Don't Be a Snob About American Cheese

Sometimes the right cheese for the job is a processed cheese — especially when you're looking for the perfect melt.

Preparing a Grilled Cheese Sandwich with American Cheese
Photo: Lauri Patterson / Getty Images

As someone for whom food is intrinsically connected to both work and play, I used to find myself frequently apologizing for some of my less elevated tastes. The public perception of a food writer and passionate home cook is automatically one that assumes my fridge is full of truffles and foie gras, that all of my produce is lovingly tended and harvested at its peak by a local organic farmer, and my eggs laid by pampered hens in custom built coops. But while there are occasions where some parts of this are temporarily true, you will most often find my shelves packed with tubs of grocery store brand cottage cheese, bottles of Heinz ketchup, and Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, old waxy lemons hardening in the back of the crisper drawer, and no fewer than two heads of good old iceberg lettuce. My pantry does contain bottles of exceptional imported first press extra-virgin olive oil and jars of homemade fruit jams. It also has Skippy peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff.

I mean sure, I can wax rhapsodic about culty ingredients, will absolutely visit three or more specialty shops in preparation for a little dinner party, and menu planning for my New Year's Eve fete is a constant and dynamic process that begins on January 2. But if the pandemic reminded me of one essential truth, it is that there is no shame in indulging in anything that brings you pleasure, as long as it damages no one else. And middle age has taught me that what other people might think of me, and my personal eating choices, is none of my business. To adapt a phrase from wine guru Terry Thiese: I like carbonara and I like SpaghettiOs and I never confuse the reasons why.

I like carbonara and I like SpaghettiOs and I never confuse the reasons why.

So, I am here to scream to the rooftops my unapologetic love for American cheese.

Pre-pandemic, this might be the moment where I'd launch into a long, florid mea culpa about my equal passion for many other cheeses of a more impeccable provenance. The buttery French triple crémes and nutty Comtés, or strong crumbly clothbound English cheddar. The King of Cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano, creamy Vermont chevre, Dutch Gouda so old it has almost turned to caramel flecked with crunchy crystalline salts. This would have been less about my feeling personally sheepish about my tastes and more to attempt to offset the guaranteed backlash from the snarky "foodie" masses and self-proclaimed curd nerds who seem always at the ready to disdain any cheese that doesn't fit their Platonic artisanal ideal. But frankly, no such qualifying statements are warranted. I don't have to prove my cheese cred to anyone. And I will therefore say without hesitation that if the hypothetical people in charge of such things were to make me choose one cheese only to have for the rest of my natural life, American wins hands down.

As a fifth generation Chicagoan, it gives me a certain civic culinary pride that when James L. Kraft emigrated from Canada, he landed in my city and, once firmly established as a horse-and-wagon purveyor of cheese, invented and patented "American Process Cheese" right here in my hometown. Since 1916, the creation of a pasteurized cheese that is super melty and mild has sustained the masses, from the harried home cook who sought an affordable and satisfying way to feed a family, to the short-order diner maestros who need those omelets and burgers to get their cheese perfectly melted in, well, short order. And the American GIs in World War I marched on to victory fueled by the six million pounds of it that found its way into their ration packs.

None of this, however, is the source of my love for this brilliant food, nor is such historic justification needed. American cheese has been a reassuring constant for my whole life. My Dad, of blessed memory, taught us the magic of the "cheese toastie" for breakfast — simply any piece of available breadstuff, topped with a slice of American, and popped into the toaster oven until the top browns and bubbles. Grilled cheese was and is my personal definition of deep comfort, and while I am blissfully happy to eat warm crispy griddled sandwiches made with all varieties of cheese, if you call it a "grilled cheese" it had better be featuring American or there will be pouting.

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, is better on a burger. Where other cheeses become their own separate melted layer that sit sweating oil droplets atop a patty, American melts in a way that fuses into the meat itself, draping over every crevice and crater, creating a new independent food that is simply the essence of cheeseburger. In college outside of Boston, I was introduced to white American cheese, most often as a key ingredient in the hot steak and cheese subs from Jeana's in Waltham, which I practically lived on. They knew better than to try and get all snooty with provolone.

You can make a mac and cheese with expensive, fancy cheeses and sit back and wonder why they split and get greasy in the pot or create a weird cottage cheese texture during baking, or you can include at least a little bit of American cheese and watch things naturally meld into a cohesive and creamy sauce that bathes every noodle in a stovetop mac, and never creates that tooth-jarring chitinous exoskeleton atop the casserole. My Kentucky-born husband will tell you that American cheese is the only proper cheese for cheese grits, anything else will not do. And I'm sure you could opt for Swiss on your Waffle House hash browns, but really? Why?

American cheese is, quite simply, my culinary friend.

Anywhere a gooey cheese is needed, American is my first thought. But I am just as likely to pop a slice on a basic cold sandwich, or even fold a square in half for a four-second snack standing in the brisk air of an open fridge. Perfection for me is a cold, rainy fall afternoon, a crisp tart-sweet apple sliced into thin wedges, American cheese cut into strips to pair with the apple, a cup of hot tea and the company of a good book. My classic grilled cheese involves two long slices of Turano Italian bread, softened salted butter, and a low, slow cook in a skillet to achieve extra crispy browned exterior and super silky cheesy middle, ready for dunking in tomato soup.

For all my blanket adoration of American cheese in general, I am not without my specific preferences, generally eschewing the individually wrapped singles in favor of bricks of pre-sliced deli-style. Kraft Deli Deluxe is the cheese of choice for most melty things in my home, but I also keep Hoffman's Super Sharp on hand, either sliced thick at the deli counter for cold sandwiches or in a slab for grating into mac and cheese. Velveeta is my only pick for spicy hot queso dip. American cheese is, quite simply, my culinary friend. I love the way its creamy saltiness enhances anything it touches, the smooth texture, the mild flavor that hints at cheddar in the same way grapes hint at wine, but never really pretends to be anything other than its glorious self. And really, isn't there a lesson there for us all?

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