The first time my boyfriend ordered French toast in front of me, I ordered the American cheese for him. I looked at him through narrow eyes—trust me—with confidence that had nothing to do with being tipsy, though I was. It was a late night diner dinner, after just enough happy hour drinks that I was ordering a side of sausage and a side of fries for my meal. The waitress brought our food, including the little white plate of yellow triangles. I laid one over a corner of my boyfriend’s French toast, and poured the maple-flavored syrup over that. I sat back and waited for his reaction to the first bite: the French toast test.
American cheese is not cheese. This is a legal fact.
It is written into the FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations, a document full of definitions. Title 21: Food and Drugs, Chapter I: Food and Drug Administration, Subchapter B: Food for Human Consumption, Part 133: Cheeses and Related Cheese Products, Subpart B: Requirements for Specific Standardized Cheese and Related Products, Section 133.3: Definitions.
Cheese is not the only food bestowed with a thorough and thoroughly pedantic definition. (There are 89 other parts in Subchapter B. The numbering oddly starts at 100.) The FDA’s definition of milk chocolate is 596 words long. You may have eaten cookies, or breakfast cereal, made with chocolately chips? They are chocolatey, but not chocolate. Waffles or oatmeal with “blueberry bits” have no actual berries, but rather died and flavored nuggets of dried apple, or concoctions of food starch and cellulose gum.
Some food definitions are tied to location, often in a trademarky way. Despite the fact that you could grow this same strain elsewhere, Vidalia onions come only from a strictly defined region in the state of Georgia, and bourbon is only bourbon if it’s distilled in the United States. This happens in other countries, too—Champagne, France, is very protective of its eponymous sparkling wine—but quite the opposite is the case with American cheese, bastard dairy product. Its definition highlights what it is not, and what it is not is cheese.
Section 133.3, the definitions of Cheese and Related Cheese Products, is not brief. Here is where it starts, to set the stage:
(a) Milk means the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum [the liquid that comes before true milk at the very end of a pregnancy, is fermented into a sweet cheese called molozyvo in traditional Ukranian cooking, but not the same as milk and so, not fit to become cheese], obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows, which may be clarified and may be adjusted by separating part of the fat therefrom.
Ninety-seven kinds of cheese and cheese products are defined in the subsections that follow.
How do you define a cheese? Sometimes, as with the above-mentioned onions and booze, it’s regional—gorgonzola, asiago, and parmigiano-reggiano are among the cheeses that only come from a particular place. (A question of branding or, as in the case of San Francisco sourdough, of specific indigenous microbial strains that turn one thing into another.) But there is a range of other factors as well: moisture content, preparation, bacterial culture, fermentation temperature.
There is no know-it-when-you-see-it intuition here, and these strict rules are all so you, the consumer, know what you’re getting. So that when it says Limburger, it is. So that when it says cheese, it is.
None of these cheeses is American cheese. But there pasteurized process cheese, defined in Article 133, Section 169:
Pasteurized process cheese is the food [a food, not a cheese!] prepared by communuting and mixing, with the aid of heat, one or more cheeses of the same or two or more varieties, except [here is a list of spreadable and skim-milk cheeses excluded from the potential—literal—melting pot] for manufacturing with an emulsifying agent prescribed by paragraph (c) of this section into a homogeneous plastic mass.
“Plastic” here doesn’t mean synthetic polymer, obviously, but rather malleable or pliable. Google also provides “fictile” as a synonym—def.: “Made of earth or clay by a potter,” but American cheese is nothing so natural. Or at least, nothing so real, so simple and earthy and ancient, as cheese.
The British brought cheese to America. It was first made on these shores in the mid 1600s near Plymouth. Many European cheeses were made in colonial homes, but cheddar took root in commercial production, and by 1790, New World cheddar was being called American cheese. Which, literally, unlike our modern processed product, it was. Before the turn of the 19th century it was being exported back to England—British aristocrats turned up their noses at the ostensibly inferior product, but their snobbery made the cheese cheap, and it found a market among the masses.
On New Year’s Day 1802 the residents of Chesire, Massachussetts presented President Thomas Jefferson with a thousand-plus-pound cheese (naturally, cheddar) made of milk from every cow in the town. It was inscribed with Jefferson’s motto, “Rebellion to tyrants is obediance to God.” The cheese was displayed in the White House for the next two years. It would eventually be replaced by a very large U.S.-Navy-made loaf of bread.
A hundred years later, James L. Kraft came to Chicago from Canada with $65 in his pocket and a dream to mass-produce cheese. He patented his method in 1916—shred cheddar, re-pasteurize it, and mix in some chemical stabilizers—and the stable, cheap, reliable product took off. It was popular in the Depression. It was fed to our boys overseas. A 1987 patent for “imitation cheese products” assigned to Kraft Inc. includes a graph plotting force vs. strain, describing the abuse imitation cheese can take before it tears, as if cheese were steel cable or a trampoline. The patent also contains the phrase “proteinaceous food product intended to simulate cheese.” We are all intentionally being fooled.
