All Americans eat cheese out of aerosol cans.
This is what British people seem to believe. I discover this every time I make the mistake of announcing some mildly critical comment about British cuisine. The response is usually:
“You have no right to talk, you Yanks eat cheese out of aerosol cans!”
This exchange has happened to me nearly a dozen times since I moved here. The idea that American people love processed cheese, squeezed out of cans seems to me to be one of the stronger notions British people have about us Yanks and our culture.
But is it true? Do Americans really eat cheese sprayed out of a can?
Well it must be true, because I recently bought a can of aerosol cheese when I was visiting the USA. I even brought it back for a group of British people to see, smell, and taste for themselves.
More on that later, but first some background:
Cheez- the USA’s space age food
American cheese, spray cheese, squeeze cheese and Cheez Whiz are all “processed dairy products” that consist of real cheese that has been melted, and then mixed with emulsifiers and other ingredients to keep them soft. They have been around since the 1960s, when American corporate food titans such as Kraft were busy trying to fill a near-insatiable demand for “convenience foods” to go with America’s new “convenience lifestyle.” Processed cheese became known as “American” cheese, and when it no longer contained enough dairy to justify calling it “cheese” any longer, it was often rebranded by marketers as “cheez.”
Why should busy Americans sit around waiting for cheese to melt when they could have it pre-melted? Crumbly, aged cheeses were just too European. We needed new cheeses for new modern times. I remember having jars of Cheez Whiz in our house growing up – my little brother loved the stuff, and I confess to having had some from time to time as well. Cheez whiz came in a jar, not a can, but it was all pretty much the same thing. It was a guilty pleasure. It wasn’t a food staple- it was a treat, like a candy bar. Generally you would eat it over Ritz brand crackers, and wash it down with a coke. It tasted American. But that was the past. Right? People don’t eat it any more, do they? The Kraft food company thinks they do – they still manufactures Cheez Whiz – their website claims revenues of over $100 million dollars a year.
£100 million dollars sounds like a lot of processed cheese, but for a national consumer food product, that’s chump change. Is spray cheese just a nostalgic hold-over, like Twinkies? Something only a very few people eat, mostly for kitsch value? The only way to find out would be to do some research.
The last time I was in the states, I headed out to Publix, a large America supermarket chain. It was harder to find aerosolised cheez than I thought it would be. After wandering around the dairy aisle and the cheese section aimlessly for several minutes, I asked someone. “Excuse me, do you carry spray cheese?” The store worker gave me a deadpan look and then broke out laughing. “Really? Yeah, I think we have some. Follow me.” Not the best indicator of spray cheese’s enduring popularity if one of the people selling the stuff was amazed that anyone would ever actually want it.
And there it was. Easy Cheese.
Not in the cheese section, not in the dairy aisle. In it’s own non-refrigerated section, next to the Ritz Crackers. Of course- I should have known. Four flavours: American, Cheddar, Sharp Cheddar and Cheddar and Bacon. “Made with REAL CHEESE!” proclaimed the side of the tin. It advised: “For best results, remove cap, hold applicator tip close to food, press tip firmly and move slowly across food surface.” Mmmmm – what a recipe! I couldn’t wait to hold applicator tip close to food, press tip firmly, move slowly across food surface and enjoy my delicious REAL CHEESE treat.
I stared at a whole row of cans. At least two dozen metal tubes of spray cheese. Maybe they were popular after all. Why else would there be so many? But just as I grabbed one, a fellow shopper saw me and offered her unsolicited opinion. “Are you really buying that? I can’t believe they still make that stuff!” She was an old lady, the kind I think British people probably imagine eat a lot of spray cheese. Probably feeds it to her cat as well, they would think if they saw her. But apparently none of that was true. She was the second stranger in as many minutes to have laughed at me over my anachronistic cheese choices. She had lived through the era of space-age cheez. And now she was telling me that epoch was over. Squeeze cheese may never spoil or go off, but its time had passed nonetheless.
But no one had told the British. As far as they were concerned, spray cheese was as American as a bald eagle drinking Coors lite while holding a rifle with an NRA sticker on it. I had come too far to return home to Britain empty-handed. If British people were really so sure that people still ate this stuff, and its mere existence was a scathing indictment of American food culture, then by-golly, I was gonna make sure they tried the damned stuff they were so busy condemning.
So I brought a can of spray cheese and some Ritz crackers to an office party in London
Here’s what people had to say:
“Do I put it straight into my mouth or on a cracker? Oh God – I do not like that colour. [Eats some.] It couldn’t taste less like cheese.”
[Has great difficulty getting the cheese out.] “I don’t know how to operate it! [I show him how to get cheese out from the can and he tries it.] It’s horrible. It was horrible. I can still taste it in my mouth!”
“I really like it. It’s like the working man’s hummous!”
“It’s basically Dairylea in a tube. On a pear instead of a cracker, it’s actually alright.”
“It’s not offensive. It’s not that different from Philadelphia Cream Cheese.”
[Didn’t want her picture taken eating spray cheese] “It’s not nearly as bad as I expected. It’s more like processed cream cheese. It’s not too bad!”
“This tastes like my childhood! [South African] we used to have processed cheese like this when I was young.”
[Puts the cheese on a cracker in a smiley-face pattern] “It smells like salt and play-doh. [tries some] It sticks to the outsides of your mouth. It tastes kind of warm.”
Well I guess British people don’t really like aerosol propelled cheese much either. Except that one guy. (There’s always one guy.) But you can tell from the pictures how much my UK friends enjoyed the experience- trying a food that, to them, held almost mythical properties. But I had played a small trick on them. By giving Easy Cheese to nearly a dozen Brits, I can guarantee you that, for one evening at least, more British people consumed spray cheese than were doing so in the entire continental United States. For one evening- I made spray cheese a British, and not an American delicacy. I had made Britain cheezy.
After tonight, the UK can go back to its usual, sophisticated menu of pot noodles and baked jacket potatoes with tuna mayonaisse on top and the natural trans-Atlantic balance will be restored.