The power of (pasteurized and prepared) cheese

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Velvetta does something few other cheeses can do -- it melts consistently and never needs refrigeration.

"This song's about a girl who's soft and warm and cheap. When I held her close to me, she melted right away. Velveeta was her name."

So go the lyrics to a tune by a punk band fromCalifornia. The group, whose titles also include "Lawnmower of Love" and "I Love You But You're Standing On My Foot," probably won't be invited to perform at this year's Kraft Foods Inc. company picnic. Kraft, the largest packaged foods company in North America and the maker of Velveeta, wouldn't be amused. Not long ago it sued the operator of an adult Web site to prevent him from lampooning the Velveeta name. Clearly, the company thinks its "pasteurized prepared cheese product" deserves more respect.

But the truth is Velveeta is the Rodney Dangerfield of dairy products. Dubbed variously "Arkansas brie" or "Spam for vegetarians," it is to cheese what John Tesh is to music. Its name has been sarcastically attached (just like Spam) to abusive practices in cyberspace. Bob Brown pronounces it a triumph of technology over conscience and declares, "The best I can say for it is that it is not poisonous."

Some people don't even regard Velveeta as real cheese, though, technically, according to Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations, it is. It's a processed cheese, which means it is cheese heated and mixed with other ingredients to incorporate more moisture to make it easier to spread or melt. The technique also creates a very consistent product because the heat prevents the cheese from ever ripening. Processed cheese always tastes the same because, fortunately or unfortunately depending upon your point of view, it never ages. Likewise, processed cheese has a longer shelf life. Velveeta is even shelf stable, which is to say it does not need to be refrigerated before opening. Thus, it is not sold out of the dairy case but off a regular grocery shelf.

Those attributes of consistency and stability served J. L. Kraft well when in 1903, with just $65 in capital, a rented wagon, and a horse named Paddy, he got into the cheese business by buying it wholesale at Chicago's Water Street market and reselling it to local merchants. (Today the company he founded packages over 70 major brands and is the leader in 17 of its top 20 product categories. Now the second-largest food company in the world, million-dollar-a-year brands are small potatoes to it. Twenty-five of its brands post annual sales of more than $100 million a year and several do more than a billion dollars in sales each year.)

Disappointed in the inconsistent quality of the cheese he bought, Kraft set out to remedy the situation and soon purchased a cheese factory where he began producing processed cheese in small tins. In 1916 he received a patent for his product, just in time to take advantage of a new market created by the entrance of the U.S. into World War I. The fact that his cheese didn't have to be refrigerated made it a natural for inclusion in the field rations of soldiers going overseas. And, thus, what would become Velveeta was born. The name itself wouldn't be introduced until 1928 when Kraft bought out chief rival Phenix Cheese which had earlier developed a similar product and with whom Kraft shared the patent rights. Ever since Kraft has been a leader in processed cheese innovations, some of them even more dubious, like Cheez Whiz, a spread with over 1,000 reported uses, including as an emergency substitute for shaving cream.

Over the years processed cheese has come to be regarded, favorably or unfavorably, as quintessentially American and the U.S. government now promulgates standards for three major categories: "pasteurized process cheese," "pasteurized process cheese food," and "pasteurized process cheese spread." The bottom line, however, is that generally processed cheeses must contain at least 51 percent actual cheese, which qualifies Velveeta as cheese, even if just barely.

Granted, Velveeta is a far cry from, say, brie, even the factory-produced kind most commonly available at the supermarket. (Indeed, the differences are great enough that demographers claim that a preference for one or the other is correlated with a person's political leanings.) But here in the middle of what might be called the Velveeta belt, a zone that extends down the middle of the country and is centered in the Midwest with pockets of heavy concentration in Des Moines, Kansas City, Louisville, and Little Rock (which boasts the nation's highest per capital Velveeta consumption), we know that processed cheese deserves more respect.

Sure, it's not gourmet (what would you expect from the same company that brings you Cool Whip, Stove Top Stuffing, and Tang?), but it's the greatest invention since sliced bread (which made its debut at around the same time) when you're throwing a cocktail party and can't go to a lot of trouble. (No wonder its sales soar around the holidays.) That's because Velveeta can do something no other cheese can do, not even the fancy ones aged in caves over in France. It melts -- effortlessly, perfectly, thoroughly. When heated it oozes seductively out of a toasted cheese sandwich, lovingly envelops the beef patty in a cheeseburger, or embraces every strand of macaroni in a dish of mac and cheese. It never gets stringy. Thus, it's ideal for making fashionably retro hot dips which appeal to the current nostalgia for comfort foods, making it the perfect culinary centerpiece for that upcoming Super Bowl party. Armchair quarterbacks, after all, don't crave frou-frou fare, but they cannot resist tackling a vat of melted Velveeta combined with tomatoes, chilies, or refried beans.

Clifton Fadiman once remarked that cheese is milk's leap toward immortality. Velveeta has already reached that status. As long as there are football parties, there will be a market for it.

Velveeta Dips

You can make a comforting hot dip by combining Velveeta with almost anything, even cheese! Simply cut up one pound Velveeta and melt in the microwave on low power or in a saucepan over low heat. Add whatever ingredients you like, stirring to combine. The following are time-honored variations.

Con Queso Dip: add 1 can (10 oz.) diced tomatoes and green chilies, drained.

Cheesy Chili Dip: add 1 can (15 oz.) chili.

Ranch Dip: add 8 oz. sour cream and 1 cup ranch dressing.

Spinach Dip: add 1 can (14.5 oz.) tomatoes, cut up; 1 package (10 oz.) frozen spinach, thawed and drained; and 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper.

Pizza Dip: add 1 medium tomato and 1.5 oz. chopped pepperoni.

Bean Dip: add 1 can (16 oz.) refried beans and 1/2 cup salsa.

Crab Dip: add 1/2 stick melted butter and 1 can (4.25 oz.) crabmeat, drained.

Sausage Dip: add 1 lb. bulk sausage, browned and drained, and 1/4 cup salsa.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. Fridays and at 11:59 a.m. Saturdays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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