I love lots of weird, fake foods. There are old favorites, like Doritos in Nacho Cheesier (they may be cheesy but they are not called cheese) and Cooler Ranch (I don’t think “cool” is under any such bureaucratic limitations). On my first trip to Canada—at the age of thirty—I scoured convenience stores for weird-flavored potato chips. Pickle, ketchup, roasted chicken, and the mysterious All Dressed, which had pictured a red pepper, half an onion, and a vinegar shaker on the bag, and tasted tangy and savory. I’ve always loved Combos, those little crackery (or pretzely) cylinders filled with junk-food-flavored goo that might be some distant approximation of cheese. (There’s not much other explanation for that texture.) When a 7-11 opened up near my old job, I took a lunch break reconnaissance tour and found Combos in not just the standard fakey flavors of cheese and pepperoni pizza but also extraordinary fakey flavors like bacon cheeseburger and egg-and-cheese sandwich. The latter was an alarmingly accurate impersonation of not quite the right thing—it tasted exactly like the inside of a breakfast-time McDonald’s smells.
Rarely do these snacks taste exactly like what they claim to be. Chicken and Waffles potato chips taste like thyme, sage, and fake maple syrup. I don’t know if I could identify the flavor aims of Guacachips without the alarmingly bright green color or helpfully on-the-nose name. (Their red cousins, Salsitas, hit closer to their mark.) But I love them all just the same.
American cheese, though, exists in a sad in-between—it’s junky and it’s fake, but what’s exciting about it? There’s no Willy Wonka sensory wonderment. The snozzberries don’t even taste like snozzberries, just their paler cousins. American cheese tastes like cheese stripped of every offensive—or, interesting—flavor, texture, and smell. It’s not pungent, it’s not sharp. It’s not veined with mold nor rinded with ash. It is soft and salty, your boring, innocuous friend. It barely stands up to being chewed.
And yet, and yet.
At a friend’s apartment one afternoon, I peckishly opened the fridge for a snack, to find myself drawn to a stack of Kraft singles. I called back over my shoulder, surprised to see this plebeian food in a Greenwich Village apartment, “Kraft singles??” And she answered, “Yeah,” and reached past me for one. She pinched off a piece and said to her puppy, “Paisley, sit!” And the dog did and got her reward. I found something else for a snack.
There is more diversity in American cheese than might be expected. On one end of the spectrum there are spray cans of Cheez Whiz, “cheez” being spelled like that because cheez is not constrainingly legally defined. On the other end there’s deli-sliced American, cut thin from a block just like a real cheese would be. Yellow in some regions of the country and milky white in others, wrapped in wax paper and the deli’s little plastic bag, how far is it from a mild cheddar or Swiss? Far enough to have to be called “American cheese product,” that last word a legally-required concession that does who-knows-how-little consumer-informing good, omitted as it so often is. But between the spray can and the deli counter are all the slippery vagrants, ruining the respectability and the fun. And all of these American “cheeses” have a dark, industrial, uncheeselike history, emulsified and processed, full of milk undigested by bacterial guts, flavorants devised by lab-coated corporate chemists rather than Mother Nature’s workings in a dank, dark cave. Full of adulterants and preservatives, an uncheeselike quantity of things.
Deli-sliced American cheese lists cultured pasteurized milk and skim milk as its first ingredients (ten ingredients total). For comparison, Kraft Singles: milk and whey are the first of fifteen ingredients, the last being vitamin D3 (which you add to milk products to make up for the vitamin D lost in processing). Cheez Whiz has 29 ingredients—number two (sorted by volume from most to least, remember) is canola oil, and both maltodextrin, a starch used as a thickener and filler, and sodium phosphate, the very emulsifier used by James L. Kraft himself, come before the “contains less than 2% of” cut-off.
Cheddar cheese: milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, annatto (color).
My dad’s apartment in Queens didn’t have a dining room, but there was a pass-through window from the kitchen to the living room where my sister and I watched TV on Sunday mornings. Our weekends in Queens consisted of Chinese food on Northern Parkway or BLTs in a shopping center diner called Lollipops. My father knew how to roast a chicken by basting it in Italian dressing—“What do you need for a chicken? Oil, vinegar, spices, salt. Here it’s all in one bottle!”—but what I remember him handing over to us through the window from the kitchen was breakfast. Challa or plain bread cooked in an egg batter, real maple syrup [fake flavored pancake syrup being a paltry imitation and abominably gross], and the thoughtful touch that marked a homemade meal: the thin-sliced Land O’Lakes from the Waldbaum’s deli melted, not on top, but pressed between two slices, where it would stay nice and warm.
