Americans know and love that yellow, elongated, rectangular box usually located to the right of the milk and behind the see-through container of green fruit Jell-O in refrigerators all across this country.
For almost 100 years, children have raced to refrigerators to pull off the box top and lift out that cool, firm mass of comfort wrapped in silver foil with the word “Kraft” printed over and over again on it in blue letters like some kind of crazy, institutional wallpaper.
As the space between the inner-box end and folded-down foil continued to increase with each successive encounter with the butter knife (more crude cuts) or cheese slicer (incisions of orangey-yellow perfection), children never worried.
Somehow, instinctively even, they always knew there were more blocks of cheese out there, ready to be devoured.
It was gooey, orange and delicious.
To kids across America, this was real cheese.
Sitting-in-front-of-the-TV cheese. Break-between-playing-with-Lincoln-Logs cheese. White bread-and-mayo cheese.
This was Velveeta.
Just listen to how it rolls off the tongue: Vel-vee-tahhh.
And this year, that miracle “cheese food” is turning 100 years old.
That’s right. For almost a century, the velveteen Velveeta has graced the kitchens of American families.
Well, some American families, anyway.
Although Velveeta has made countless melted cheese sandwiches and gone into untold gallons of queso dip, it seems to get little respect, often being corralled into the pseudo-food corner with Spam and Vienna sausages.
You certainly won’t find Velveeta at the Fresh Market, although the store does carry more than 200 varieties of other cheeses.
You also won’t find it in the kitchens of popular local restaurants like Abel Brown.
“I tell you what, it makes a damned good cheese dip for nachos. That’s about all I know about Velveeta,” Todd Schafer, head chef and owner of the restaurant, once told the Metro Spirit. “I mean, I certainly wouldn’t put it on a cheese cart or anything. I guess it fits its purpose for, you know, whatever.”
Velveeta actually owes its existence to an entrepreneurial cheesemaker from Switzerland by the name of Emil Frey.
While working for the Monroe Cheese Company of Monroe, New York, Frey invented Velveeta in 1918, a few years after he came up with the far less popular Liederkranz cheese, according to an historical account on the website for the town’s annual Cheese Festival.
It is believed that Frey came up with the formula for making Velveeta cheese through experimenting on his home stove using cheese scraps that might have otherwise gone to waste.
Frey was following in the footsteps of two Swiss researchers named Fritz Settler and Walter Gerber, who were trying to find a cheese product that would properly melt.
When the two researchers added sodium citrate to their cheesy experiments, they found they could melt cheese and reform it into a block-like shape.
Back in 1918, Frey described the cheese’s texture as “velvety,” hence the name Velveeta.
The result was the birth of the Velveeta Cheese Company, which was incorporated in February 1923.
Alyssa Burns, a spokesperson for Kraft, said the company purchased the Velveeta Cheese Company in 1925 and applied the Velveeta name to Kraft’s internally developed product in 1928.
From the late 1920s until the 1940s, Velveeta got a major boost in popularity throughout America during the Great Depression right into World War II because its affordability allowed families to stretch their pennies and keep food on the table.
And until the mid-1940s, Velveeta was sold in wooden boxes.
Current boxes of Velveeta require no refrigeration until they are opened and can last on the store shelf or in the kitchen pantry for seven months (210 days to be exact), Burns said.
Burns said Kraft doesn’t discuss how much Velveeta is sold each year, but judging by the number of recipes on the web that call for it, one would guess it’s a lot.
In fact, Kraft Foods Group is one of North America’s largest consumer packaged food and beverage companies with annual revenues of more than $18 billion.
And Kraft is very proud of its cheesy history.
“Kraft has a rich heritage in cheese-making dating back 100 years, and our storied history is rooted in this country’s passion for cheese,” George Zoghbi, president of Kraft’s Cheese & Dairy business, said in a recent press release. “We are devoted to delivering quality products that fulfill America’s ever-changing, but never wavering, love of cheese.”
Though foodies consider it sacrilege to refer to Velveeta as cheese, the product is actually described by Kraft as a pasteurized, processed cheese loaf that’s a mixture of Colby, Swiss and cheddar.
See, you get a little bit of everything.
In a recent article called “Should we mourn the death of American cheese?” Vox.com writer Rachel Sugar tracked the rapid decrease in popularity of American cheeses like Velveeta. In the article, she interviewed several cheese experts about their opinion on America cheeses.
Some cheese experts were sentimental about Velveeta, while others were downright harsh.
“I know people probably want to hear restaurateurs and chefs wax nostalgic about American cheese, but let’s be honest: American cheese is crap,” Andy Jacobi, owner of Untamed Sandwiches and Untamed Taqueria in New York, told Vox. “There are so many great cheeses on the market right now. You can buy 10 varieties of Cabot at any Mobil mart on the I-95, and the worst variety of Cabot cheddar is still better than the best variety of American cheese. It might take a few seconds longer on the griddle to melt, but that’s because real cheese has texture and inconsistencies that make it taste so complex, which American cheese doesn’t have.”
