Once again, it’s become popular for people to rag on American cheese. I’m sick of it, and feel like it needs to be said that American cheese is delicious. Trying to deny that doesn’t make anyone seem sophisticated or edgy — it just makes them seem wrong and a little sad.
The American cheese conversation was pushed back into the spotlight over the weekend after @ellegist tweeted what appears to be a stock image of a stack of American singles, along with a blandly snarky caption.
Though the tweet went viral, I harbor no ill will toward @ellegist, who wasn't saying anything we haven't heard a million times before. (Although it is worth pointing out the irony of this newest round of American cheese slander being launched by someone who doesn’t even eat cheese, apparently.) The problem with all the anti-American cheese discourse — and I say this as someone who has heard many a negative conversation about American cheese — is that there are only three arguments against American cheese, and none of them hold up.
First: It tastes bad. I contend that this argument is actually born from the fact that American cheese tastes too good. There is a certain class of cheese-eater that takes an inordinate amount of pride in enjoying “challenging” cheeses. These are cheeses that smell so overwhelmingly disgusting that your survival instinct screams at you: Throw it out. It takes a truly refined palate, apparently, to be able to suppress your gag reflex and choke down something that smells like ripe feet, but tastes like… cheese. American cheese, on the other hand, is an instant crowd-pleaser. Children like it; adults like it — it’s just so easy to enjoy, a smooth brain pleasure. But, I suspect that its accessibility is one reason people hate it so much. “Cheese people” love exclusivity, after all, and are constantly comparing things like “mouth feel” and “bloomy rinds.” To that, I say: Why rank cheese? You can love Vieux Boulogne and American, just like I can love Cailler and Milk Duds. Is one more complex? Sure. That doesn’t make it better.
Second: It is “full of chemicals” or it is “plastic.” This is so stupid. Does American cheese have the shortest ingredient list in the world? No. Is it plastic? No. AC is made by blending cheese (often cheddar) with other ingredients — sometimes other cheeses, sometimes whey, milk proteins, and/or emulsifiers. This is what allows it to be so wonderfully meltable, and this is why it is, technically, a cheese “product,” a distinction that really makes people lose their minds in a way that seems borderline hysterical. Is it “real” cheese? Literally who cares? The American cheese-making process was invented in Switzerland (you all seem to respect Swiss cheese!) and it may have been intended to reduce cheese waste. So in some ways, American cheese is the opposite of plastic, in that it reduces waste. Do American cheese haters hate the environment? Yes.
For a much more comprehensive overview of what’s actually in American cheese, where the whole “American cheese is plastic” misunderstanding came from, and why some American cheese products don’t actually say the word “cheese” on the label, check out this Serious Eats article by J. Kenji López-Alt. And if you’re really concerned with the amount of complex chemicals in your American cheese, consider skipping the prepackaged slices you find in the dairy aisle and heading to the deli instead. (In fact, if you’ve only eaten prepackaged slices, you should really be removing yourself from this conversation entirely.) You’re looking for something called “pasteurized process cheese” and not “pasteurized process cheese food” or “spread,” or “pasteurized process American slices.” I agree that the FDA’s food labeling requirements are doing American cheese no favors here, but we work with what we’ve got, you know?
Third: British people hate Americans. The American cheese hate always starts with the Brits. (And yes, @ellegist appears to be based in London.) I’m sorry to bring this up, but the British have been bitter since the American Revolution. Guys, it’s time to move on. We didn’t want to be under your rule anymore! We had legitimate reasons, and you know what? I think it was the right choice for both of us. Americans have moved past this, which you can tell by our willingness to compliment England and its people where it’s due, such as on the lovely accents, The Spice Girls, and Cadbury’s chocolate. It’s time for them to show us the same courtesy, and stop ragging on Americans for our objectively tasty cheese. It’s obvious what’s going on, and honestly, it’s getting a little embarrassing. (I know there are plenty of Americans who hate on American cheese, and to them I would say: Do you really feel that way, or do you think saying you hate AC makes you seem more cultured? You’re playing right into their hands.)
Look, I’m not saying American cheese is appropriate for every situation. When I was discussing this article idea with my coworkers, one divulged that her brother used to top his Cinnamon Toast Crunch with American cheese slices — and milk. That’s incomprehensible, and objectively wrong, and I will not try to defend it (although I am tempted to try it).
But the blanket “American cheese is bad” comments have to stop. American cheese on a sandwich, in a grilled cheese, melted into ramen or over a burger, atop a Ritz cracker, nestled into a bowl of rice and topped with dried seaweed, or freshly sliced and eaten directly out of the deli packet while finishing the rest of your grocery shopping is simply delicious. And if you are looking for a cheese to hate, instead I suggest... looking inward and asking yourself why you’re so intent on casting judgment on the simple things that bring other people joy. :)