Tillamook is an Oregon dairy co-op and cheese manufacturer with a vendetta against processed cheese. Take a look at this highly biased interactive called “Natural Cheese vs. Processed Cheese” (which concludes, “Say yes to yum by standing behind real cheese!”) to get a sense of where Tillamook’s loyalties lie. I’ve never tried Tillamook, but I imagine I’d like their aged cheddar—I like most aged cheddars. And in general I’m on the same team as Tillamook: I usually prefer traditionally made cheese to processed cheese.
But today I am compelled to speak out against Tillamook. That’s because it has taken its campaign against processed cheese too far, by creating a petition called “ ‘American Cheese’ Is Un-American.” The petition reads, “We the people of the United States of America are being falsely represented by our namesake ‘American Cheese’ … Out of respect for the hard work and integrity that our nation was built upon, we respectfully ask that these processed, plastic-wrapped slices of deception be stripped of America’s name.”
Now, freedom of speech is obviously a fundamental American value, and I support Tillamook’s right to spew any claptrap they want. But that’s what this petition is: Claptrap. Of course American cheese is American! I daresay American cheese is the most American cheese of all.
It seems to me that Tillamook’s campaign rests on the misunderstanding that American is synonymous with authentic or classy or high quality. Of course, America can be all of those things, but they’re not quintessentially American qualities. Here are some qualities that are quintessentially American: Populist. Independent. Diverse. That’s American cheese: It’s a cheese that appeals to the lowest common denominator of taste, that bucks centuries of European cheese-making tradition in order to do something different and unique. And the American version is sometimes worse than the European version (like when you’re topping pizza or building a single-payer healthcare system) and sometimes better than the European version (like when you’re making a $2 egg-and-cheese sandwich, or creating a professional basketball league).
Finally, American cheese is a cheese that is literally made out of a bunch of different components that have been melted together—just like American society. It’s a subcategory of pasteurized process cheese, which is defined by the United States government as “the food prepared by comminuting and mixing, with the aid of heat, one or more cheeses of the same or two or more varieties … into a homogenous plastic mass.” American cheese is the type of pasteurized process cheese that “is made of cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, Colby cheese, granular cheese, or any mixture of two or more of these.” I can think of no better metaphor for the American experiment: A bunch of different cultures mashed together and transmogrified into something new and weird. Isn’t that something all of us—washed curd people, granular people, even cheddar people—can celebrate?