In Praise of Velveeta
One chilly fall evening, I introduced my boyfriend to my version of a soup my family calls “spaghetti soup” — tomato sauce, bacon, celery, garlic, and onions, finished with a healthy dose of cheese. My boyfriend asked if we needed cheddar to put in the soup, and I said, “No, I picked up some Velveeta at the Market Basket.”
My boyfriend is a good cook who knows his way around fresh ingredients, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when he said, “I’ve never had Velveeta. That’s the cheese food, right?”
“That’s right,” I said. “Trust me. You’ll love it.”
When the soup was finished, I ladled it into a bowl and handed him a plate of Velveeta cubes, a few of which he dropped into his spaghetti soup.
After a few minutes, he had quite a surprise. “The Velveeta disappeared,” he said, poking his spoon into the bowl. “Where did it go?”
I smiled. Disappearing is Velveeta’s true magic trick. It blends perfectly into your Midwestern-style soups and casseroles, barely visible, yet so tasty. And may I add that my boyfriend ate the whole bowl of soup.
Velveeta, a frugal cook’s go-to, is frugal and funny at the same time. First, there’s the silly name. Second, it has earned its rep as “cheese food,” though I need to clarify that phrase. The modern Velveeta box uses the term “pasteurized recipe cheese product,” not “food.” Third, Velveeta seems to last into infinity, waiting patiently in your refrigerator until you realize you need it at the last minute.
I’m fine with a nice cheddar or something fancy from Trader Joe’s, but Velveeta remains my cheese staple because my financially scrappy, eternally frugal family put Velveeta in everything. Spaghetti soup. Salsa. Mac and cheese. Grilled cheese, especially because of how the cheese drips over the edges and takes forever to pull apart.
When a scholarship swept me into one of the “nice” colleges, I bought a box of Velveeta to keep in my dorm’s mini-fridge. In school, though, I quickly realized that Velveeta is not a thing among the middle classes. My best friend — a chem major who was genuinely concerned about my consumption of chemicals — watched me put Velveeta into a bowl of spaghetti and sauce and encouraged me to swap the Velveeta for cheddar.
Now, I get why people, whether they are chemists or not, are a little scared of Velveeta. Its ingredients include milk products and “cheese culture,” but not actual cheese. It is the ultimate in “off-brand” goods that households buy to save money. If you’re eating Velveeta, it usually means that you’re eating it because you can’t get better cheese, or you’re cheap and you prefer to buy foods that are built to last through a zombie apocalypse.
But here are just some of the benefits of Velveeta:
It turns a trip to the grocery store into a scavenger hunt. Grocery stores have a tough time choosing where to put the Velveeta. Is it with the chilled bags of shredded Sargento? Or did someone stick it in the convenience food aisle? Or does it hide out in an island or an end-cap? It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t really need to be refrigerated until you open it. For the record, the Market Basket keeps it with the chilled cheeses. The Star Markets put it in a promo island. And the best way to get to know the staff at your grocery store is to ask them about the Velveeta. After that, you can ask them anything.
It really does last forever. The Millennial distrust of preservatives have pushed processed cheese sales down, but preservatives are crucial if you must save money or hate wasting food, and Velveeta’s preservatives seem to go above and beyond. In fact, Velveeta-eaters rely so much on the preservatives that Kraft recalled batches of Velveeta back in 2014 because the batches didn’t have enough preservatives. The recalled Velveeta may have tasted more like real cheese, but if you’re buying Velveeta, cheese authenticity is not what you’re looking for.
The only time Velveeta lets me down is when it gets hard around the edges. After an unpleasant encounter with chewy Velveeta, I once searched for a solution, and when I saw that search-engine-term farm eHow had an article called Keeping Velveeta Cheese Soft, I realized I’m not the only one with that problem. To avoid the issue, wrap the cheese with plastic wrap as well as the aluminum it comes with, and Velveeta should retain its flexibility and melt-a-bility.
Velveeta melts right. Speaking of melt-a-bility, nothing melts better. I’ve had fancy grilled cheese from food trucks and at work parties, but a good grilled cheese made with Velveeta will always rank number one.
Velveeta has a history. Vox’s recent article Should we mourn the death of American cheese? tracked the fall of American cheeses like Velveeta, Some chefs were more than happy to see Velveeta go, but Gordon Edgar, a cheesemonger, showed Velveeta a little respect: “When I started to research processed cheese, I realized it’s over 100 years old. It does have its own history and its own — I hesitate to say integrity, but it has a reason for being. It’s a way to sell things, by preserving the protein of milk even longer than traditional cheesemaking can.” My family bought Velveeta because we didn’t want to waste food, and while preservatives are questionable, many people find themselves in life phases in which they need their cheese to taste decent and last longer.
I am lucky enough to be in a life phase where I can buy “real cheese” every now and then. But I will always keep a box of Velveeta in the refrigerator, not because I feel like I need to remind myself to stick to a food budget but because — wait for it — I think it tastes good. If you consider yourself a food adventurer, try it, and perhaps both your wallet and your palate will benefit.
Caroline Roberts is a Content Strategist somewhere on the East Coast. If you encounter her in the wild, she’ll probably ask you for Diet Mountain Dew and directions to the nearest bar trivia night.
Photo credit: Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0.
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