Etsy Journal

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Kitchen Histories: The Velveeta Grilled Cheese

by Sarah Lohman

Apr 12, 2013

This fascinating slice of history may have you giving processed cheese a second chance at the dinner table.

Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past. When I was in elementary school, my mom would drive me to the neighboring township for sleepovers at my friend Kelly’s. One of my clearest memories from these visits was the lunch Kelly’s mom would prepare for us: grilled cheese. The cheese was creamier than any I’d ever had before, with a tanginess I couldn’t identify. Her method was a mystery, until one day I ambled through the kitchen while she got her ingredients ready. There it was, on the counter for the whole world to see: Velveeta Pasteurized Cheese Product.
“You use Velveeta?” I asked, trying to mask my horror. Grilled cheeses at home were always made with hand-sliced deli cheese. Velveeta was not something that had a place in the home-cooked meals at my house. I was conflicted: Velveeta was supposed to be “bad” for me, but the grilled cheeses tasted so good! Since that moment, I realized that the key to my ideal grilled cheese sandwich is the smooth processed melt of Cheese Product. These memories, crystal clear, came flooding back to me after I found an official Kraft Cheese Cutter on Etsy. When it arrived, it was still in its original envelope (a color I would describe as 1930s brown) and still marked with the address of the original recipient: Mrs. G Wilkowski, R 1, Calumet, Okla.

The cutter, a metal square with a thin wire stretched across it, came with its own recipe booklet for Kraft cheese products, Tempting Appetizers and Sandwiches. Paging through the leaflet, I wished to be transported back to the mid-20th century. Instead of the one flavor of Cheese Product available today, Americans could buy Bacon Flavor Pasteurized Cheese Product, Olive-Pimento, Garlic, Hickory Smoked, Pasteurized Neufchatel Cheese Spread With Pineapple, and two flavors referred to only as “Old English” and “Nippy.” At this point, I know you’re rolling your eyes. You’re scorning and scoffing my cheese admiration. All I ask is that Pasteurized Processed Cheese Product be given a fair shake. Believe it or not, it was invented to be more nutritious than regular cheese. Cheese is made by introducing rennet (enzymes from a cow’s stomach) and bacteria into milk. This process causes the milk to curdle; the “curds” are pressed into cheese molds, while the “whey” (the liquid) is generally thrown away. But it’s the whey that contains most of milk’s proteins, vitamins and minerals.
In 1927, Kraft released a product that saved this “waste” product. Kraft blended whey and sodium citrate (a salt) with real shredded cheese (cheese products must be more than 51% cheese by law and are usually a combination of cheddar, muenster, Gouda, or Colby). The result was a soft, spreadable cheese loaf with a perfect melt. The salt locks fat into an emulsion with the protein; the fat doesn’t separate when the cheese is heated. Instead, it creates a consistent, creamy melt. By the Depression era, Kraft Cheese Products became a staple of Home Relief boxes, an early form of government aid that distributed food and clothing. Velveeta was introduced to the masses through social welfare, which was excellent advertising, and Americans developed a taste for it. Pasteurized Cheese Product does not have the complicated taste of an aged cheddar from the Midwest or a nutty Parmesan from Italy. It doesn’t even have the smooth, salt-studded milkiness of a fresh cheese from Mexico or Greece. But Velveeta contains more protein and 1/3 the calories of a similar serving of cheddar. My cheese cutter likely came from the heyday of processed cheese logs, perhaps before Kraft Singles were introduced in 1950. The cheese was bought in wooden boxes, jars, or plastic-wrapped rolls, and would have needed to be cut into thin, melty slices.
My vintage Kraft Cheese Cutter sliced through my modern Velveeta block like a hot knife through butter — as smooth as silk, with no resistance. The weird part is, the sliced cheese would re-bond with the cheese loaf instantly. I had to peel sticky slices of cheese product apart, and my fingers become covered with a stink of processed cheese. My friend Jonathan Soma of the Brooklyn Brainery, a sort of food-science wizard, passed along his formula for the perfect grilled cheese: open faced, pan lid on, cook for 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Ample butter in the pan, of course, and I always add a smear of grainy mustard. This formula delivers a golden, buttery sandwich with a perfectly melted middle every time.
Am I advocating for the replacement of all real cheese with processed cheese product? No, certainly not. But I would say that cheese product is a superstar when it comes to grilled cheese. And if you’re worried about what might be in the store-brought variety, you can make your own perfectly meltable cheese product at home. I’m pretty sure a Kraft Cheese Cutter will work — even if your Processed Cheese Product is hand-crafted instead of mass-produced.

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Sarah Lohman