but they are still miles ahead of Velveeta and justify at least a mild form of cheese-snobbery.

For those who cannot get enough of the stuff, the helpful people at Kraft have spent nearly a century churning out recipe ideas for you. Like broiled open faced sandwiches of peanut butter, a pineapple slice and a slab of Velveeta? Or perhaps you would prefer the Velveeta jelly omelet? Or the Velveeta Spinach Ring as shown above! Did you know that there is even a recipe for Velveeta fudge? Kraft doesn’t have a corner on the recipe market either – someone has concocted a Velveeta martini made from Velveeta-infused vodka and garnished with Velveeta-stuffed olives and Velveeta-coated macaroni shells. They are probably pretty good after the fourth or fifth one.

I will give the devil its due in that real cheese is a poor substitute when making some sort of warm nacho cheese dip. Nothing melts like Velveeta and if a smooth, satisfying warm pale orange slurry is required, the stuff in the yellow box cannot be beat. Maybe some kind of nacho dip is in my future because we still have a good portion of that box of Velveeta to use up. Sadly, I think I have hit my limit on grilled Velveeta sandwiches for the next several years.

COAL Update: In which I proved to myself that even a big sedan makes a lousy family car.

34 thoughts on “The Velveeta Century

  1. J.P. You basically said it at the end: it’s the texture and smoothness that gives Velveeta it’s legion of fans, as well as it’s “cheese flavor”. Lest we consider ourselves “rubes” for shame-facedly admitting that there are situations where we like Velveeta, I give you this story: I dated a woman who was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and she taught me three things. 1. Always try the store or “house” brand of any item you are buying. In many cases it can be the same, or even better than the expensive branded stuff. 2. If you use any kind of “freeze dried” mash potato mix, you are worthlessly lazy, as there is nothing so easy and simple than making real mash potatoes. And 3. There are times when Velveeta is your friend, especially when smoothness, consistency, and “meltability” Is as important, or more important than subtle flavor exotica.

    I can say my Mom never really made us melted cheese sandwiches with Velveeta, she used the ubiquitous “American cheese”, and growing up in Chicago and Milwaukee, there was no shortage of cheeses of all kinds, even at the corner store. As a side note, I knew a person who grew up in Germany and France, and was a cheese fanatic, and he loved “American Cheese”, for its different flavor, and ease of making toasted cheese sandwiches. I also had a situation where I was visiting my brother back in the 80’s, in New Jersey. We went to a corner pub for a burger, and I ordered a cheeseburger. When the waitperson asked what kind of cheese I wanted, I said “Colby”. The whole table laughed, as no one knew what it was. She responded “American or Swiss”.

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    • I was about to echo Andy’s comment and say my mom never made sandwiches with Velveeta either, but maybe she did after all? It never occurred to me Kraft’s “processed cheese food” slices could be Velveeta in disguise. Did your research confirm it? Regardless, I’m glad I never got hooked on Velveeta or any other imitation cheese. The world of the real stuff is glorious, including the Tillamook cheddar I was raised on. Yet I have to admire the fierce loyalty of those who consider Velveeta (and Spam) a staple in their diets. We have good friends in Texas who use it in just about every recipe. Admittedly, some of their dishes are delicious.

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      • I must be in a small demographic, as someone who always has a can or three of SPAM in the pantry but almost never a box of Velveeta. Now that I have the stuff, you have me wondering about trying a grilled SPAM and Velveeta sandwich. It would be a shame not to give it a go when I have the chance. 🙂

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      • I grew up in Indiana, I didn’t know better, I just knew I didn’t like that cheese. With 4 kids, that’s all my mother bought. I think I didn’t like its soft texture, the color, no taste, super gooey — the whole thing. Back then, there wasn’t much to choose from. Now, it’s so different, right.

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  2. The mere mention of Velveeta does dredge up some latent memories.

    It can safely be said there has never once been a box of Velveeta under my roof. But it’s taken three generations to get there.

