Peggy Keener: Super processed, super yummy

Published 5:02 pm Friday, August 5, 2022

The year was 1889. Emil Frey, an immigrant from Switzerland, was having problems—actually two problems—one good and one bad. The good problem was that each day his company was shipping out more than a ton of his product. The bad problem was they could not keep up with the demand. Don’t you see? It was Emil’s cheesy invention—soft, spreadable, magical Liederkranz that was the culprit. All that lusciousness was creating the huge predicament.

Segue ahead 29 years. During this time, Emil concocted his second famous cheese. Meanwhile the company had begun making Swiss cheese. The problem was not with the cheese. It was with the wheels of cheese that were damaged. People didn’t want to buy food that was imperfect. It was a crying shame for all that good cheese to go to waste just because of a cosmetic issue. A solution had to be found.

The solution: find Emil Frey. After all, by now he was a successful cheese maker, so maybe he could come up with some way to use these cheese scraps. Emil went to work. Experimenting in his home kitchen, he dug in eventually creating a product with a texture like no cheese had ever known before. Describing it as velvety, Emil lovingly named his latest creation “Velveeta.” Swoon.

The science behind it could be described as relatively complicated. When cheese is melted, the caseins (the proteins in the milk) do not mix with water. That’s what makes cheese cheese. It also makes the fat separate from most cheese when it’s melted.

What the company wanted was a cheese that would truly melt. So, Emil found that when he added sodium citrate to the cheesy mix, he could melt it and reform it into a block. This was because the sodium citrate changed the state of the caseins allowing them to be formed into shapes, plus also being resistant to heat. Velveeta was born.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, when the U.S. went from the Great Depression into World War II, Velveeta got a massive boost in sales. The secret to its popularity was that the smooth cheese was affordable, thus allowing families to stretch their pennies while still keeping food on the table. And besides that, it tasted good!

During the Depression, an average family’s weekly food budget was around $9. For many families, it was even less. Growing children needed nutrition. Milk was expensive. Velveeta was not. Bingo!

By the time World War II started, milk and cheddar cheese were among the first items to be rationed. Keeping the troops well fed was the government’s top priority. A close second was also keeping Americans healthy and strong. Velveeta was committed to both. As a bonus, Velveeta was additionally promoted as a way to zing up leftovers. Yes, Velveeta was there to fight the good fight on all food fronts.

The company also put out a whole slug of mouth watering recipes. Some were bizarre. Take this one. If you really wanted to outdo your friends with a delicious party treat, you made this Hawaiian inspired dish. First you toasted a half of a bun. To this you added a generous layer of peanut butter, a slice of pineapple and a thick wedge of good ol’ Velveeta. Put it in the oven. When the cheese melted, add a maraschino cherry on top!

Do not wonder if your next party had a low attendance!

Each one-pound brick of Velveeta has roughly 16 servings. If you look at its nutritional makeup through today’s discerning eyes, those servings are pretty darned terrifying. One serving has 80 calories of which 50 are from fat, 6 grams of fat of which 4 are saturated, 3 grams of carbs of which 2 come from sugars and to add to the punch, a mountain of sodium (410 mg). Yiiikes!

And somewhere in all that slurry, you are getting only 15% of your daily dose of calcium. Knowing this, it’s hard to believe that Velveeta was/is marketed as an affordable way to feed your family, and while doing so, providing them with a super nutritionally healthy food!

One huge fan of the cheesy cheese lived down south in Texas. There Lyndon B. Johnson was putting on huge barbecues with regular occurrence. Velveeta was his go-to ingredient for a queso dip made with Rotel Tomatoes and the always velvety cheese. (Now we know why Johnson was a one term president. All his supporters died of clogged arteries!)

Lady Bird got into the act, too, with her suggestions that the dip was delicious with corn chips, crackers, toast and was even a super yummy filling for deviled eggs or as a dip for celery. Are you hungry yet?

In 2005, the chairman of the Black Tie and Boots Inaugural Ball published his list of ingredients that he believed were necessary for a successful gathering. Third on the list, after chips and salsa, were not one, not two, but 300 pounds of Velveeta! And now we understand why our politicians are our politicians.

Kraft surprisingly found that in 2015, a large percentage of their sales were driven by dollar stores. This was because an ever increasing number of folks found themselves on a tight budget and the dollar stores’ prices were right. Not only did they save money, but they scratched the nostalgic itch their customers had for their favorite childhood food.

Knowing all this, the question still remains—is Velveeta actual cheese or simply a cheese product? And do we care? While you’re in deep thought pondering this conundrum, I leave you with this phantasmagorical recipe:

Velveeta Fudge

Put a 12 oz. block of Velveeta into a bowl. Microwave this with a cup of butter, some corn syrup and a handful of unsweetened chocolate pieces. To this add 16 oz. of sugar, pecans and vanilla flavoring. Pour into a pan and refrigerate until firm. Eat. Regret. Lick lips. Eat more. Major regret.

Angel of death, take me now.