"American" Cheese

I stood at a bagel counter this morning eyeing the options available, and decided on an egg, sausage, and cheese bagel sandwich. The egg would be of the chicken variety, the sausage of the breakfast variety (Jimmy Dean or equivalent), which left the options for cheese. Rather than recite them through a thick accent and perhaps in an effort to get things done while I decided, the purveyor pointed to a list of the available cheeses. Cheddar is pretty straightforward, Pepper Jack is an odd combination but, given the fact that I've lived in a trailer park, not out of my realm of enjoyment (I normally don't like "things" mixed with cheese, with the glorious exception of black truffle shavings), which left two other categories for consideration.

The first has made me a bit batty for a while now; "Swiss" cheese. This is about as insulting to the Swiss as "American Barbecue" is to Americans or "French Wine" to the French. It implies that the incredible variety to be found in any of these places can be whittled down to a single variety. The Swiss have several cheeses to be proud of : Emmental (with or without the er), Gruyere, Tete de Moine, Raclette, Appenzeller, etc.

Obviously the version that most readily comes to mind is Emmental with its holes (or "eyes"). I wish it was the distinct, sharp flavor of Emmental which makes it memorable, but the reality is that the holes stand out most in people's minds. They are reducing the varied options available to a single representative. Fine.

Then comes the last option on the cheese list: "American".

I stared at the sign for a while pondering what the hell "American" cheese actually means. We don't really have a native cheese as such, though the image in my head of "American" cheese is orange.

Unlike the Swiss title, American implies not only a single variety, but a variety that is barely cheese. That's right. Our namesake cheese is a chemical mixture of the ingredients for cheese, but is not actually cheese per se. (It does meet the governmental definition of cheese however.)

I remember in the public television series "Cosmos" from the early 80's, Carl Sagan was describing how utterly unremarkable the human body is in terms of its "ingredients". Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, etc. However, upon gathering the raw ingredients in a beaker and adding artificial heat and lightning in the form of an arc, he didn't wind up with a human being. In short, unless the ingredients are put together correctly, you don't really have the same thing. The same is true for American Cheese. While the ingredients might be identical (with the exception of whey protein concentrates), they aren't magically "cheese" when assembled.

It's unfortunate that our namesake cheese is synthesized, manufactured, and touts its ease of melting more than its flavor or heritage. The aforementioned whey proteins are, however, imported from other countries, much like Americans themselves; perhaps there is a charm in American cheese after all.


Moni said…
I haven't had a chance to try "American" cheese yet, but I can wholeheartedly agree with your comments on "Swiss" cheese. I just read a book called the insiders guide to raclette and it talks about the Swiss style cheeses and of course also raclette, tilsit, appenzeller, morbier and so on. Have a look at this whole website about raclette.
danielsan said…
I'm sure there are other examples of this (the use of "Champagne" to describe any variety of sparkling wine), but this is one I've been pondering for a while.

World hunger? Global warming? Tough to solve. But at least we can term food correcltly. :)
Shadow said…
Ah, but there is a flaw with your example. Champagne is named for the region from which it came, not a varietal, like so many things worldly/European that you admire.
- Shadow
R-Co said…
So, don't leave us in suspense -- which cheese did you choose for your bagel?

I thought the other prerequisite for it to be American Cheese was that it had to be individually wrapped. I ate a lot of baloney and cheese sandwiches as a kid with those Kraft American slices that were wrapped in plastic. Occasionally Mom would forget to peel off the wrapper and I'd have a surprise in my first bite. It tasted the same (both the wrapper and the cheese were probably made with a space-age polymer) but the consistency was different.
danielsan said…
Shadow > There is a forest, if you can see past the trees...

R-Co. > I should have given credit where it is (strangely) due. Velveeta is ENGINEERED to melt efficiently and several chefs have confessed to using it as the emulsifier for other cheese combinations. It must then be relegated to "practical" if not exotic or even legitimate.

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