I have the palate of a non-discerning, rather fat child. If left to my own devices and removed from the judging eyes of peers, family members, or society at large, I would eat Kit-Kats and pineapple chunks for lunch and never, ever use a plate. This is the reason why I didn’t learn or realize until maybe one week ago that American cheese—a perfect cheese, the best cheese, a cheese for all ages—is fake.
Considering the evidence presented, it’s surprising that it took me this long to realize; perhaps I’m not the brightest bulb in the string of festive fairy lights, or maybe I was existing in a state of willful, blissful innocence. Regardless of why, now I know. American cheese—gorgeous, plasticky, gooey, and unctuous—isn’t really cheese. It’s a cheese product, which means it includes some actual cheese with a bunch of other stuff meant to give it that nasty, dirty texture I hold so dear. Those who wish to be fully informed can read this guide, but for the rest of you nerds who’d rather sit with this knowledge, we can press on. Even if American cheese, of the Kraft individually wrapped slices and Boar’s Head-from-the-deli variety, is fake, that doesn’t matter. It’s still the best cheese—a statement I stand by so staunchly that I will fight for its honor to the death.
American cheese is an epicure’s Achilles heel, partially because it’s so good, so versatile and so ridiculously common. A nice slice of aged cheddar on a burger is fun if you’re sitting down and paying $17.45 for that burger (no fries), but a cheeseburger isn’t a cheeseburger because you care about the cheese. The burger is the star of the show and the cheese, simply an accessory: it’s another layer of fat, of slightly slick mouthfeel, of a squeaky, artificial “cheese.” It’s not there to do any heavy lifting, flavor-wise. It’s just there to make what you’re eating feel extra-gross, but in the best possible way. It’s cheese-adjacent, like queso made from a block of Velveeta and a can of Rotel is, and just as delicious.
Its fakery is part of its greatness; what’s not to love about a chemical-laden food product masquerading as something edible? A family pack of Kraft singles isn’t trying to front; if you believe that any packaging that prominently features a thick stream of milk being poured from an old-bottle into nothingness contains anything “natural,” then I can’t fix your life. American cheese works as a product not only because it tastes good, but because—like all forgeries—it is an excellent simulacrum of the real thing. Fancy cheese-shop cheeses taste delicious. If you pick a nice cheddar or even a Jarlsberg, it’ll pair well with sliced apples thrown atop an English muffin and toasted in the toaster oven for the time it takes you to eat four spoonfuls of ice cream without using a bowl. An American cheese in the same scenario is even better because what is life if you don’t risk burning the roof of your mouth on molten cheese product every now and again? The taste is mild but still present—it tastes like “cheese,” but not a Wensleydale, a Humboldt Fog, a Cambozola, or a dusty, pepper-encrusted log of chevre. Just the idea of cheese, really—a suggestion.
Does American cheese belong on a prissy little cheese plate, with olives, a little receptacle for their pits, and a single halved fig meant for decorative purposes only? Maybe! The only real downfall here is that American cheese doesn’t present well; the slices are great for children, but when fanned out on bone china next to a teensy bowl of chutney, it looks rather sad. Perhaps take advantage of the cheese’s malleability. Consider weaving strips of the cheese in an attractive lattice pattern and draping it over a bunch of grapes like a blanket. Spell a nice message for your guests at the top of the plate—EAT ME would be straight to the point but HELLO! Works just as well. Do whatever moves you, because life is short and everything is bad, but American cheese will always be there. It will always taste the same. And you will always love it.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.