The Power of Plastik Cheez

I just read an article I found linked on Saute Wednesday written by John T. Edge about how he learned all about Tex Mex food from Robb Walsh, author of The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos. It reminded me of me learning how to cook Tex-Mex food, and an altercation I had with a friend over the use of Velveeta, or what Walsh calls, “performance cheese” (is that like performance art?) in it.

But before I get to that, I am going have to ‘fess up to something right here. Culinary snobs can stick thier noses right up in the air at this confession, but that is okay. It isn’t the first time I have had to look up someone’s nostrils. (Remember, when you stick your nose up, those of us shorter than you can see your nostril hair. Think about that the next time you are feeling high and mighty and you might lower that nose and be a bit more humble. I know it works for me. I don’t want to subject folks to visions of the contents of my nostrils–I know what evil lurks up there. I wouldn’t want to strike someone blind, cause their hair to go white or make them run away, gibbering in horror.)

My confession: I was raised eating Velveeta.

I know. It makes me shudder to think of it, too, now. Take a deep breath, and keep breathing, and read on. It gets worse.

That was the everyday cheese in our house. Mild longhorn cheddar was a frequent guest, though I never much cared for it–my mother loved it. Everything else, and there were quite a few everything elses, as Mom, Dad and I all three love cheese, was a special treat bought for an occasion. Like the Edam and Gouda which we got every Christmas, or the super extra special New York or Vermont sharp cheddar we’d get for my birthday because it was my favorite.

I used to get cheese in my Easter basket, so, you see, real cheese was for holidays.

For all other days, there was the Nucular Orange Bricks of Plastik Cheez which went in my grilled cheese sammitches. Sammitches which were always served with some Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup. Dipping the sammies in the soup was way tasty.

Mom used it to make cheese sauce. She’d melt it down with a bit of milk to thin it, some salt and some pepper, and there it was. Cheez sauce. That was nearly always poured over well-boiled cauliflower. It was quite tasty, too, though now I tend to not like my cauliflower so mushy.

My Gram and Grandma used it too, and they were both phenomenal cooks.

But they loved the Velveeta.

It is a cultural thing, though I know some would say it is the opposite. Instead of being a signifier of a culture, this love of Velveeta would be a symptom of a lack of cultural values, but be that as it may, I grew up in West Virginia. Cheese in West Virginia means Velveeta or Kraft Singles. Unless, of course, you didn’t have much money, in which case, cheese was government surplus processed cheez that was even wierder, gummier, and rubberier than Velveeta could ever dream of being.

I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. But the hillbillies love the Velveeta, and it is an ingredient in nearly every damned casserole, sammitch, soup and entree that it can be somehow fitted into. I even know of someone who used it in fudge. (I know, the thought of it horrifies me, too. I get queasy just thinking about it. And no, I have never tasted it, so I cannot tell you how horrible it is.)

Now, I have been to culinary school. I know how to make a right and proper mornay sauce (that is cheese sauce for those of you who don’t parlez the Francaise), and I will walk ten miles barefoot in the snow uphill to get some good goat cheese. (As you can see in the picture below, I could go outside right now and demonstrate that for you, but I don’t love y’all enough. You are just gonna have to take my word on my love for the chevre.)

That is my deck. There are stairs under that three and a half feet of snow piled up in graceful peaks and valleys there, though I think that in reality only six to eight inches have fallen. The wind is blowing madly, making huge drifts covering not the yard, where I do not have to shovel, but the deck. All this on the first day of March. And no, I ain’t walkin’ barefoot in that to prove my love of goat cheese to no one nor their cousin.

Brie en croute–I am so there. Gorgonzola sauce over pasta with walnuts and rapini–my mouth waters to just think of it, even though I am allergic to the blue-veined cheeses and pay for indulging with many hours of pain and suffering afterwards. Stinky raclette melted over boiled baby potatoes with some snappy sour cornichon is heaven. And silken French cheesecake is my number one favorite thing in all the world.

But, oddly, I used to find myself craving that damned Plastic Cheez now and again. I am reformed on this point. I am allergic to American Processed Cheez Food, and have been for years, but I used to like it so much, I’d eat it anyone and suffer. Now, the suffering outweighs the enjoyment and just thinking about the stuff makes my innards do an unpleasant serpentine dance that might be inviting were it happening with a pretty lady in filmy draperies on stage rather than inside my guts where the appeal is distinctly lacking.

