Sometimes I feel my processed food upbringing is at odds with my job as a restaurant critic. I wasn’t born into a family with rich food traditions like the ex-New York Times food critic Frank Bruni. Nor have I traveled the globe to discover how certain dishes should “really taste”. My perspective is that of a person who grew up eating Kraft products in a subdivision and, against all odds, became curious enough about food, how it’s made, where it comes from, and how it tastes, to become a professional eater.
As such, I’ve also learned to appreciate the finer things; things my family couldn’t afford when I was kid, and things I probably couldn’t afford now: Fine charcuterie, saffron topped deserts, truffle anything, really good booze—it’s all gone down my gullet. More than that, it’s been fully appreciated. Still, I can be a bit defensive when someone accuses me of being a food elitist—even though I often behave like one.
Recently, I had a burger from Bar Bar. The burger was topped with American cheese. You know the stuff: It comes in individually wrapped servings, melts well, has a singular fatty/milky flavor with the barest hint of cheesy tang augmented by salt. Since I was eating it as a critic, I really put some thought into what the cheese did for the burger. It was a kind of revelation. The burger tasted the way it did, and was a good as it was, because of that cheese. Who could have guessed? Were all those childhood grilled cheese sandwiches being somehow vindicated?
The next day, I grilled some burgers at home and made the point of using American cheese. The first bite confirmed what I realized at Bar Bar. The American cheese added a unique creamy texture to the burger and the way the flavor worked with the patty was pure delicious down-home Americana. No other cheese I’ve eaten could have done the same thing for that burger. And even if it did, why would I use it? To spend more money? To prove something about my social standing?
A few days ago, I was at Philippe in Los Angels. It's where the French dip was invented. I ordered the pork French dip sandwich with American cheese. Long story short? It was fucking amazing. As much for the cheese as for the pork. It was simply meant to be..
I know that I have often been dismissive of certain foods here on Blogtown: Processed foods, gimmick foods, and various exasperating overly fatty ironic food contrivances, but American cheese taught me an important lesson. If an ingredient works, it works. It's not about irony, or any social stigma attached to an ingredient; it is about what happens on the palate.
Long live American cheese.