American Cheese

10 11 2009

It was many many years ago, while traveling overseas I first came upon an “American Breakfast”. It was an interesting thing, having lived my entire life in the United States as an American I had never come across an American Breakfast despite having traveled throughout the continental U.S. Although the tradition, I mused, was probably not that unusual. After all, while in France you may order some pommes frites or pain perdu but you won’t find French fries (and you definitely won’t find freedom fries) or French toast to order. Yet unlike stealing some native dish and renaming from whence you found it, the American breakfast was what the folks there assumed we ate for breakfast. All the time. The breakfast portions of the traditional cuisine were small, with a small bit of protein that was usually fish. The “American Breakfast” was huge by comparison; two eggs, two slices of toast and several slices of bacon all served with coffee (as opposed to the preferred tea). It says a great deal about how we as a culinary culture were viewed at that time; even how we were really at a more general societal level.

Things do not always translate well across cultures and it is easy to sometimes explain away popular misconceptions and their derivatives. But how do you explain something that a culture embraces as its own and places its moniker on it? I don’t mean claiming hot dogs and apple pie as American icons.  I mean creating a processed food like substance in shades of color not found in nature and proudly labeling it throughout the land, throughout the world as “American cheese”. What does it say about us as a society?

Well, in the first the “cheese” is actually a processed food substance. It does not even meet the definition of a real cheese. It is sold as a cheese product or something like that-really, check your refrigerator and look at the label. Many brands are rich sources of additives, emulsifiers, artificial coloring, sodium and fat. In fact a single slice contains over 4g of fat (around 60 calories), lots of sodium and other processed ingredients. 10 slices of the stuff exceeds the RDA for fat and sodium. Think about that on the next double cheeseburger you order. More importantly, what does it say about us that we, seemingly proudly, have named the stuff after ourselves and wave that moniker about along with the flag. We represent ourselves with fat, salt and something so processed it can no longer be labeled the food it was actually derived from. All in an attractive hue not naturally produced on the globe. Better living through Chemistry? An excellent source of calcium (foods that are an “excellent source” of a particular nutrient provide 20% or more of the Recommended Daily Value, based upon United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines)? So are crushed oyster shells, but I wouldn’t want to dine on them.

The peasant revolt against such Frankensteinian food abominations begin with us. Personally, I wish that American Cheese was known worldwide as one of the delicious artisanal cheeses from say, Cowgirl Creamery or some other such place. Regardless, like a vote, changes begin with each individual’s decision. Cheese is good. I love cheese. Let’s just see if as Americans, we can’t represent ourselves as something better than an over processed, artificial fat and salt filled substance covered in fake colors. Our own kitchens are a great place to start. I hear it now “Real Americans for Real Food!”-you heard it first right here.

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One response

11 11 2009
K.T. Cahill

Very true. While we’re on the subject, can somebody explain those two paeans to American gastronomic ingenuity – Velveeta & Cheese Whiz? REALLY??? No real food should ever come spewing out of a can like something you use to insulate your attic. Real Americans for Real Food Now!

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