The joke that people love to hate — or hate to love — American cheese is outdated. We’re at the point where we can all admit it’s good. You ever top a burger with fresh mozzarella and watch as it sits there and does everything but melt? Ever try putting a slice of cheddar on ramen only to witness the puddles of fat sweat out from the clumpy solids? In these cases and so many others, it must be American cheese, our collective shorthand for a perfectly creamy melt.
American cheese is not a quality product. In fact, its lack of quality is often the point, a grand embrace of the lowbrow and cheap that is the cornerstone of so much comfort food. But even those who love it have to contend with the fact that it is artificial in all the worst ways, industrial and mass-produced, as opposed to its artisanal forebears. In fact, Kraft Singles, the standard for American cheese, cannot legally be called American cheese, or even “cheese food,” due to being made with milk protein concentrate and consisting of less than 51 percent actual cheese. (The company itself refers to the product as a “pasteurized prepared cheese product.”) Cheese may be the first ingredient, but the slices are mostly made of whey, skim milk, and various preservatives.
For decades, the options have been to either accept American cheese as it is, or instead eat better-quality artisanal cheeses that, while delicious, are never quite right. Those limited choices always frustrated Eric Greenspan, chef and author of The Great Grilled Cheese Book.
“I’m sourcing bread from bakeries and I’m hand-whisking my own sauces and slow-cooking my meats for my grilled cheeses. Then we’re putting run-of-the-mill commodified American cheese on stuff, and it just never sat right,” he says. And so he decided to make his own.
Last fall, Greenspan and his friend Alan Leavitt, who has worked at and invested in early-stage packaged consumer goods companies, launched New School, what they claim is the first attempt by anyone to make a “quality” American cheese. Greenspan and Leavitt say the brand is really just bringing American cheese back to its roots as a minimally processed product. “You lost some of what American cheese could have been,” says Leavitt. “And so we realized, hey, it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Processed cheese is just natural cheese heated up with an emulsifying agent, which makes it melt uniformly. The issue with most commercial American cheese — including many “premium” options — is what else gets mixed in there. Greenspan and Leavitt wanted to keep things as close to that basic process as possible. Instead of adding water, they use cream and butter, and they source barrel-aged cheddar as the base and add as few preservatives as they can get away with. “We take cheese and we melt it down and we add stuff and we reform it so that it melts better and performs better,” explains Greenspan. It all sounds surprisingly simple.
But don’t look for New School next to Kraft Singles in the dairy aisle. While it’s available at two retail spots in LA, New School is primarily found on the menu at a handful of places in New York and California, like Red Hook Tavern, Oui Melrose, and Amboy Quality Meats. The hope is that by partnering with chefs first, Greenspan and Leavitt can start changing customers’ minds at the table, not the grocery store.
“It’s hard to imagine processed food being good. What’s good? Does that mean taste? Does it mean quality? Does it mean health?” asks Helen Veit, associate professor of history at Michigan State University, who specializes in food and nutrition of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, most Americans’ blanket assumption about processed foods is that they are unhealthy. But during the advent of many food processing methods in the early 20th century, “processed” wasn’t really a bad word. A processed food could actually be made well. Or at least better than what exists now.
Anyone who has ever made fondue understands the appeal of adding emulsifiers to cheese to create a uniformly melty product, so perhaps it’s no surprise that processed cheese was first developed in 1911 in fondue-fond Switzerland. There, Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler invented the process of heating cheese and mixing it with sodium citrate to create a smooth, uniform paste that would resolidify when cooled.
“The initial intent of this product was to improve shelf-life of cheese shipped to warmer climates,” Zey Ustunol wrote in a 2009 article for the Michigan Dairy Review. In Illinois, James Kraft was working on a similar product, and received patents for processed cheese in 1916 and 1921, the latter of which was for processed cheese packaged in a loaf form. “It is believed that the 2.3 kg loaf was responsible for nearly doubling processed cheese consumption in the USA during this time period,” according to Ustunol.
Veit points out that these years were boom times for shelf-stable foods. “This was the era that gave us Crisco, for example. This was when boxed cereals and canned foods became normal sights on American grocery store shelves,” she says. It was also a time when the dangerous effects of adulterated, unregulated foods were fresh in the country’s memory. In the mid-19th century, thousands of babies were dying every year from what turned out to be “swill milk,” or milk produced from cows that were fed leftover whiskey mash that had been stripped of all nutrients and made the cows sick. Sometimes producers would whiten milk with chalk or mix it with formaldehyde, which masked the taste of spoilage.
This lack of trust in food products led to the Pure Food Movement, which prioritized regulation and safety, and eventually catalyzed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, laying the foundation for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. This fostered an environment in which foods that were created in labs, had an air of science to them, and came with a brand were seen as safe and trustworthy. “A lot of processors described themselves as essentially purifying foods, that they were doing things to foods that were making them better than nature. They were removing dangerous impurities and giving you a better, cleaner product,” says Veit.