    My mom’s mom was a Velveeta devotee. Like with your mom, cheese was synonymous with Velveeta. Perhaps at Christmas my grandmother might buy some of that sliced stuff from Switzerland with the holes in it. My mom was an American cheese devotee with the occasional dabble in her Velveeta roots. Not us; right now we have Gouda, white cheddar, and havarti on hand.

    In college one night I was making a grilled cheese. My roommates younger brother was there (he was 19 and knew absolutely everything!). I was told if I wanted a worthwhile sandwich, I needed “real cheese, like Velveeta.”.

    For Mrs. Jason and I, we simply try to avoid the processed food if we can – not to be snobs, but to stay within our rule of only having food ingredients we can pronounce. We have often discussed how our mothers are big on acquisition of processed foods, wondering if it may be a generational thing to some extent.

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    • “Real cheese – like Velveeta” – a gem that could only come from a 19 year old kid. 🙂

      As I think about it, for the people in charge of household food in the 1930s and 1940s, something like Velveeta must have seemed like a miracle. If you were not in the general vicinity of big dairy operations that specialized in real cheese, the real stuff was probably hard to get, expensive, and with not a great shelf life. Something like Velveeta was readily available, would last a long time, and could get the job done when it had to.

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    • I remember being disappointed the first time I tried to melt real cheddar for something – the way the oils separated out of it, especially. I caught myself thinking “this never happened at home with Velveeta.”

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  3. I have intense memories of Velveeta, but not because of the actual product. There was a local TV station that frequently ran commercials from Kraft Canada showing a woman’s hands making bizarre dishes out of Miracle Whip, Velveeta Process Cheese Food and the like. This was perplexing for me on several points:
    – Why were we seeing a woman’s hands but hearing a man’s voice?
    – Why did the woman have bright red long nails, no woman I knew had nails like that?
    – If they have to constantly remind us that this product is food, is it really food?
    Anyway, we were a good Dutch-Canadian family and always had proper cheese, like Gouda with Cumin seeds, so I have never experienced Velveeta in person.

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    • Cheese “food” (and cheese product), of course, was a construct forced on people like Kraft who would haphazardly try to make you believe that it was really cheese, like a copy should not be called a Xerox! In case you think this is crazy of the dairy association to do this, you should know that at one time, oleo was ‘illegal’ in states like Wisconsin, and those that needed it for health reasons had to smuggle it over the border from Illinois! Then there was an intermediate era, where you could buy oleo, but it couldn’t be yellow to look like butter, it was sold white, with a packet of dye you had to mix in! Champagne vs. ‘Sparkling’ anyone?

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    • The answers to your questions are easy:
      – The woman may be the expert in making the dish, but it takes a man to convey authority to convince other women to buy it.
      – All the better to glam-up the food to impress the ladies with plain fingernails.
      – Kind of.

      Seriously though, I had thought that everyone who had ever attended a Super Bowl party or some other winter-time get together had tried Velveeta (if unintentionally) in that nacho dip that has been a staple since the 80s.

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  4. As a kid, our family had not only Velveeta cheese, but we had a slicer that gave you nice even chunks of any thickness.

    The best grilled cheese sandwiches I ever had were at a Fish N Chip restaurant in Bloor West Village back in the day. I’d go there for lunch sometimes when I was in High School. I do not know what kind of cheese they used, but the butter was not in short supply!

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    • You remind me that when we were cleaning out my mother’s kitchen after she could no longer live at home, I came across her old cheese slicer that had been in use for my entire life. I adopted it. It is nothing more than a slingshot-style handle with a thin metal wire. Thickness and uniformity of slices are up to the user, but that thing cuts cheese better than anything I have ever used.

