A Curmudgeon Rerun: UnAmerican Cheese
The Curmudgeon is busier than usual, so I've decided to re-run one of my favorite columns from last year for those of you who hadn't yet discovered my blog when the column ran the first time.
American cheese isn't cheese. There, I've said it.
To be perfectly clear, American cheese is partially cheese. It contains cheese. By law, it must be made with at least 51% actual cheese to use the word "cheese" in the labeling. (The reason Kraft Singles are not called Kraft American Cheese Singles is because they contain less than the requisite amount of cheese. Chew on that, if you will.) Anything called American cheese must also, by law, contain more than one kind of cheese. And the manufacturers of this suspicious product are, by law, permitted to also include certain optional additional ingredients such as cream, water, salt, approved coloring, spices, and an emulsifying agent (commonly sodium or potassium citrate or monosodium phosphate, though a number of other salts can be used). So yes, in purely legal terms, American cheese qualifies as cheese. But for heaven's sake, if there has ever been a broader, more generous definition, I can't imagine what it would be. One literally cannot get farther from actual cheese without forfeiting the legal right to call it cheese. It's a bit like calling meatloaf "meat" or a fruit pie "fruit." Yes, it's in there somewhere, but can we really name something for one of its ingredients?
Of course, that comparison is completely unfair to meatloaf and fruit pies, which are at least composed entirely of food, something we cannot necessarily say of American "cheese." You may have seen the videos on YouTube in which people conduct an experiment involving putting a flame to a slice of this abhorrent stuff. It doesn't melt. Allow me to say that again. It doesn't melt. And that alone ought to be cause for alarm.
The Curmudgeon says no. I refuse to accept this substance, with a consistency suggestive of wet Band-aids, as legitimate cheese. Now, that is not to say I haven't eaten the stuff and yes, maybe even enjoyed it a little. I've also watched professional wrestling. It doesn't mean it's defensible. American cheese is faux, belonging to the same family as such equally tacky substitutes as toupees, imitation crab meat, plastic flowers, Astroturf, designer knock-offs, wood laminate, "marble" contact paper, cubic zirconia, and reality television. Certainly, in a pinch or for budgetary reasons, one might justify selecting such things. By all means, if you're stranded in some uncivilized locale where your only cheese option is American (though one wonders why one would ever visit such a barbarically backwards place), I say dig in and don't give it another thought.. But given the choice—I cry out to the universe—why in the name of all that is holy would anyone select these wiggly shoe inserts? At any restaurant of a high enough caliber to allow one to order from the comfort of a chair, there are far more legitimate options. Even the local diner will offer Cheddar, Swiss, and mozzarella. You never know; they might even have Jack or provolone. Add cloth napkins and you'll likely find something grand like Gouda, bleu, goat, or even Havarti. Those are cheeses. Real cheeses. They're produced by time-honored methods. They melt. American "cheese" . . . bends. If a dining companion sits across a restaurant table from me, considers the menu choices, and announces, "I'll have the American cheese, please," he sinks quickly and substantially in my esteem. Somewhere in Lieden a dedicated cheesemonger, educated by masters in this 7500-year-old art form, milks the goats for the third time today, stirs the vats, and waits. A monk in Vimoutiers rises at five a.m. to pray, asking God to render him worthy of the cheese-making task before him, then spends grueling hours carefully and lovingly tending to his monastery's one-of-a-kind artisan masterpiece using a centuries-old aging process that was once blessed by the Pope. And my companion opts instead for a dull slab of rubbery orange mystery food. How can such a person live with himself? All over the world, towns and regions point with pride to the unique and delicious cheeses named for their places of origin: Jarlsberg . . . Cotija . . . Edam . . . Gruyère . . . Asiago . . . Roquefort . . . and the list goes on. Each one is special, bringing glory to its birthplace. Even within the US, we have wonderful Colby (named for Colby, Wisconsin), Monterey Jack (named for Monterey, California), and Humboldt Fog (for Humboldt County, California). But the cheese named for our country—ostensibly our national cheese—is a vague, cheap, unexceptional cheese-like substance—a processed para-cheese—a cheese knock-off—the polyester of cheeses. It's a disgrace. How, I ask you, are we to hold our heads high as Americans when the so-called cheese that bears our country's name would not even be welcome on the same table as the others? We can't. And that's all there is to say about it. Now if you'll excuse me, my desk is wobbling and I've just thought of the perfect way to fix it.