Oh, Velveeta—the famed Frankenfood. It sits, typically on the top shelf smack between Ritz Crackers and Cheez Wiz, in that vibrant orange box, tinted with swirls of a pale yellow to conjure images of melted cheese…but pops out of the packaging as a gelatinous rectangle, colored a vague creamy orange. Only when it is melted does it turn a hot yellow color, slick and shiny. I Google How long does Velveeta last? and quickly realize I’m not the only one with that query. “Can I eat five-year-old Velveeta?” someone asks. Replies vary, but the general consensus is that if it is still soft, it’s perfectly fine to eat. Or, as one blogger put it, “Velveeta is like a cockroach, you just can’t kill it.”
Yet, despite being decidedly unnatural, Velveeta still holds a special place in hearts and casseroles all across this great country. For many, one bite of the salty, melty ooze takes them back to their childhood—and that nostalgia is inspiring cooks to revamp family favorites in more natural ways amid a culture of junk food shaming.
Jaimie Elliott is a home cook from Missouri. “Cheesy goulash is something that I grew up eating. It is elbow macaroni, whatever diced tomatoes you want, hamburger, tomato juice and Velveeta. That’s it in a nutshell,” Elliot said. “My mom and grandma made it and I have made it for my family.”
She continued: “There are a few more recipes my mom and grandma made and that I make using Velveeta—it is something that you would always find in our fridges.”
“I am a mother of three very big boys, and I love to cook,” Elliott said. “I am currently between jobs, but when I had all the boys at home, I worked a very high-paced and stressful job and some nights I needed these simple but filling recipes to feed three growing boys easily and cheap.”
Then there is Steve Kroll, who was born and raised in the heart of Wisconsin dairy country. “Velveeta, along with any Kraft Singles-type things, weren’t really foods sought out when I was growing up,” Kroll said. “We used to call these products ‘plastic cheese’ when we would see them on store shelves.”
This, in all honesty, is a pretty fair assessment; according to the FDA’s rules, Velveeta doesn’t qualify as dairy. It is a “cheese product”. However, there is a recent uptick in health-food bloggers who are reclaiming their beloved family casseroles by creating homemade (dare I say, “artisanal”?) interpretations of Velveeta. Many of these recipes came right off the heels of the rumored Velveeta shortage on the East Coast during the Polar Vortex—Michael Symon even put forth his own version of Box O’ Cheese on The Chew but a lot of them were from cooks across the country who want to feed their families better.
Kresha Faber, the founder of the blog Nourishing Joy and author of The DIY Pantry, posted her homemade Velveeta recipe in August of 2014.
“I decided to create it because Velveeta is not actually food in any sense of the word, yet people love it,” Faber said. “Queso dip and so many other recipes assume you have to have Velveeta in order to make it properly, so I wanted to give people a real food, nourishing option that would keep their favorite recipes intact.”
According to Faber, one of the biggest hurdles is that people still want their food to look and taste like their favorite packaged versions, so her first step in developing a homemade version is to flip over the box or can and see what’s listed there—at that point she’s less interested in what each individual ingredient is and more interested in knowing what each ingredient does. For example, which ingredients are binders, which ingredients are preservatives, which ingredients give a notable flavor?
“So, this was the same for the homemade Velveeta and Cheez Whiz recipes. I started by looking at the box and the can and simply started substituting with real food ingredients that function in similar ways to the ingredients listed,” she said.
Faber continued: “And the response has been overwhelmingly positive. In the year or so since I published it, it’s consistently been one of Nourishing Joy’s top posts and most requested recipes. Those who have left comments on the post itself or on social media often are so excited to realize that eating healthily is easier than they thought or are thrilled to be able to eat or introduce their children to a food they remember from their childhood.”
And it’s true—the comments left beneath the blog post have been quite glowing:
Most of the guilt-tinged responses include some mention of how they gave up Velveeta in pursuit of “real food,” but I can’t help but feel that there’s something slightly counter-intuitive about making faux fake food. Out of curiosity I gathered up the ingredients for Faber’s recipe, most of which I already had in the pantry: whole milk, heavy cream, cheddar cheese, sea salt. The only one that made me do a double-take was “grass-fed gelatin”—which, as opposed to normal gelatin, comes from grass-fed cattle, and is currently enjoying its 15 minutes of fame as a protein powder alternative.