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  5. Ah, Velveeta cheese – no finer way to make an ooey-gooey grilled cheese back in the day. And greasing up the little cast-iron skillet, as opposed to layering Kraft cheese slices on buttered bread in the toaster oven … well, there’s just no comparison. You have to pair that grilled cheese with tomato soup. I have not had Velveeta, nor a grilled cheese in a while and now, like Marianne, I have a hankering for one. My mom also used Velveeta for omelets and she’d make shepherd’s pie and throw a couple of generous slices of Velveeta on top of the mashed potatoes just before that shepherd’s pie came out of the oven. Since I was the baby, I always got the crispy cheese. As you may know, I am a Canadian, so I grew up with a slice of Black Diamond cheese with the apple pie, not ice cream, so over here in the States, Velveeta worked perfectly on a hot piece of apple pie, melting deliciously over the crust. P.S. I went through a period of eating and enjoying baloney and Cheez Whiz sandwiches. I just liked the tangy taste of Cheez Whiz and you used to be able to buy Cheez Whiz in microwavable containers to pour over nacho chips, like you will do with your leftover Velveeta cheese.

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    • I agree that there is no better pairing with a grilled cheese than a good bowl of tomato soup. Unless it is some bacon to put on the sandwich.

      I remember being amazed when I was visiting relatives in the Philadelphia area and learned that the locals’ favorite way to order a Philly cheese steak sandwich is with Cheez Whiz for the cheese.

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      • Yes, bacon works well too!

        It’s been years since I had a Philly cheese steak sandwich and not a genuine one in Philly. My mom used to make them with Steak-umms for a weekend treat back in the day. Do you remember those frozen thin-sliced steaks called Steak-umms JP? I just Googled and they are still around. I guess my mom probably used Cheez Whiz as we always had a bottle in the house.

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  6. It seems your mom is always getting a new car – or that just my impression? I will always think of the Crown Victoria as the choice for police cars and I forgot just how long that car was – no cutting corners swiftly with that “boat”. Now I never see what was the traditional police vehicle for years and years – it is all SUVs now. That was unfortunate at the time for your first firm dissolving. We had a similar circumstance at our firm and that’s why my boss and I left. He had joined the Firm in an “of counsel” position in 1991 – similar to you. It was lucrative to them because, as a labor attorney, his construction and manufacturing clients always had union issues and they had other issues as well, so those matters were farmed out to other attorneys and paralegals with my boss collecting a percentage of work billed. Then a senior partner committed suicide and clients did not like the only other corporate partner (even if his name was the first on the door) and they began to find other law firms to service them. With revenue lost, our Firm merged with a Richmond, VA firm and made my boss become a partner and jack his rates up another $150.00/hour. He didn’t like that arrangement which to begin in their new fiscal year, so we left with all our 62 clients before that date (02/01/03).

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      • It was a great firm until the merger – it changed everything and after my boss/I left to go out on our own, the other main partner on the door (a litigator) took all his clients/files to another firm in Detroit. The firm that acquired our firm in the merger shuttered Detroit and two smaller satellite offices in Ann Arbor and Birmingham – everyone got two weeks’ notice. It was quite a shock to my boss/me as it happened almost two years after we left.

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  7. Growing up, I don’t remember ever having Velveeta in the house. Our toasted cheese sandwiches were made with Kraft singles. The taste is similar to Velveeta, so the recipes for both must be similar?

    There were lots of good cooks in my family, but my Aunt Lenore was one of the best. At family gatherings, I soon learned to be early in line for her au gratin potatoes. Instead of slices, she used potatoes cut into about 1/2” chunks, covered with a delicious cheese sauce which I’m certain contained Velveeta as the main ingredient. Simply delicious. The ladies were good about sharing recipes, so my mom learned to make them also and they were one of the first things I’d think to request for special occasions.

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    • Those potatoes sound good! I didn’t find it anywhere, but I suspect that the American Singles are a more solid version of Velveeta. But that’s just a guess.

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  8. OMG I must buy some Velveeta! I like a thick slab of it on toast once in a long while but it is quite high in saturated fat and I don’t need the guilt along with my fake cheese..and I believe it’s close to $9 a box now. For grilled cheese sandwiches I use Kraft slices, which is basically the same thing. PS. The car is a pretty color and those velveteen seats must have been quite stylish back then.

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    • Our box is about gone now. Just the other night, I tried spreading some on crackers. I had never tried this before – it spreads really well and isn’t half bad that way. But yes, real cheese is a whole different thing.

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