The last slice of Thanksgiving pie wasn’t even gone when the TV-people began expressing their feelings of unbridled “Christmas joy” by putting giant red bows on new $60,000 cars. I felt obligated to write something Christmas-y for this column, but my heart wasn’t in it. How can a person feel nostalgia for the “holiday season” before they’ve come to terms with the actual season?
The cast of Seinfeld famously celebrated “Festivus,” a secular holiday for the deeply irreverent. I submit that the days right after Thanksgiving should be another non-holiday holiday: The Settling-In. They should be a quiet time of adjusting to Daylight Savings, accepting that it will rain for the next 173 days, and thinking of indoor activities for the kids and dogs. The only special foods should be simple ones that evoke authentic nostalgia.
In my opinion, there is no better way to celebrate an anti-holiday than with something utterly unholy: a grilled-cheese sandwich made with Velveeta, or, as it’s known in my house, “science cheese.”
To be clear, I would never encourage anyone to eat Velveeta on a regular basis, but a truly good grilled-cheese must be melty and gooey. And that requires a thin veneer of America’s most famous shelf-stable non-Newtonian “pasteurized prepared cheese product.”
Like everything else fun, it’s fine in moderation.
America’s fromage barrage
Because my childhood coincided with Ronald Reagan’s “Ketchup is a vegetable” years, I have spent my adulthood being inherently suspicious of anything that was a staple of my public-school lunches. I came by my grudging admiration of “cheese-food products” slowly, and only long after the Berlin Wall had been reduced to a pile of souvenir rubble.
In the early 1980s, a long tradition of subsidizing dairy products caught up with the U.S. government. America’s dairy farmers could make more money selling their products to the government than they could selling them to the public. The feds couldn’t offload the dairy in other countries without infuriating their farmers. To deal with the surplus, they began stockpiling flabby, greasy orange blocks of “commodity cheese” in warehouses across the country.
Journalists — and the public — were scandalized when they learned that, while poor Americans struggled to put food on the table, the feds had accumulated an arsenal of more than 560 million pounds of the substance that came to be known as “government cheese.”
“The stockpile, already more than two pounds of cheese for every person in the United States, is still growing,” the New York Times wrote in 1981.
Cheese for the poor
In a rather dubious act of “charity”, President Reagan announced that any state could have 30 million pounds of the stuff, which they could foist off on their less-fortunate citizens. For Native Americans, welfare recipients, food bank customers and senior citizens across the land, it became a sort of culinary salt-in-the-wound.
The shelf-stable bricks lasted forever. I distinctly remember how a native cousin kept her supply in a cupboard that held the rest of her endowment from the Bureau of Indian Affairs: a giant sack of BEANS, and gallon can of PEANUT BUTTER.
When we inherited a five-pound brick from my grandmother, it confirmed my growing suspicion that she either had a truly sick sense of humor, or really didn’t like us very much. I was eight or nine, and an enthusiastic, if inexperienced cook. Not one to let something that was technically edible go to waste, my father asked me to figure out what to do with it. I remember only that I made a hell of a lot of broccoli in cheese sauce, and that by the time we had finally whittled it down to a dessicated chunk that we could give to the chickens, I never wanted to see a brick of fake cheese, ever again.
But time heals all wounds, doesn’t it?
The road to queso is paved with liquid gold
In 1918, Emil Fray, a Swiss-born cheese-maker started looking for a way to make a profit from wheels of cheese that got broken in transit. He discovered that by mixing whey — the liquid that drains off during cheese-making — back into the cheese, he could make an emulsified product with a smooth, “velvety” texture, according to Smithsonian Magazine. It took some time for Velveeta to catch on after it crawled out of the lab, but by the 1930s, it was viewed as a health product — a fortified diet food that was milkier than milk, and cheesier than cheese. In 1931, the American Medical Association praised it for building “firm flesh.” Eventually, the Kraft corporation bought out the Velveeta company. But when Kraft launched American cheese, a similar product that was configured into slices, rather than bricks, executives feared there would be too much competition between their own products. To solve this dilemma, they decided to promote the idea that Velveeta was better in its liquid state. That’s why the vast majority of Velveeta applications take the forms of sauces and dips. It’s also why super-fans of the Trump-colored cheese call it “liquid gold.”
In the Uncanny Valley of Cheese
Over time, the real cheese in the product has gradually been replaced by whey, preservatives and milk solids. In fact, the modern formula is so distinct from actual cheese that in 2002, the Food and Drug Administration ordered Kraft to stop calling it a “cheese spread.”
Paradoxically, it’s Velveeta’s un-cheese-like properties that makes it so useful for enhancing the cheesiness of actual cheese. When real cheese is melted, the oil separates from the milk solids, and it quickly congeals into a flaccid, greasy blob. But Velveeta and other processed cheeses contain ingredients that keep them from separating. These products may be salty, gummy and otherwise appalling, but they melt like a dream.
The key to using Velveeta successfully is to use just enough to get the right texture, without having its plasticy taste overwhelm the real cheese.
A well-made grilled-cheese sandwich is crispy on the outside, warm and melty on the inside, and rimmed with the little bits of deeply-toasted crunchy cheese that got stuck to the pan. A couple of changes to the traditional formula make this easy to achieve with only a few pretty basic ingredients: bread, Velveeta, cheddar, Parmesan and mayonnaise.
Slice the Velveeta as thinly as you can. This is easier if it is cold, and your knife is sharp. Grate enough cheddar to thickly cover the bottom half of each sandwich. Use a microplane or the smallest holes on a box grater to make a pile of Parmesan cheese. The fewer ingredients a dish has, the more the quality of each matters, so use real Parmesan — not that ancient green can of eye-talian shakey-cheese.
Start with good bread. I think sourdough is best. Cover each piece edge to edge with an even coating of mayonnaise. Try it, even if you’re not a fan of mayo. When heated, it melts into the bread, leaving it toasted, with very crispy edges.
Put a big frying pan on medium-high heat and let it warm up while you assemble. If you find things like chicken and cheese sandwiches sticking to your pan, you’re probably not heating it long enough. As long as it’s not smoking, it’s fine.
Make it rain parm over the bread slices, then use the flat side of a knife to press the cheese into the mayo. The parm goes on the outside of the sandwich, to ensure truly crunchy bread.
Cover the dry side of one slice for each sandwich with a handful of grated cheddar. Add a thin layer of Velveeta. Put the top piece on, mayo-side-up.
Oil or butter the pan lightly and add the sandwiches, being sure not to crowd them. This is the big secret to not having things stick to the pan: leave them alone. Check after a minute or so to be sure your bread isn’t turning black. If so, turn it down. It should take about two minutes to get one side lightly toasted. Use a spatula to flip them over, gently press down, and cook until both sides are crispy and light brown, and melted cheese is dripping out. Don’t worry if some spills into the pan. That’s the best part.
For full nostalgic effect, serve with Campbell’s tomato soup and some applesauce. But you’re a grownup now, so you can skip the cup of milk.