Velveeta: An Homage
I grew up in suburban Ohio in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with parents who loved good food. This was an anomaly in our typical town. While my friends’ kitchen pantries were stocked with cans of Vienna sausages, pots of Deviled Ham, bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos, and packets of Keebler Fudge Cookies, our pantry laid barren, save for a couple of cans of Chicken of the Sea tuna and a few rolls of paper towels. My friends’ refrigerators were stocked with pounds of Oscar Mayer Bologna, slices of processed American cheese, and bottles of Wishbone creamy Italian salad dressing, while our refrigerator held little more than a jar of marinated artichoke hearts, a wheel of Brie, and a jug of buckwheat crepe batter. When I would complain to my mother about this clear violation of my American child-food rights, she would scoff, saying, “I don’t know how other families do it, but in this house, I shop for what I am inspired to cook that day. Junk food is just that, junk.”
It was no secret that I longed to one day, open the door of our pathetic pantry to find a brick of Velveeta, backlit and shining like an angel. I begged my mother to buy it, just once! “But, I don’t think Velveeta is really cheese,” my mother told me. “It’s not stored in the dairy section of the grocery store, they keep it on a aisle—at room temperature. That’s just not right. I can’t, in good conscience, allow you to ingest it.” My father understood where I was coming from and at dinner tried to plead my case proclaiming Velveeta to be, ‘American Brie!’
One autumn afternoon, when I was in sixth grade and my mom was at work at the library, I took that unsupervised opportunity to walk to the supermarket down the street and buy a brick of Velveeta. I remember the zip-zip-zip of my chocolate, brown corduroys as my legs, anxiously moved quicker and quicker, propelling me on. The sun was bright in the deep, blue sky and sweat was beading on my top lip as I arrived at the store. Inside, a clerk had to reach the Velveeta on a high shelf for me. ‘Your mom having a party?’ he asked. Being eleven and awkward I didn’t answer him, I just took the brick, said thank you and fled to the check out. I was surprised at how heavy the rectangular box was. My heart pounded; I was aware of my pulse in my ears. I felt like I was doing something completely wrong; Forget about crossing the busy street, to get to the store, I was secretly lying to everyone, letting them believe that the Velveeta was for my mom, a woman who ate processed cheese foods.
It was thrilling!
I walked back home as fast as I could, carrying my Velveeta baby in a large brown paper bag. I was practically salivating at the idea that I would finally get to eat Velveeta. Sweet, pre-teen victory!
In my kitchen, I took the foil-wrapped brick from its cardboard box and slit it open. I was intrigued at how gelatinous the consistency was—it was similar to the sturdy, sliced Jell-O salad served at school. But the color was perfect, pale orange through and through. I sliced a slab off and took a huge bite. I was aware first of its saltiness. I took another bite and mashed it around my mouth for a while, pushing it about with my tongue. It was marvellously squishy. I finished that piece, then had an idea to cut off another slab and cook it our new microwave oven, to melt it. The bell rang and I pulled the hot plate from the microwave. I scooped up some of the gooey cheese food with a spoon, blew on it, then scraped the cheese from the spoon with my teeth. That moment is imprinted, in slow motion, on my food mind—to my coddled palate, this was something different altogether. This flavor was simple, not at all complex, and it was so smooth, nothing like the sharp, stringy cheddar cheese my grandmother baked into her Welsh potato and cheese casserole.
I was so excited that I ate half the brick that way, melting it slab by slab in the microwave and, because of course we didn’t have any chips in the house, consuming the orange lava with a spoon. Full, I threw the other half of the brick into the trash, so as not to give away my mischievous afternoon adventure. I skipped dinner that night, “But it’s Turkey Tetrazzini…” my mother whimpered.
After that, I didn’t have Velveeta again until I was a senior in high school, at a graduation party. One of the moms made an hors d’eouvre consisting of equal parts ground beef and Jimmy Dean’s hot breakfast sausage, browned, then blended with melted Velveeta and spread on to Melba toasts. Between the fat of the meat and the gelatinous quality of the Velveeta, when the toasts were cold they hardened like concrete, and I loved them. I still think of that evening, standing territorially next to the food table, as my friends drifted around the room socializing.
When we moved abroad seven years ago, the item I missed the most, the food I would ask U.S. visitors most often to bring me, was Velveeta. Curiously though, I never opened those bricks, and after a few years they formed a sort of masonry wall in the back of my cupboard. It was comforting knowing that, if I needed them, they were there.
For me, Velveeta has been a bright orange thread in the beige tweed of my life— something that appeared only intermittently but made a huge impact. Sort of like a brief fling with a boy from the bad side of town—it was exciting and satiating, but I wised up and moved on, deciding to spend my life with the more highbrow Brie de Meaux. Was it what I wanted, or what I knew would please my parents… maybe it was both. Every so often though, in the navy blue folds of the night, I lie awake and remember that first taste of melted Velveeta, and pine for its smooth comfort.
The Best-Tasting-Worst-For-You-Hors-D’oeuvre Ever
I take no responsibility for anyone inclined to prepare and eat these little devils. If you have the junk-food gene, you will love them, and you will eat them, and they will clog your arteries… But you will die with a smile on your greasy face.
1 pound Jimmy Dean Hot Roll Sausage
1 pound lean, ground beef
1 pound Velveeta, cubed
Melba toasts (named after Dame Nellie Melba, an Australian opera singer, in 1897—betcha didn’t know that… or care to)
Brown the sausage and ground beef together until fully cooked. Drain well and load the meat into a microwave-safe bowl. Chuck in the Velveeta cubes and nuke until the cheese has melted, stirring intermittently. Scoop onto Melba toasts and serve hot or they will congeal like Elmer’s glue on a desk-top. Enjoy!
Photo by eiratansey
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