So, I had a lovely time talking to the folks at Sword and Laser yesterday. It was fun! They’ve got a nice community thing going on at Goodreads. It’s pretty cool, and worth checking out if you like that “pick a book and talk about it for a month” book club kind of thing.
So, during the conversation (which of course as soon as I was done, I was like, “Oh, I oversimplified that way too much and I should have clarified this other thing, and….” but hey, that’s how talking is) the subject of Velveeta came up–it’s not even food! I asserted, though, of course, it is. But it’s not particularly nutritious food, it’s full of salt and saturated fat, and maybe you’ll get some calcium out of it, but it’s really all about that pasteurized processed cheese product taste and texture. You’re not eating it because you think it’s good for you, you’re eating it because it tastes good–and it probably tastes good because you got served velveeta mac and cheese as a kid, or any of those “melt a block of velveeta with a can of tomatoes and maybe some other stuff” dips were a standard part of Thanksgiving or whatever, and really there’s no separating that taste from that “my family loves me and I’m safe and warm and things are as they should be” feeling you had when you ate it back then.
Or maybe, you know, you just like the way it tastes. Because it tastes good. Granted, it’s not gourmet. Not sophisticated. It’s not real cheese. Everyone knows that real cheese is better than process, and everyone knows that someone who prefers wrapped slices of Kraft American or, heaven help us, Velveeta, to the obviously infinitely superior genuine cheeses available is obviously a philistine. Or, charitably, perhaps they just never learned better, isn’t it a pity?
Of course, that real cheese is often three times the price of your average Processed Cheese Product. Or more. I can buy a big block of velveeta, that will make quite a few servings of macaroni and cheese, or a couple of big bowls of dip, for a price that would get me a small triangle of, say, white stilton with apricots (ooh, I gotta go to Trader Joes today). So, there’s just a bit of class stuff going on here. Which I find interesting.
The thing is, there’s room in life for both. Why does it have to be either/or? I mean, I get if someone says, “Yeah, I don’t like the taste of velveeta.” Or whatever. Why does it, so often, turn into, “that crap’s not real cheese, when I make macaroni and cheese I use gruyere and organic locally sourced cheddar, that’s how you make real macaroni and cheese”? I’ve got nothing against gruyere and locally sourced cheddar mac and cheese, by the way. I will be more than happy to dig in if you invite me over to try some. I bet it’s freaking fabulous. In fact, I’ve got less than nothing against insanely expensive and/or locally sourced cheese. I love that stuff. (And after I hit Trader Joes, I need to find a shop where I can get me some Baetje Farms goat cheese, cause all the farmers markets are closed for the season. OMG so delicious.) But you know what? I like the kind of mac and cheese with velveeta, too. They’re different experiences, and they both have their different appeals. Sometimes I just want to savor some Coeur de la Crème and sometimes I want to scarf down some fluorescent orange paste sprayed onto a Ritz cracker. They’re both very different approaches to the cheese thing, and I can enjoy the everliving hell out of both.
Now, this isn’t to say that dishes made with processed cheese product aren’t open to any sort of criticism. In fact, there are better and worse instances of velveeta-based dishes, and one could certainly learn something interesting from what makes one casserole work while another one doesn’t. Of course, if your criticism is confined to the announcement that supper is invalid because it contains velveeta and that shit is disugusting …well, that’s a criticism, certainly. And it might well be based in a firm personal dislike for velveeta and all its works and empty promises. But it doesn’t really say much, does it, beyond “I freaking hate velveeta.” Not terribly interesting, not something you can sink your teeth into, no matter how you dress it up.
And of course, there’s a reverse snobbery. “Fuck that pretentious stinky expensive chees crap, give me my velveeta!” It’s the same thing in the other direction. And like I said above, there’s a strong class element to it. Which, actually, food is complicated–it’s strongly class marked, what kinds of things you eat can be a signifier of what group you belong to, or claim membership in. But the reality, of what people eat, isn’t necessarily as neatly compartmentalized as the common narratives might make it seem. One region’s incredibly cheap, everyday affordable food is another area’s pretentious luxury. The organic, local farmers market produce that signals pretension to so many folks might, for quite a few people, be the most affordable option available to them (particularly for people with various allergies and sensitivities, and of course that’s a whole other subject). And yet, it’s kind of amazing what we assume about people based on what they eat.
And what we assume about what we don’t eat. Are people who claim they love high status foods that we’ve tried and don’t like–are those people just faking it so they look high class? I’ve heard versions of this assertion, not just about food, btw, but honestly I have trouble believing it. The thing about food is, it’s so enjoyable. I mean, it tastes good, it’s a pleasure to eat. Stuff that isn’t a pleasure to eat–well, I don’t eat much of it, unless there’s no other option. So I have a hard time believing that people who chow down on oysters or um, I’m actually having trouble coming up with a food I don’t like at all, maybe olives, but anyway, people who express enjoyment of eating something, and continue to eat it, I have real trouble believing that they’re actually gritting their teeth and faking a smile on a regular basis in the hope they’ll be considered acceptably high class.
Are people who chow down on rotelle and velveeta dip, or fluffernutter sandwiches on white bread, or whatever, are they just ignorant boors who are incapable of knowing what really good food is? I suspect not, given that most people I know will, depending on the occasion, or availability, eat and enjoy all sorts of things. It’s just, the question of what’s available and how much money you have to spend does matter–and if certain foods are nearly always relatively cheap, that ends up with their being associated strongly with not having much money.
But darn it, velveeta tastes good. And so does marshmallow and peanut butter. And so you get “guilty pleasures.” But why should anybody feel guilty for liking food that tastes good to them? And why should any sort of food be relegated to the “not actually decent food” category as though it’s horrible and nobody with decent taste eats it if they have a choice, when actually quite a few people really enjoy eating it? Hell, I did it myself, halfway at least, with my “it’s not even food” crack in that interview, and I don’t even really think that. Why is that narrative so strong? Wouldn’t it be better to use a narrative that encouraged us to find really good ways to use those foods, maybe even new ways, rather than a narrative that just consigns them to the “horrible” category and then leaves everyone who enjoys them to do so furtively, or be very obviously ironic about it in the hopes no one thinks they seriously like it? Or insulting whole groups of people based on what they freaking had for supper?
I could turn this into an analogy. I’m half tempted to! Y’all know how I am. And food analogies are, like, a thing with me. But I think instead I’m going to the store. Because suddenly I’m very hungry for rotelle dip and I love that stuff.