However, in the past, I used to crave the stuff, even though I knew better.

I’d to fight the cravings. I’d resist. I’d ignore my desires, and run past the yellow boxes of processed cheese food in the store. I took to making my grilled cheese sandwiches with Muenster cheese and sliced heirloom tomatoes.

But I would dream of the melty-gooey orange glop of Velveeta.

A friend of mine from Texas used to love to go eat at Don Pablo’s, because it reminded her of home. She’d scarf down half of a bowl of their chile con queso in a flash, and I would finish the rest, because it was bubbling liquid gold–processed cheese mixed with salsa and melted into a lava-like consistency that went really well on salty tortilla chips.

Now this friend and I used to say, “Texas and West Virginia are two states separated at the birth of a nation,” because she and I had such a good understanding of all things redneck, white trash and hillbilly, though she also was versed in the Cajun, which I did not know. It was our upbringing which we felt gave us a kinship under the skin. And one place we always got on well was the kitchen, both of us being mavens of the Southern food stuck among a bunch of Yankees who didn’t know how to cook a damned thing.

So, when she convinced me to take up cooking Tex Mex for her, I broke down and bought some of the Velveeta, and used it to make the chile con queso. She came over and saw the Velveeta package and put her hands on her hips and said in a drawling bellow, “I do -no-t believe what I am seein’! I do not believe it! Why I declare, there is a chef standing in her kitchen melting plastik cheez! I never heard the like!” She shook her head. “You are revertin’ to your hillbilly nature.”

There is just no pleasing some people.

I looked up at her and narrowed my eyes. When I am around folks with pronounced Southern accents, mine starts to come out. Normally, I keep it in check, but when around other Southerners, out it comes. When I am riled, it is doubly apt to make an appearance. I composed myself and managed to avoid the temptation to call her an “ignorant cracker.”

“Aw, dammit,” I snapped. “You said you wanted Tex Mex. Well, it is made with Velveeta, I will have you know, and I was gonna use sharp cheddar and jack cheese, but I knew if I did, you’d tell me it didn’t taste right.” I resisted the urge to add, “Ya dumb nouveau-riche redneck.”

“We don’t use Velveeta at home,” she folded her arms and tossed her wild curls. “Nuh, uh–it is jack and cheddar all the way.”

“You can’t get jack and cheddar to melt to that smooth texture that Velveeta has.” I went back to stirring, lest I fling the wooden spoon and bean her right between her eyes.

“Be that as it may, that is what we use.” She stuck her nose up, and I saw her nostril hair.

“You need to blow your nose,” I commented as I scraped the queso into a heated dipping bowl and shoved it at her.

She dipped a chip in and said, “Hey, this tastes just like Don Pablo’s!”

“There is a reason for that,”I commented dryly as I bent over to pull out the enchiladas, which I admit, were made with a mixture of cheddar, jack and Velveeta.

“Well,” she said as she started dipping her fingers in the cheese and licking it off, “well, I reckon maybe–maybe it ain’t just hillbillies that use this stuff after all.”

Pacified, I served her the enchiladas, and watched her eat two plates full.

She never gave me crap about the nuclear orange cheez again.

There is no moral to the story, except, eat what you like, even if it is white trash food. And don’t apologize to anyone about it.

And don’t call your friends things like “ignorant cracker” or “dumb nouveau-riche redneck,” even if you think they deserve it, and even, or maybe especially, if they provoke your temper.

It ain’t nice.


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  1. *sigh* Poignant memories.

    When I lived in Very-Northern New York (which I always said was Appalachia with snow) I got given a whoooole lot of that Gov’ment Cheeze via my babysitter, who was a ‘mountain woman’. Her friendship group wouldn’t eat cheeze not sliced and wrapped in plastic nor rice atall, so I, because I feel strongly about wasting food, had to eat the cheeze that would not melt and white rice ad nauseum.
    She, however, was glad to eat squirrels and boney fish which I prefer not to so it worked out.

    I could tell the gorgonzola cheese story but it’s longish—would you like an e-mail of it?

    Comment by wwjudith — March 2, 2005 #

  2. Actually, as I recall, the Catskills of New York are part of the Appalachian mountains, so if you lived in there, you may well have lived in Applachia.