After a fair amount of stove-top bubbling, pulsing and chilling, I was left with an eerie off-yellow blob; not quite cheese, not quite Velveeta. However, toss it in a saucepan with a can of Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and you’ve got a passable version of the classic queso dip that has kept many a subpar party afloat. The big difference between Faber’s version of Velveeta and the real thing is its shelf life; where the homemade stuff only lasts a few weeks, the original is good to go for an infinitely longer amount of time.
In her Discover magazine article, “The Secret of Velveeta: How Cheese Food is Made”, Veronique Greenwood explains the science behind why Velveeta has a seemingly eternal shelf-life, compared to actual cheese.
Here are the basics of real cheese production: caseins, a kind of milk protein, are hydrophobic—they don’t mix well with water—so they start to clump together in the milk. Eventually, the acidifying bacteria within the milk makes the casein molecules more hydrophobic, and therefore less soluble. “They begin to literally fall out of the milk, forming a clumpy net in which fat globules are trapped,” Greenwood wrote. “The resulting solid, called curds, is strained out of the remaining fluid and pressed into wheels or cubes, which are then aged and salted to taste. Voila—from Mozzarella to Gruyere, that’s how cheese is made.”
Then, after people realized cheese needed a longer shelf-life for shipping, food scientists in the early 1900s began messing with the traditional production methods; most notably,Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler of Switzerland melted down cheese in a huge vat and then added sodium nitrate. The result was a dense, easily sliceable cheese.
Greenwood writes: “Fast-forward through the gooey experiments and inventions of James Lewis Kraft and a number of other cheese-food pioneers—including special melting vats, new melting salts, and the advent of individually wrapped slices—and you arrive at modern cheese food, which goes by many monikers, depending on branding and FDA rules involving the product’s moisture and milk fat content: American cheese, Velveeta, pasteurized process cheese food, process cheese, and so on.”
Going back to Kroll’s description of Velveeta as “plastic cheese,” he went on to say that mother wasn’t above using Velveeta in her holiday green bean casserole, because it had good (read as: scientifically-engineered) melting properties.
“She also used to make a zucchini dish called ‘Zia Casserole’ that came—I believe—from a church cookbook. I always loved that dish, and haven’t been able to find it again since,” Kroll said. “But as I recall, it included evaporated milk, Velveeta, zucchini, onion, and bread crumbs. Sort of a zucchini gratin in a cheese sauce. Yummy stuff. It was also one of the few veggie sides my little brother, Mr. I-Hate-Vegetables, would devour.”
This seems a common theme when people discuss Velveeta. There’s an admission along the lines of “I know, I know—it’s not that great for you”—but it is tempered with the memory of a childhood favorite, one that they gave up replicating long ago because we live in a society where you’re judged a certain way for having a box of “pasteurized process cheese food” in your grocery cart. Facts are facts: homemade Velveeta is probably more healthful; but the shame associated with foods that we perhaps only eat once in a while needs to stop.
In a world of increasingly modified health foods that go hand-in-hand with newly classified disordered eating behaviors like orthorexia nervosa (which is based on the obsession with righteous eating), there’s a growing culture of hyper-vigilance, if not misplaced modern guilt, associated with eating the correct things all the time.
One has to wonder, where is the line drawn—the one between cleaning up our eating habits and completely banning a family favorite from the holiday table because of a singular questionable ingredient? The one between revamping a guilty pleasure product and owning our informed choices in food without guilt? The answer will differ from person to person, but just know—next time you want queso dip made with real Velveeta (plastic cheese and all), I won’t judge you in the checkout line.
Ashlie Stevens is a freelance writer living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been featured at The Guardian US, Louisville Magazine, STORY Magazine and STIR Journal. She spends her spare time chasing food trucks. This fall, she will begin her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Kentucky.
Main photo by Brent Ozar CC BY-SA
Velveeta billboard photo by megan ann CC BY
Velveeta ad photo by Jamie CC BY