Thursday, April 5, 2007

Stupid Food

It happened in the break room at a super-dupermarket where I worked (in the meat department) during the summer between my first two years at the seminary. At first glance, I thought the package said "Cheese." But when I looked closer, I saw that it said something that I had to commit to memory because of its profound testimony to the madness of the world: "Imitation American Flavor Pasteurized Process Cheese Food."

Unfortunately, I acted as a part of the world's stupidity by buying it, and trying to eat it, before I looked closely at the label. How did I loathe it? Let me count the ways: 1. The color: a shade of orange that does not occur anywhere in nature. 2. The texture: like a loose piece of human skin, bringing to mind hideous thoughts about what would happen if my hand got too close to the meat slicer. 3. The flavor: strikingly similar to the material in which it came wrapped. I should probably have recycled it; it may not be biodegradable. 4. The shape: a chintzy little square which only covers about 2/3 of a Ritz cracker.

But let's go back to that name. Doesn't it just send your imagination into orbit? Suddenly one has a vision of whatever Industry produced this "cheese food" (I'm sure it wasn't the Dairy Industry; maybe the Petrochemical Industry?). This Industry is restrained from calling its product "cheese" by its legal counsel and its regulatory compliance officer, who understand that there is a shadowy Council somewhere that polices how the word "cheese" may be used. Perhaps this is the same Council that came up with the slogan "Got milk?" [or maybe it was "GOAT milk?!"]

And perhaps this Council has decreed that, for each step that the Industry takes away from the natural process of cheesemaking, one modifier needs to be added to the word "cheese." So, I suppose, if the substance is generated under factory conditions rather than in a real creamery with buxom dairymaids and cylindrical cheese molds, it must be called "cheese food." And if it is treated with additives and preservatives that aren't stricly part of the Dairy Industry's equivalent of the Reinheitsgebot (a little brewmaster lingo, there), then it is demoted to "processed cheese food."

Then you need to ask yourself what conditions would cause the word "processed" to lose its -ed suffix. Maybe the fact that, by unleashing said additives and preservatives in your system, the cheese is "processing" you. The hunter becomes the hunted. When genetically engineered, chemically preserved, machine-made food enters your body, who's to say that it doesn't change your genes, embalm you alive, or begin to turn you into a preternaturally orange square of repulsive, floppy polymerized cardboard.

Whatever "process" has gone into this cheese food, and through the cheese food into you, it involves (but is not limited to) pasteurization. Thank God! And so, both "pasteurized" and "process" must be in the name of the product. This may actually be a selling point, except for a few weirdos in Eastern Washington State who will only eat irradiated food.

But we haven't even gotten to the "American" bit yet. Everyone knows that "American" cheese is a designation invented by Kraft to explain Velveeta, which in flavor and texture (or lack thereof) resembles no authentic variety of cheese ever produced. Just in case you really don't want Cheddar or Pepper Jack on your burger, you can tell the grill-jockey at Waffle House to put American cheese on it, and he'll know what you mean even if the brand he has in stock isn't Velveeta. Why anyone would actually ask for just that "variety" of cheese is a mystery, akin to the popularity of Budweiser. (Oops, I shouldn't have said that; I don't want to offend the local gods.)

But then, just think: this stuff that doesn't cover my cracker isn't just "American," it's "American-flavor." Assuming that the taste isn't, in some way, based on the flavor of human flesh, this added modifier must be the Council's way of pointing out, for the sake of "truth in advertising," that this particular pasteurized process cheese food does not meet the standards of flavoring required to style itself "American yadda yadda yadda." It's an approximation of the flavor (or lack thereof) of American cheese.

And finally, the Council demands that the word "imitation" top it all off, to warn us that one or more of the other steps has been faked. Which one is it, one wonders? Is the American bit fake - perhaps it was made in Canada? Maybe "flavor" is the part that isn't real; you may have thought you detected a flavor, but that was an illusion -- perhaps brought on by the systemic shock of seeing such a bright shade of orange. Again, it might be that this cheese food was only pretend-pasteurized; say, in a cooker without the pilot lit, or in a replica of a pasteurization machine. Replicas like that would become very popular, and not just with the kiddies, once people realized that the FDA -- er, I mean the Council -- would let you sell stuff that you faux-pasteurized in it. But then again, maybe the "process" part is what "imitation" modifies; they threw in some chemicals or other, not necessarily the ones that do anything worthwhile to your food (even to the extent that additives and preservatives do something worthwhile). The most ghastly possibility is that the word "imitation" applies to "food" -- that this is not really intended for consumption, but for display only. So why is it in the dairy cooler at this big-chain grocery store?

Of course, I've overlooked the obvious. "Imitation" points to "cheese." It doesn't take a genius to discover that this is, at best, ersatz cheese. If I could think of an uglier word than "ersatz" I would use it.

Dad burn it, I should have looked for the REAL seal!

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