The bald eagle, Fourth of July, muscle cars, baseball, blue jazz, freedom, liberty, voting and apple pie: What these all have in common is their unequivocal American-ness, an unmistakable sense and pride of the United States.
Many will argue over what great exports the US gave the world (definitely not democracy, don’t fool yourself), but near the top of the list is American cheese.
A majority of you have just groaned and cried “That’s not even real cheese!” or “That orange/yellow chemical filled crap you call food?!” Snobs.
If you can step away from your elitist bourgeois lifestyle for a moment, you will realize that American cheese is not only a marvel of food science but also a form of social democracy that equalizes everyone.
Oh, it’s also the only acceptable cheese for a burger. Not your fancy cheddar or that stupid pepper jack, nor the overwhelmingly obnoxious blue, the best burger cheese is American (Swiss is a grudgingly acceptable substitute).
So what makes it so special you ask? Let’s start with the science.
Cheese is basically an emulsion: a mixture of fat, proteins and water. When normal cheese is made, rennet (an enzyme) is added into milk, which makes it go through proteolysis, a reaction that begins to break down large proteins into smaller proteins and amino acids.
This breakdown forms a matrix in which fat and liquids are trapped.
The result is an aged curd, which reduces moisture content as air evaporates, leaving you with a mature cheese.
Older cheeses have lower water content, which would be great if you’re eating it in its naked form. However, the meltable characteristic of a cheese is directly related to that water content.
Aged Cougar Gold, for example, has a low moisture content with a matrix more tightly wound together, making melting it much more difficult.
Because you need a higher temperature for the bonds to separate, excess moisture is lost in the process as it essentially boils off, leaving you with a pool of coagulated proteins and a lake of fat. Gross.
American or processed cheese solves this issue via emulsifiers and stabilizers. Sodium citrate in particular keeps all of these elements together and prevents that matrix from breaking down. Additionally, gelatin buffs up the cheese’s heat resistance.
These two additional ingredients lead to a homogenous product that melts evenly, gooey and comfortingly consistent, with no patty left uncovered.
Now, onto some social politics.
American cheese contributed to the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, an observation by Thomas L. Friedman who noted that no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants would go to war with each other.
This is because the chain represents an arrival of a strong enough middle class to support sustained economic development and whilst the Golden Arches are technically referring to fries, we all know what cheese they use.
Referring to equality in the U.S., Andy Warhol once said, “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”
This mantra holds true with American cheese. From Pullman to Seattle, Tokyo to Cairo, the cheese treats us without socioeconomic discrimination.
American cheese tethers you down in an increasingly mobile, globalized world.
Indeed, many would argue that globalization breeds sterility and loss of biodiversity.
It also bridges connections between cultures that may seem incredibly far apart, to the point where I can come over from Singapore and remind Americans why their cheese is the only acceptable one for a burger.
Finally to put a nail in the coffin, Laurent Tourondel, a restaurateur who owns a number of widely regarded burger joints, declared that American cheese was the best for burgers.
Not only is it in the name, but come on, a Frenchmen had to tell you? ‘Merica!