The pasteurization process also killed bacteria, which gave consumers the assurance of safety. Early advertisements for Kraft processed cheese emphasized the connection between its quality and manufacturing process. A 1924 ad for Kraft cheese describes it as blended from the best American cheese, and then pasteurized “for further purity.” A 1930 ad for Velveeta describes it as both a “pure milk product” and “a product of scientific research” that everyone can digest. “The fact that cheese was at all a major part of the diet, that’s in large part due to processing,” says Veit.
Historically, Kraft has had little competition in the American cheese space. There are some brands, like Horizon Organic and Applegate, which boast organic ingredients and fewer preservatives, but as of 2007 Kraft still held over half of the entire processed cheese market in America. As such, it has been able to set the standard for American cheese, becoming the model against which all other products are measured. For decades, there was little incentive to create a better American cheese, and because of that, Greenspan argues that the quality of American cheese tanked. “What was cheese became whey proteins and mixes. What was high-quality fats became oils, and starches and preservatives and sorbic acids and isolates and all those things that were added in to process processed cheese,” he says, to make it last even longer on the shelves.
What’s more, a new generation raised on processed food turned a more critical eye toward the entire food industry. “The broad skepticism about the benefits of processing was really a product of the 1960s and ’70s,” says Veit, the result of both an Orientalist romanticism of “ethnic” foods and a back-to-the-land movement that emphasized home production and a more direct food supply chain. Of course this meant its own versions of processed food — almond milk and tofu both require extensive processing. But “clean” eating no longer meant sterilized food produced for consistency. It meant food free of everything we had been told to trust.
“Fluid milk [consumption] has declined in this country pretty meaningfully, and it’s been replaced by plant-based substitutes,” says Leavitt. “But that hasn’t happened in dairy-based cheese at all. Dairy-based cheese consumption goes up and up and up.” From 1979 to 2019, American’s cheese consumption doubled, according to the USDA. But while at one point processed cheese towered over the cheese market, its sales have been stagnant or declining in the past years, as consumers seek out cheeses with fewer preservatives, and restaurant chains switch to upscale alternatives.
A “better” version of a beloved but low-quality food is a fraught proposition. I think of all the elevated s’mores I’ve tasted, with homemade marshmallows and dark chocolate ganache. They’re all shit. A s’more is not just chocolate and marshmallow and graham cracker; it’s Hershey’s and Jet-Puffed and Honey Maid, the specific flavors and textures of those specific processed foods together. I often balk at anyone assuring me a new, quality project will handily replace Oreos or Heinz ketchup. On some level, I don’t want them to be good.
Greenspan and Leavitt knew the most important part of creating a “better” American cheese was making sure it performed exactly like the individually-wrapped singles we’ve built our breakfast sandwiches and burgers around. That performance is what American cheese currently has going for it. In the face of declining sales, Kraft has switched up its marketing, emphasizing the creamy, oozy, cheese-esque texture. As Peter Cotter, then general manager of cheese and dairy for Kraft, told Bloomberg in 2018, “Honestly, you can’t get that in a natural cheese. It’s a very unique product ... The natural cheeses, they just don’t melt that way.”
Leavitt says keeping that melty performance while having as few ingredients as possible proved challenging. New School consists of just aged cheddar cheese, cream, butter, sodium citrate, salt, paprika, and turmeric. Over the course of five years, the team struggled to achieve the melt, the flavor, the specific creamy tang now expected from American cheese. “Every time we ran a test, it was like 10,000 pounds [of cheese] at a time,” says Greenspan. “And then we would be like, ‘It doesn’t melt.’”
But the biggest challenge, they say, was convincing investors this is a desirable product. Greenspan chalks this up to a lack of awareness that change was even possible. “Nobody brags about what American cheese they’re using because it’s all the same commodified, lowest-common-denominator stuff,” he says. Some chefs have even turned away from using American cheese, he says, because they feel guilty charging $20 for a burger topped with “pasteurized process cheese food.”
Price is also a sticking point. Eight ounces of sliced New School cheese retails for $7.95, while 12 ounces of Kraft Singles is $4.99 at my local Target. American cheese’s low price is the reason my bodega can charge me less than five bucks for an egg-and-cheese sandwich. Upping the quality means upping the price, which means changing where and how American cheese can be used. Greenspan knows his cheese is not for everyone. Still, he hopes people will realize that “if you see New School on the menu, then you know that you’re buying food from somebody who values quality over anything and is willing to go so far as to slice their own cheese and pay a little bit extra to make sure that you have the best product available to you.”
On a recent Thursday, I ordered a steak and potato burrito featuring New School cheese from Comfortland in Queens. I was apprehensive. As a child, unwrapping a single slice of American cheese from its plastic envelope felt like such a specific luxury. I almost didn’t want to know if that could be improved upon.
I inspected my burrito and found New School was as melty as promised, enrobing the fries in there so thoroughly I almost didn’t see it. And on first bite, its creaminess was apparent. It had a softer flavor than a Kraft Single, less reliant on salt, less of the zing meant to evoke a long-forgotten sharp cheddar and more of a mellowness. And it had none of the grittiness or filmy after-texture I’ve come to expect from American cheese. It provided the balance to the shredded hot honey rib-eye and pickled onions that all dairy should in a sandwich. But it was undeniably American cheese, just astoundingly better. I’m still processing that.