My dad lives in North Carolina now. We are all trying to eat healthier, more aware of it than when I was twelve and he was divorced and single. When we visit now, my sister and I are old enough to drink coffee. I can cook my own eggs.
Our world is full of fake flavors. Blue Razzberry, bacon-flavored bits, realistic or fantastical, artificial or naturally derived. Some are weak approximations, some are uncanny copies, some don’t even try and just strike out on their own like sweet, dark purple confections that are only ostensibly grape. Nothing in the real world tastes like that, which I suppose is saying that doctor’s office lollypops and Dimetapp cough syrup aren’t real. Nothing in the real world hits the pleasure circuits of the brain like a salty, crunchy, spicy-sweet flavored corn chip. Even the chip’s surface area is engineered to deliver the most flavor to your tastebuds at once. They say if you take a break from salt, you stop needing it as much; if you abstain from sweets then tomatoes and carrots hit with a bigger bang, nature’s candy. But I want to have it both ways.
I grew up eating grapes that tasted like nothing and candy that tasted like purple; the first time I had a fresh farmer’s market grape, a little black-purple sphere like nothing I’d ever seen at the supermarket, I was stopped dead in my tracks. I finally understood where grape juice came from; I finally had tasted a grape that tasted like grape.
What is the purest essence of pizza-flavored? Can I take hits of the flavor powder straight? I love those grapes but I would mainline the sweet high of the dense Dimetapp flavor. I would eat the gunky filling of Combos plain if I could.
I never buy American cheese. I will shred cheddar into eggs, toss feta with mint and watermelon for a summer salad. But then I rarely make French toast at home, either. So there isn’t a need for American cheese.
American cheese, French toast—these nationally-affiliated foods have different names outside the US. In France, bread dipped in eggy batter and fried is called pain perdu, literally “lost bread,” for the preparation’s way of saving loaves lost to staleness and age. And “American cheese,” as if it were our national pride. It was once called “Canadian cheese” north of the border, but that’s mostly reverted to “slices.” In Britain it’s either that or “singles.”
French toast and American cheese. These two should only be associated for their national nomenclature. But they are my peanut butter and jelly, my salt and pepper, my enriched macaroni product and apocarotenal-colored cheese sauce mix.
The mix of sweet and savory is nothing new. There is the tradition of serving apple pie with cheddar cheese, either a plain slice atop your wedge or shreds baked into the pastry crust. There is candied bacon and maple-bacon scones and bacon ice cream and all of that. French fries dipped in a chocolate milk shake, chicken and waffles, salty-sweet kettle corn. But still, no one hears about this pairing and takes it in stride.
When I decide, usually at a diner, among the uninitiated, that I will be ordering French toast, I don’t warn anyone. Just when the waitress comes, I add to my order, “Could I have a side of just a couple of slices of American cheese?”
My friends look at me askance. I narrow my eyes and nod. Trust me. How could something that tastes like home to me taste bad to anyone else? Bites are shared, heads are tilted to the side. Not bad.
It is a rite of passage and a Shibboleth among my father’s family. When my cousin brought her fiance to a family reunion, it wasn’t long before he was asked about French toast. Or maybe my cousin herself was asked. Has he tried French toast? The Green family way? He gave the right answer and everyone cheered. The right answer is this: Yes and I liked it. (Slaps on the back, huzzah!)
In that diner, that night, when I ordered my boyfriend American cheese for his own plate of French toast, I took a picture of him smiling over his half-eaten meal, and texted it to my dad.
One Saturday after a blizzard, rumor was that the neighborhood farmers market was still happening; my boyfriend and I walked up to find just three stalls. But the egg guys were there, and as I was paying I saw a pile of loaves of challa. “We’ll take one of those, too.” I stopped at the supermarket deli counter on the way home. Just a quarter pound of American cheese, sliced thin.
Three eggs and a splash of milk (soy or almond, or half-and-half, all fine), a shake of cinnamon, a drop of vanilla extract, beaten all together. I sliced the challah about an inch thick and wrapped half to freeze for another weekend morning. One slice of bread at a time into the eggs. Browned in a pan in butter, then flipped. While the second side is cooking, a benediction of American cheese, to melt while the custardy bread finishes cooking through. Covered in real maple syrup, melted smooth as only processed cheese can be, salty and sweet, perfectly true. No one has ever failed the French toast test. I can’t imagine that anyone could come up with anything other than the right answer once they’ve tasted this.
Jaime Green writes essays about food, science, and museums, mostly, and she's writing a book about living history museums. She also hosts The Catapult, a podcast of great new writing read aloud.