But Gordon Edgar, author of “Cheddar: A Journey into the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese,” showed cheeses like Velveeta some love.
“When I started to research processed cheese, I realized it’s over 100 years old. It does have its own history and its own — I hesitate to say integrity, but it has a reason for being,” Edgar told Vox. “It’s a way to sell things, by preserving the protein of milk even longer than traditional cheesemaking can. I’ll go philosophical here: If the purpose of cheese is to extend the life of milk, and you’re taking a protein and you’re making it last longer to ensure that your community or your farm or your family has something to eat down the road, processed cheese is an extension of that logic.”
And while it may not taste as good as fresh cheeses, Edgar said Velveeta has its place on plates across the country.
“I won’t turn my nose up if I go someplace and they serve me a burger with processed cheese,” he said. “I’m not going to freak out about it, but I don’t choose it. It just tastes artificial to me. But in many places in many regions, there’s kind of an affinity for it. You have your cheesesteak in Philly, your Provel in the Midwest, your queso dip in certain parts of the Southwest. There’s tradition around that, so I don’t want to totally dismiss it. Comfort food is important. And comforting.”
But no one would ever mistake Velveeta for a “fine cheese.”
As a joke a few years ago, the Metro Spirit asked Andrew Benjamin, co-owner of Wine World in North Augusta, if he could find the perfect wine pairing with certain Velveeta dishes.
Benjamin was a good sport and played along.
“If you’re going to go really cheesy, the Velveeta palate is a special thing. So, you probably want to do something like the Andre Cold Duck sparkling wine,” Benjamin said in 2003. “There’s also a Goats do Roam, which of course is a cheesy take-off on <<IT>>Côtes du Rhône<<IT>>. But this is from South Africa and it’s a white wine, and it’s a blend and it’s very nice.”
However, Benjamin said he realizes Velveeta is often not eaten alone, but incorporated into other dishes.
“Sometimes people might melt it on their hamburger, so we thought a red might go good,” Benjamin said. “It is (Velveeta’s) birthday, so we thought that the Old Fart red might be a good one. It’s a French wine. We thought originally that we should choose only American wines, but then we thought, well, Velveeta is truly an international problem at this point.”
“All of those I think would go well with the food suited, except for this Andre (Cold Duck),” he added, laughing. “I don’t know if it goes well with anything. But I don’t know if Velveeta goes well with anything, so they might make a nice pair.”
So this holiday season, feel free to leave the good china where it is, substitute a cozy, plastic tumbler for those long-stem glasses and sit down for an easy, cheesy dinner.
Happy birthday, Velveeta!
The following are a few Velveeta recipes that will warm your heart this holiday season:
3/4 lb. (12 ounces) Velveeta, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup (two sticks) butter or margarine
6 squares Baker’s unsweetened baking chocolate
2 Tbs. light corn syrup
2 16-oz. packages powdered sugar (about 8 cups)
1-1/2 cups chopped Planters pecans
1 tsp. Vanilla
Place Velveeta, butter, chocolate and corn syrup in a large, microwaveable bowl. Microwave on high for two minutes and stir. Microwave an additional minute and stir until well blended. Add chocolate mixture, in batches, to a large bowl containing the sugar. Beat each addition of the chocolate mixture well until the whole bowl of ingredients is well-blended. Stir in pecans and vanilla.
Pour into a greased, 13×9-inch pan. Smooth top with spatula and cover. Refrigerate several hours or until firm. Cut into 96, 1-inch squares.
Baked Two-Cheese & Bacon Grits
6 thick-sliced bacon strips, chopped
3 cups water
3 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cups quick-cooking grits
12 ounces of Velveeta, cubed (about 2-1/3 cups)
1/2 cup butter, cubed
1/2 cup 2 percent milk
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups shredded white cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large saucepan, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp, stirring occasionally. Remove pan from heat. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon; drain on paper towels.
Add water, stock, garlic powder and pepper to bacon drippings; bring to a boil. Slowly stir in grits. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, 5-7 minutes or until thickened, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
Add processed cheese and butter; stir until melted. Stir in milk. Slowly stir in eggs until blended. Transfer to a greased 13×9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with bacon and shredded cheese. Bake, uncovered, 40-45 minutes or until edges are golden brown and cheese is melted. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Source: Taste of Home
Cheesy Beer Soup
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbs. butter or margarine
1 pound Velveeta, cut up
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup beer
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
A few drops hot pepper sauce
Cook and stir onion and garlic in butter in large saucepan on medium-high heat until tender. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add the Velveeta, milk, beer, Worcestershire sauce and hot pepper sauce and cook, stirring constantly, for five minutes or until the Velveeta is melted and the soup is hot. Serve garnished with green onion slices.
