In praise of American cheese

Ever since I read this Bloomberg article back in 2018, my mind has occasionally drifted back to thinking about American cheese. That may be evidence that I need a CAT scan, and I’m actually grateful to millennials for rejecting so many crap processed food products. American cheese and its derivatives — Cheez Whiz, ballpark nachos, Velveeta et al — are all on the decline.

So guess what has become a semi-staple in my pandemic pantry? You know already.

This breakfast sandwich is what brought it back for me. It’s Harley Quinn’s breakfast sandwich from Birds of Prey:

I don’t like the inevitable disaster triggered by runny egg sandwiches and I don’t need that much food for breakfast, so I modified this some, whipping a single egg and then cooking it fritatta-style in a small pan. Next, immediately before pulling the egg, you drop a single piece of American cheese in the center and then — and this is very, very important — fold the egg up over the cheese like a square-ish package. Place it onto the bread product of your choice — I have become partial to a hunk of lightly toasted Italian bread — hit it with a splash of hot sauce, add the meat of your choosing or none at all, slap the second piece of bread on top and you get egg deliciousness with a molten cheese center. I find it hopelessly addictive.

American cheese is the cheese of my childhood, and I ate it voraciously. Of course, I also ate bologna and white bread at about the same rate (so did every other kid of the 1960s), which means it’s a minor miracle I’m still here at 60. But nothing — nothing — melts like American cheese. It makes an amazing grilled cheese (especially with thinly sliced tomatoes added, or even bacon) and it’s at the center of the easiest queso (a pound of cubed Velveeta, the entire undrained contents of a can of Rotel and a carefully watched microwave is all you need). It also makes a very specific form of macaroni and cheese that has largely been replaced by creamier, fancier alternatives; I’d describe it as more of a macaroni and cheese loaf that can even be cut into squares in some versions. You still see it on soul food menus and in places where the word “bechamel” causes instant revulsion.

It’s obvious this is a pandemic comfort food thing for me, but there are worse alternatives. I haven’t strapped on the Pandemic 15 during this isolation — I’ve actually lost a little weight — and I’m a sucker for cheese in general, so this isn’t the most horrific way I could have gone during this time. And dammit, this cheese-like product is delicious when you melt it. It’s back to stay with me and that’s just the way it is.


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