I love American cheese. It's mild, soft, creamy, and a dream to melt onto a sandwich. It is my ultimate cheese of choice for a cheesesteak, which in my book is a pretty high honor. I grew up on this stuff. Some of my earliest and favorite memories involve me riding in the front basket of my grandmom's shopping cart wheeling around the grocery store eating roll-ups of Genoa salami and American cheese from the deli. I never really realized how much I liked this particular cheese until I moved to Bermuda. Here their idea of American cheese seems to be over-processed, bright yellow, individually wrapped pieces of wax. I've been using monetary jack mostly as a decent replacement when necessary and although in comparison it may suffice, it definitely does not surpass in taste or texture.
Dan and I were in Salem recently visiting his sister, Allie, and her boyfriend, Matt. We pigged out on lots of yummy, fatty foods while watching the Celtics kick some ass. One of the many heart-attack-inducing treats we made was cheesesteaks and I used, of course, American cheese. After being in Bermuda for a couple years I hadn't tasted it in quite some time and I had almost forgotten its sweet, sweet creamy goodness. That is until I took a bite. The happiness. The bliss. It all came rushing back. I was inspired. Inspired to figure out exactly what makes this cheese so fantastic. But perhaps I should clear the air before I go any further. Because I know all you cheese snobs out there are sitting in front of your computer thinking "how can this stupid girl praise American cheese so highly with all that the cheese world has to offer us?" Let me clarify, I am in no way comparing American cheese to say, mozzarella or, as Mario Batali would put it, the "undisputed king of cheese", parmesan. If I was sent to a desert island with only one cheese to bring with me for the rest of my life, it is pretty safe to say that American cheese would not be my first choice. All I am saying is that I like it. I like it a lot. And in its place (e.g. melted on a grinder or on a spicy turkey hoagie) it is irreplaceable and much loved. Now with that said, let's dive into the gooey goodness that is American cheese!
When I returned from the states I decided to do a little research on the enigma that is American cheese. I had so many questions. Where did it originate? How was it made? What makes it so damn good?!? I opened up my laptop and what I discovered shocked and appalled me. Honestly, I think it even hurt my feelings a bit. This beautifully soft cheese was so misunderstood! Suddenly it dawned on me that it wasn't just Bermudians who had a horrible misconception of American cheese, it was a vast majority of Americans too!!! According to Wikipedia, "today's American cheese is generally no longer made from a blend of all-natural cheese, but instead is a processed cheese which meets the legal definition of cheese". 1 It even goes so far as to show a picture with a few slices of what appears to be the aforementioned god-awful, pre-wrapped Kraft slices. This is not the cheese I know and love! My American cheese always came from the deli counter; a big beautiful block of land-o-lakes white American. How did this happen? How did these two completely different substances become interchangeable???
American cheese originally started out as a blend of Colby and cheddar cheeses. 2 It became popular in America for its mild flavor and its ability to melt so smoothly. From what I can determine it seems as though it migrated to its current state as a result of the changing food culture of the United States in the 1950s. Convenience foods became a new modern way for the housewife to save time. You know what I'm talking about; processed meats, canned soups, TV dinners, and yes... pre-packaged cheeses. Suddenly America was on the go. We had things to do, places to be. We no longer had the time or energy to do what manufacturers could do for us. But America's reliance on manufactured food from all over the world filled with preservatives and chemicals as opposed to shopping for local, fresh ingredients is a slice for another day. My primary concern here was still to determine how companies like Kraft began producing their current processed "cheese" to a point that it became the majority's perception of American cheese.
Cost cutting initiatives during a time of a declining economy caused many manufacturers to "water down" their various products. A cheese processed with emulsifiers, preservatives, and other various chemicals is cheaper to produce, and has a much longer shelf life. But how do these companies succeed? This "American cheese" seems to barely meet the legal definition of cheese; or even food at all for that matter! Why are people satisfied? Why are we willing to purchase this crap? One website I stumbled upon suggested that Americans don't care how the cheese tastes so long as it gives us good mouth feel. 3 Whatever the reason, I think it is pretty inexcusable. I beg of you, stop the madness! Put down that shiny blue package of Kraft singles and head to the deli counter for Land-o-Lakes or Boar's Head white American. Go on. Do it. Right now. And then melt it on your favorite sandwich. You'll see what I mean, I swear.