An Ode to American Cheese

There’s love in them there orange squares.
american cheese

When the grilled cheese pulls apart supernaturally in a Kraft Singles commercial, and the hot, melty interior stretches between the two sides of buttery, golden-brown bread—that, friends, is food porn at its most convincing.

As I was growing up, there was never a day that American cheese didn’t find its way into my lunchbox. To be painfully clear: I’m talking about machine-made cheese. The cheap cheese that you buy pre-sliced and individually wrapped. The kind that is yellow-orange, kind of like a duck egg yolk, and drapes neatly over the palm of your hand in a perfect square. The kind of cheese that is, as far as I can tell, only partly cheese. And you know what? I love the stuff.

So I was completely appalled to learn—at a recent dinner party—that not everyone feels the same way as I do. One fellow diner asked me, starry-eyed, about working at Gourmet. This person then posed—as people often do—some food-related questions.

“What’s your cheese of choice for topping a burger?” he asked.

“American,” I said.

Half the table gushed; the other half, however, shook their heads as though I had just brought home an “F” on my foodie report card. One guy even asked me where I grew up, and then dismissed this, ignorantly, as an “Oklahoma thing,” like smoked bologna or Lebanese steakhouses. “It’s processed,” he exclaimed. “It hardly has any flavor.”

But isn’t that the point?

Because it is processed, American cheese pretty much has no expiration date. No, really. The package in my refrigerator right now is good until December. (As a single man, who often has to throw out moldy loaves of bread and wilted greens, I do appreciate that quality.) It is also consistent in shape and size, and when it melts, it does not separate into an oily mess like, say, cheddar cheese (you can thank the emulsifiers for that one). Finally, its flavor is mild, if recognizable, and so it enriches foods without really standing in the way of the other flavors. In essence, it is the cheese to choose when you want to taste your burger.

I suppose given the rundown of my resume, I wasn’t completely surprised by the wagging fingers at the dinner party. The truth is that I enjoy purposeful food, and American cheese certainly has its functions—namely, to make burgers better; to add a layer of luscious goo to sausage and egg sandwiches; to make omelets terrifically luxe and messy; and to make the most perfect, non-greasy grilled cheese I know.

I don’t carry a lunchbox anymore, and the daily cold-cuts sandwich isn’t a particular favorite of mine, but I still manage to eat plenty of American cheese—proudly. And when I’m feeling nostalgic, there is a dish for which my family is somewhat famous. I urge you to try it. We like to call it Oklahoma Hot Dog Satay, in honor of the peanut dipping sauce that often accompanies those Southeast Asian skewers. But you can just call it Awesome:

Take one toasted hot dog bun, spread plenty of creamy peanut butter on it, and then fill it with one freshly grilled all-beef hot dog. Top with half a slice of American cheese.

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