It's more complicated than you might think.
To paraphrase legendary gastronome Brillat-Savarin: Tell me what cheese you’re eating, and I’ll tell you your tax bracket. Whether it’s Velveeta, clothbound Cheddar, or pre-shredded “Mexican” mix, cheese tells us volumes about who we are and who we hope to become. Much like the way industrial agriculture turned food from a source of nourishment to a source of profit, consumers, artisans, and advertisers have changed cheese from an economical way to preserve milk into an expression of social status and ambition.
Over the last century, Americans’ feelings towards processed cheese shifted dramatically; it went from being a cheap time-saver for working parents to a symbol of everything wrong with America. Meanwhile, that shift (along with other social and economic factors) transformed artisan cheese from an everyday food to a high-status, epicurean good with lineages comparable to wines. All of these factors shape how we define good taste, how that applies to cheese, and how that applies to who consumes it.
It’s hard to talk about cheese and class without at least mentioning the innate Europeanness of cheese and of dairy products in general. According to research reported in Nature, only one third of humans worldwide produce lactase, the enzyme that helps us digest milk, into adulthood, and most of these people have Northern European ancestry. The consumption of cheese has been an integral part of some of those cultures for nearly 7,000 years, and, thanks to genetics, the majority of the world experiences symptoms like indigestion and diarrhea if they partake.
But, as the long-running cartoon series The Boondocks satirized, you gain a lot from pushing past the discomfort and joining in, anyway. In the first episode of the show, the grandfather tells his grandsons to prepare a cheese plate for a visiting rich neighbor. “There’s a new white man out here! He’s refined! For example, did you know the ‘new white man’ loves gourmet cheese? …. You give the meanest white man a piece of cheese and he turns into Mr. Rogers.”
But even if you do join in anyway, there’s still the chance you probably like the "wrong" kind of cheese. Until fairly recently in the grand scheme of cheese, American cheese was broadly assumed by middle- and upper-class consumers to be a mass-produced commodity whose modern trappings are both disquieting and passé. In The Life of Cheese, Heather Paxson speaks with Ignazio Vella, a second-generation American cheesemaker, about the gradual acceptance of American artisanal cheese in the last decade: It’s bound inextricably to the rising strength of the euro in the early 2000s, at which point consumer price sensitivity allowed domestic, artisanal cheese to earn some of the status imports had historically enjoyed.
Even at the upper end of the market, economic pressures and anxieties affect how taste is defined. The link between artisanship and status is so powerful that marketing departments have taken notice; now companies like Kraft and Sargento are dipping their toes into the rhetoric of artisanal cheesemaking.
When we talk about cheese, we place the varieties on a binary, not a spectrum, because the lines are so rarely blurred between what is called “artisan” and “processed.” But “processed” is a misnomer; all cheese products are processed in order to transform them from milk, and artisans often use automated equipment in production.
And there can be plenty of anti-poverty sentiment tucked into what appears to be an innocent distaste for processed food. The association of processed cheese with the American working class came to a head during the Reagan administration’s war on “welfare queens,” the conservative bogeywomen famed for gaming public assistance programs to buy luxuries. Despite Reagan’s hard-line approach, the discovery of 560 million pounds of cheese stored at the public’s expense during his presidency embarrassed his administration into doing just what they claimed they would never do: They just gave the government cheese away. Government cheese was part of a program that maintained the price of dairy products when federal dairy subsidies increased the supply of milk.
While processed, homogenized cheese product has been one of the keystone elements of food assistance programs, and thus a marker of poverty for so many Americans, the rise of trash-chic aesthetic blended with nostalgia has given it a place in haute cuisine in recent years. For example, Nathan Myhrvold’s cookbook, Modernist Cuisine, includes a recipe for “American cheese” that can turn artisan cheeses into a meltable, Velveeta-like product.
But not everyone’s consumption of processed food gets the luxury of being considered haute or ironic. In her book Secret Ingredients, Sherrie Inness describes how convenience foods like Kraft Mac and Cheese reduced the time that women spent in the kitchen, freeing them to organize politically and join the workforce. But she also shows that even when these foods were popularized in the 1950s, concerns about their healthiness and quality surfaced almost immediately.
America’s discussions and policies about purity (including food purity) and hygiene are often linked with unease about the growing power of white women and people of color. Today, some parents and observers, such as Vani Hari (better known as The Food Babe), fear that food dyes Yellow No. 5 & 6 may be linked to hyperactivity in children (culminating in Kraft changing the colorants in its macaroni and cheese in December 2015). The messaging remains consistent: Your children are sick because you are too busy working to feed them well.
As you climb the social ladder, knowing cheese—how to store it, what temperature to serve it at, how to cut it, and how to pair it with other food and drink—becomes a leisure art. Climb high enough, and the appreciation of good cheese (and wine) becomes like the perfume blending competitions of the Japanese nobility during the Heian Dynasty, meant to showcase one’s refinement through an act of pure indulgence.
Of course, we show our class and ethnic alignments with many more indicators than simply what cheese we eat, but the ways in which we discuss cheese, and how we describe people eating the right (or wrong) kinds, are informed by our present and by the future we aspire to. Next time you go home for mac ‘n’ cheese, encounter cubes of Colby at an art opening, or order a $40 cheese board, take a minute to think about the story the cheese might tell about you.