Stuffed Hot Dogs
1 package hot dogs
1 jar wedged dill pickle strips (as opposed to the flat, thin kind)
(Some people have also suggested wrapping the hotdogs in bacon. Not traditional, but still very tasty.)
Slice the hot dogs lengthwise, but not all the way through, leaving a V to receive the stuffing. First, run mustard down the center of the hot dogs. Then, add the pickle strips (slice them down the middle if too thick) and top with thin chunks of Velveeta.
If you are using bacon, wrap the bacon around the hot dogs.
Place on a cookie sheet in an oven pre-heated to 350 degrees. Cook until the hot dogs appear done and the cheese has melted.
Best Ever Mac & Cheese
1 package (16 ounces) uncooked elbow macaroni
4 slices hearty white bread (4 ounces), torn into large pieces
6 tablespoons butter, cubed and divided
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon pepper, divided
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 cups half-and-half cream
1 cup (4 ounces) cubed Velveeta
1 block (8 ounces) sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 block (8 ounces) Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a stockpot or Dutch oven, cook pasta according to package directions for al dente; drain and return to pan. Pulse bread, 2 tablespoons butter, Parmesan, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a food processor until coarsely ground.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, melt remaining butter. Add onions and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Add ground mustard and cayenne; stir until blended. Stir in flour until smooth, about 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in milk and cream; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in Velveeta. Slowly add remaining cheeses a handful at a time, stirring until cheese is melted. Add Worcestershire and remaining salt and pepper. Pour over pasta; toss to coat.
Transfer to a greased 13×9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle bread crumbs over top of casserole. Bake until topping is golden brown and sauce is bubbly, 10-12 minutes.
Twist up the Topping: Swap any (or all) of the following for the bread crumb topping:
2 cups coarsely crushed pork rinds
2 cups coarsely crushed potato chips
2 cups coarsely crushed Ritz Crackers
Source: Taste of Home
Creamy Turkey Casserole
1 can (10-3/4 ounces) condensed cream of celery soup, undiluted
1 can (10-3/4 ounces) condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
1 can (10-3/4 ounces) condensed cream of onion soup, undiluted
5 ounces Velveeta, cubed
1/3 cup mayonnaise
3-1/2 to 4 cups shredded cooked turkey
1 package (16 ounces) frozen broccoli florets or cuts, thawed
1-1/2 cups cooked white rice
1-1/2 cups cooked wild rice
1 can (8 ounces) sliced water chestnuts, drained
1 jar (4 ounces) sliced mushrooms, drained
1-1/2 to 2 cups salad croutons
Combine the soups, cheese and mayonnaise. Stir in the turkey, broccoli, rice, water chestnuts and mushrooms.
Transfer to a greased 13×9-inch baking dish. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 30 minutes; stir. Sprinkle with croutons. Bake until bubbly, 8-12 minutes longer.
Source: Taste of Home
Ham and Cheese Chowder
1-1/2 pounds potatoes (about 3 medium), peeled and diced
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3-1/2 cups whole milk
4 ounces Velveeta, cubed (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1-1/2 cups cubed fully cooked ham
Minced chives and coarsely ground pepper, optional
Place potatoes and baking soda in a large saucepan. Add water to cover; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cook, uncovered, until potatoes are tender, 6-8 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup potato water.
In same pan, heat butter over medium heat; saute onion until tender, 2-4 minutes. Stir in flour until blended; cook and stir 2 minutes. Gradually stir in milk and reserved potato water. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly; cook and stir until thickened, 1-2 minutes.
Stir in cheeses until melted. Stir in ham and potatoes; heat through. If desired, sprinkle with chives and pepper.
Creamy Hash Brown Casserole
1 package (32 oz.) frozen cubed hash brown potatoes, thawed
1 lb. of Velveeta, cubed
2 cups sour cream
1 can (10 3/4 oz.) condensed cream of chicken soup, undiluted
3/4 cup butter, melted, divided
3 tablespoons chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon paprika
2 cups cornflakes, lightly crushed
Fresh savory, optional
In a large bowl, combine the hash browns, cheese, sour cream, soup, 1/2-cup butter and onion. Spread into a greased 13×9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with paprika. Combine cornflakes and remaining butter; sprinkle on top. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes or until heated through. Uncover, bake 10 minutes longer or until top is golden brown. If desired, garnish with savory. Freeze option: Cover and freeze unbaked casserole. To use, partially thaw in refrigerator overnight. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake casserole as directed, increasing time as necessary to heat through and for a thermometer inserted in center to read 165 degrees.
Source: Taste of Home