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Archive for January 25th, 2009

What I know about Velveeta cheese is the color. More pale orange than most cheeses. The texture. A gelatinous blob, jiggles when you shake it. The taste, well, not so much uncooked as cooked.

One would be hard-pressed to get a slice of Velveeta, taken off the block, to melt in the mouth. It’d take a glass of milk, I bet, to wash it down, adhered as it would be to the roof of the mouth, like those tart molds I remember the dentist once made of my teeth. Or the body of Christ, embodied in a white round host, wedged at the top, the choking, almost suffocating from manipulating the tongue to dislodge it while the priest walked through the slow process of drinking the last of the blood of Christ and then wiping out the chalice with a green cloth that seemed too nice to treat as a washrag.

And I suppose it’s fitting that Velveeta would lead me to memories of teeth molds and Communion hosts. They were all wrapped up together in my mind, the days of Hogan’s Heroes and grilled cheese sandwiches with Shasta cola after school. Friday nights at the bowling alley with Mom and Dad, me tucked under a pinball machine watching tan cordury bell bottoms of teenage boys. Sundays spent sitting with bony knees in a pew wishing I didn’t have to eat a round wafer that tasted like paper but softer.

Things that melt in the mouth, or don’t, and why is it that Velveeta melts so well in a pan over heat? The mouth, isn’t it a constant 90+ degree oven?, but I guess the temperature just isn’t high enough to activate the wheys and milkfats to dance that swirling dance from solid to liquid. And what about biting into Velveeta? Already I can feel the film on my teeth, like washing globs of Elmer’s glue from one’s fingers.

I don’t have qualms about eating Velveeta in sauces, dips, or casseroles. It was one of the foods of my youth, as familiar to me as potato chips or mayonnaise. Although I grew up with a natural bent for natural everything. Made my own granola out of raw oats and sesame seeds, honey and California sun-kissed raisins, when I was still a teen. Gravitated to halibut when given a choice for any selection on the long main-entree counter at Furr’s Cafeteria. Hated red meats for the veins and shunned eggs and chicken because Mom had enough of slaughtered birds and fertilized eggs when she was young, and when she was older she passed on her food aversions to us.

But I still ate processed food, still ate whatever I could find in the fridge after school, even when it was a box of aging Velveeta, the open end hardened and discolored, cracked and in need of amputation. Grilled cheese sandwiches were one of the few things I could make by myself, and I picked up Janet’s preference for cutting them diagonally and then dipping the end in a puddle of ketchup before biting off a piece.

I still love grilled cheese sandwiches dipped in ketchup, although I’m not a regular consumer of Velveeta nowadays. I like a sharp cheddar cheese and just this afternoon I made a green chile relleno casserole that I suppose could have been done with Velveeta, although I mixed yellow and white sharp cheddar. The cheeses melted a sort of deep amber, and being as how I’ve burned Velveeta in the crock pot, I know that even cheese that melts well over heat can turn brown if you let it get too hot.




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Velveeta drizzled over broccoli, slathered over corn tortilla chips, melted inside a loaf of homemade bread with pimentos and mayo and peppers, an open-loaf dip. I don’t remember specific Velveeta recipes as a kid. But I remember liking Velveeta on open-faced toast. Comfort food. Like buttery mashed potatoes, real vanilla milk shakes, homemade pizzas, macaroni and cheese, baked beans. These are comfort foods. High calorie, low cost, always warm to the touch.

It’s the smearability of Velveeta that makes it a hit. The easy way you can take the blade of a stainless steel knife and spread the cheese over a slice of whole wheat without ripping or shredding the bread into little pieces that leave holes that drip down on to your lap or chin. Are you one of those people who prefers using a napkin bib? I know adults who do this at home, not in public. They are prone to drips and spatters; sometimes large-breasted women seem to catch food on their shelves. Privately we laugh about it. Publicly, that kind of clumsiness can lead to embarrassment.

I’ve been thinking about Nikki Giovanni, the way she is so comfortable in her own skin. She’s been to the school of hard knocks, does not care what others think of what she writes, or shares from the heart. Not overt scare tactics or stun-gun sentences that some writers use to wake their readers up. Instead, the honest rhetoric that shoots from the heart. That kind of honesty can shock people, leave them not knowing what to say. Or thinking, should she really have said that on public radio? It doesn’t matter. She is willing to bear the consequences of her honesty.

There’s a certain comfort level one needs to get to in order not to care what people think or how they will judge. There is a confidence in their writing, with their presence in the smaller pecking order of their personal families, and the larger pecking order, sometimes ruthless, that comprises the rest of the world. Is it okay to say you love Velveeta?

Childhood foods, guilty pleasures. Why have foods like that become the blunt of people’s jokes. Especially those who pride themselves on eating “healthy” or only “whole foods,” food snobs. People get to make choices about how they eat, just as they do about what they say or write. To judge others based on what they eat, I don’t think so. Keep the focus on my own bare cupboards.

I like Velveeta and cinnamon toast and Kool-Aid. I don’t really care who knows it. I made cinnamon toast just last week. It’s another comfort food. When I was a child there was a container filled with cinnamon, swirled in sugar, wound and stirred into a brown concoction ready to be shaken into the mouth of a melted butter gob on top of white Wonder bread. These days, I eat whole wheat because I like the taste better.

I become the most food conscious when I am trying to lose weight. It’s true, processed foods are high calorie, not good for the heart. And the fried foods that I love can be deadly. But you can eat anything if you watch the calories. Again, who am I to judge others? There is a woman at work that most know to be the town gossip. Anything you tell her will make the rounds. It’s common knowledge, something everyone accepts about her. I watch what I say. Yet I like her. She’s abrasive, direct, honest, loves Velveeta cheese and smokes a pack of cigarettes a day.

And whenever people want to know what’s going on in another part of the company, they always go to her to ferret out what she has heard. If you solicit information from the town gossip when it’s convenient for you, no need to judge her for the rest. All this, from a box of Velveeta cheese.



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