American Cheese

Peter Calvin

Upon leaving the White House way back when, President Eisenhower cautioned against the power of the military-industrial complex. Perhaps the old guy should have warned us about the processed food industry as well. From Spam to hot dogs to pre-mixed peanut butter and jelly to Velveeta, we've managed to perfect the marriage of food products and chemicals.

Velveeta is virtually indestructible. It lasts for months on warm, dry shelves. It melts, congeals, and hardens, yet still maintains its smooth, bland flavor. Velveeta is a comedy club in Austin, an '80s cover band in State College, Pennsylvania, and another word for e-mail spam. It remains stable in college dorms and on beaches defended by enemy machine guns. It never ages. So just what is Velveeta?

Well, Kraft, the parent company of Velveeta, defines the stuff as "a blend of natural cheeses and other wholesome ingredients that are cooked as the product is made." Like soup, in other words. According to Kraft, this cooking process alone, and not the preservatives pumped throughout the orange brick, allows Velveeta to remain shelf stable for months. In fact, Velveeta contains milk, whey protein concentrate, milk fat, water, whey, milk protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, salt, sorbic acid, artificial color, enzymes, and cheese culture--all the wholesomeness of a 1950s sitcom. One pictures Beaver complaining that "Eddie says sodium phosphate gives you unnatural feelings."


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Not satisfied with plain Velveeta, Kraft created several new varieties--obviously a twisted marketing prank. Americans can now enjoy sliced Velveeta, shredded Velveeta, Mexican Velveeta (with little bits of jalapeño), and Velveeta Light. Even Kraft refuses to call Velveeta Light "cheese," instead referring to the stuff as a "prepared cheese product."

Yet few things say "America" like Velveeta. It is a product of our educational institutions and our finest corporate boardrooms. Think about it: A team of scientists, the product of America's finest universities, spent years perfecting a cheese capable of sitting unopened on a shelf or in a refrigerator for the same exact period of time--a cheese for the people, bland and empty, but looking good. Velveeta is the product of mass production and mindless consumption. It's the melting pot, as comfortable in Irish corned beef casserole as in Mexican cheese dip. It's built for speedy preparation and built to last. Forever, if necessary.

So what is Velveeta? It's America.

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