    Though most of Appalachian culture describes -southern- Applachian folk culture, but as I noted in the Hillbillies, Pigs and Greens post, there are threads of similarity between hill folk of both the North and the South.

    I have eaten quite a bit of the gummy “Gummint” cheez with no melting ability at friends’ houses, or when someone traded it to my Grandpa for potatoes, corn or whatnot. Being a frugal man, he’d take the cheez and eat it, saying it was fine.


    But, if a person puts a dish in front of you and it is their best, I was taught that you eat it and smile and are grateful, even if its possum, because your host is going all out and doing for you.

    Applachian roots grow deep.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 2, 2005 #

  3. You can go ahead and share your story here, btw, Judith. I want this blog to become a rich tapestry of stories, which means others are welcome to spin new threads of different colors and textures.

    If it was all about me, there wouldn’t be as interesting a pattern here.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 2, 2005 #

  4. Gorgonzola Cheese

    I read an interesting story in the National Geographic. Particularly interesting to me since I live in Canada, and the Inuit (known to some as Eskimos) are real to me and I know a little about their culture.
    The Inuit, of course, have very different traditional foods than people who live in places without permafrost and with trees. They eat a lot of their meat raw, which apparently preserves more of the vitamins, and replace much of the carb part of most peoples’ diets with animal fat. And, no surprize, don’t eat much vegetable matter. Some of what does grow in their appallingly short Summer are berries, and one of the ways they preserve them in to dig pits into the permafrost and store them, mixed with fat, for long periods of time until they ferment. Fermented fat is a special delicacy, and prized (since it takes years to mature).

    Sooooo, the story in the Nat Geog was about an anthropologist (I believe From California) who was doing research into a particular tribe. He, anthropologically, ate native foods and found that he liked them. The tribe found this admirable, and named him ‘He Who Eats Our Food’.

    ‘He Who Eats Our Own Food’ (let’s call him HWEOOF, or Woof for short) went back to California to collate and possibly teach, but eventually was going back to ‘his’ tribe to do more research. Woof wanted to bring along presents for the important members and, after much thought, bought a big wheel of Gorgonzola Cheese to gift with. He arrived in Nunavut, was welcomed, and began exchanging gifts. He offered one of the elders a hunk of Gorgonzola Cheese. Initially suspicious, the elder took a nibble. The elder’s face then lit up, and he said, “Woof!, I didn’t know that there were other people who ate our food!!”

    Several years later, my older son and I were traveling to visit my crabby mother in New Hampshire. We always try to get to Montpelier at dinner-time so that we can eat in one of the restaurants staffed by the New England Culinary Institute, and go to the neat book-store on Main Street. We were eating in the basement restaurant (they have names, but I don’t remember them) and I noticed that my salad croutons were drizzled with an odd-tasting substance. I thought back to the menu….”Gorgonzola Cheese!” I said. “What?” said the son. “Here,” I said, “Eat one of these and I’ll tell you a story when we finish dinner.” Although, since I am a biologist, my children are pretty tough about what acceptable dinner conversation encompasses.

    The next year, I was making the same trip with the younger son and we went to the upstairs restaurant. Gorgonzola Cheese was on the menu, but I avoided it, although I did tell the younger son the Gorgonzola Cheese story while we were reading the menus. We ordered and the wait-person scuttled off. They are all students, and rotate through cooking and serving. Which sometimes makes for funny scenarios since the restaurants are aggressively upscale and inexperienced waitstaff are not what you expect. The waitperson came back in a moment with two small plates, set them down, and said, “A gift from the chef.” Noticing my quizzical look, she went on to say, “mumble mumble mumble chevre mumble mumble.”and scuttled away again.

    Now, I run the lab in an animal hospital. The receptionists cannot get over the weirdness (to them) of collecting and testing poo, having a dedicated poo fridge, and my giving out to them about the poo guidelines. They find it overwhelmingly funny to come in with a bag of poo and say, “A gift for you!” (sometimes I will respond, “I’m not taking that shit from you!”) So (we’re back at the fancy teaching restaurant) I look at my small plate with a tiny little round pastry puff on it, and start laughing uncontrollably. My son waits until I have gotten it a little under control and then says, “What!?!”
    “The chef has sent me a gift of a goat dropping!” I say, breaking out afresh.

    Moral: I am haunted by weird cheese.

    Comment by wwjudith — March 2, 2005 #

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