x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

There's a whole process to loving all-American processed cheese

In search of the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich, that brings back childhood memories.

There's often no sensory rhyme or reason to the attachments we forge, nor any satisfying explanation for why tastes develop or remain fixed as they do. Most of us are too busy stumbling into adulthood to be too nostalgic about the days of yore.

In The Bell Jar, the protagonist Esther Greenwood described her favourite way to eat an avocado: "Avocados are my favourite fruit. Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comics. He taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and French dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce. I felt homesick for that sauce."

Unlike Esther, I don't have a grandparent to blame for my personal degeneracy. A lifelong obsession with old-fashioned, greasy, grilled cheese sandwiches - processed American cheese and all - was something I'd acquired on my own. Then, last week, while scrolling through my morning newsfeed, I stumbled upon an America's Test Kitchen Feed "Do It Yourself" feature by Yvonne Ruperti about making an additive-free American cheese from scratch. An obsession I'd kept at bay for a decade came raging back.

But I wasn't about to jump on the DIY bandwagon just yet. For starters, my food processor blade was under repair. And then, making one's own American cheese seemed a bit like making one's own hand soap: just because you can doesn't mean you should. Like Billy Idol, wasn't American cheese just born to be bad?

I discovered Grilled Cheese Academy (www.grilledcheeseacademy.com) for promoting Wisconsin cheese, and spent 30 minutes browsing the "Gallery of Deliciousness", a collection of photos and recipes submitted by readers. Many of the sandwiches looked outrageously good, with thick slabs of home-baked bread, artisanal cheeses and elaborate condiments. But they weren't what I was after. What I wanted was diner-style, warm and buttered manna that was pressed into a hot pan foaming with butter, then flipped and flattened with a spatula into a golden, crispy square, sealed at the edges with gooey melted cheese. Nothing else: no tomatoes, no onions, nada. Just a pickle spear on the side and a fat stack of napkins.

Processed cheese was invented 100 years ago in Switzerland, however it was James L Kraft who patented it in 1916. Because I needed to consult with a veteran of this esteemed institution, I called a friend who grew up on grilled cheese sandwiches. She told me it was imperative to shun packaged singles of cheese in favour of having it sliced fresh at a deli counter. Determined not to make a wrong thing even more wrong, I followed her instructions. "The crème de la crème of all-American cheese," she said, "is the Land O'Lakes white, sliced extra thin." And then she added, "Of course, 'crème' and 'American cheese' don't really belong in the same sentence, do they?"

My experiences with fake cheese have been mostly memorable and occasionally sordid. During the 1980s and 1990s in the UAE, the trusty blue box of Kraft processed cheese provided a lurid orange glow to much of what we ate. Velveeta's brilliant marketing campaign had me convinced, at one point, that it was as good as cheese could possible get. I coveted it long before I ever tasted it, but eventually grew to associate the flavour with candle wax bred with old gym socks.

In college, I worked on a project with a hulking linebacker who paused to squirt towering mouthfuls of Kraft Easy Cheese from an aerosol can directly into his mouth. Then there was the summer when my beloved fry shack on Nauset Beach tacked up a handwritten sign that announced, "We now serve CHEESE FRIES". I'd never had cheese fries, but they sounded great. Sadly, the fries were smothered with Cheez Whiz, a thick, plasticky sauce. Least palatable of all to my young palate was Puck, a processed cream cheese spread from Denmark that is ubiquitous throughout the Arab world.

Last year, pandemonium ensued when a series of ads featuring the disgruntled ursine mascot for The Arab Dairy Products Company went viral on YouTube. If you haven't seen the videos, do a search for "panda cheese" and prepare to fall in love, if only with the dreamy crooner Buddy Holly's perpetual serenade of True Love Ways. The Egyptian company's "triangle cheese" production lines produce five Panda and Dairy lines of wedge cheeses: Panda Triangles, Dairy Triangles, Wonder Cow Triangles and The Two Cows Triangles.

The Laughing Cow (La vache qui rit) is a brand of cheese products made by Fromageries Bel, but commonly refers to the most popular item in the line: the spreadable wedge, a staple in many Emirati homes. It is valued for its stability: it can be left safely unrefrigerated in an air-conditioned room for days at a time. The success of Bel is largely due to its five core brands: The Laughing Cow, Mini Babybel, Kiri, Boursin and Leerdammer. Mini Babybel, known for its signature wax shell, was my sister's primary source of nourishment during her adolescence. I preferred Kiri, a foil-wrapped square of white, salty cream cheese that was "the result of several years of research spent seeking a cheese whose taste and texture are perfectly suited to a child's palate".

It never occurred to me at the time that Velveeta and Cheez Whiz were euphemisms for "not cheese". The name "American cheese" has a legal definition under the US Code of Federal Regulations: if a product doesn't contain the requisite ingredients and ratios, the name has to reflect that. Sure enough, when I took my bag of Land O'Lakes deli-sliced cheese out of the fridge to make my first grilled cheese sandwich, I noticed with no small amount of dismay that the sticker on it said "American Cheese Product". So perhaps American ersatz cheese is more Milli Vanilli than Billy Idol. Either way, it's time for another grilled cheese sandwich.