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.