A Velveeta Comeback?

It must be a sign of the times (one of many) that I flipped through my morning Wall Street Journal yesterday to find an item about new advertising efforts by the Velveeta folks “designed to appeal to budget-conscious consumers.” They’re taking advantage of this weekend’s Super Bowl snack-o-rama for some targeted (Internet-savvy women aged 25 to 50 — hey, that’s me!) grassroots outreach. They’ve sent “party packs” to 2,500 Velveeta lovers, so the article notes, who hopefully will showcase the product among their game day nibbles.

Just the night before we’d seen an add on TV that showed a shopper contemplating a block of cheddar cheese in one hand, a box of Velveeta in the other, and opting for the Velveeta. My husband and I just looked at each other funny and snickered. It was a premise I couldn’t buy; the two products just seem more dissimilar than similar.

Now, I’m not so much a food snob that I don’t think there’s a place for Velveeta in this world. While 99 times out of 100 I’ll prefer to have real shredded cheese melted onto my nachos rather than a disconcertingly smooth, fluid blanket of melted “pasteurized prepared cheese product” poured over the chips–there is an odd sort of retro-nostalgia value in Velveeta. Though to be honest, it’s not a product I grew up on, so it’s a second-hand nostalgia at best.

A few years ago we spent New Year’s Eve at the home of  savvy, classy food friends, with another couple (also both food professionals). We had a very elegant dinner that night, wonderful wines, fine china, the whole nine yards. But the next day, there we were lazing around for hours on end and snacking our way through the day–which included using chips to happily lap up a dip that consisted of Velveeta and salsa microwaved together.

And a couple of decades ago, on a visit that my now-husband and I had with my dad and his wife, she presented a plate of fudge. I’m not really a fan of fudge, no matter how great the recipe. This one was not bad at all. After a few bites, she pointed out that there was a “secret ingredient” and asked if I could figure it out. Marshmallow cream? cream cheese? vanilla ice cream? I had no idea. Yes, as you’ve surely guessed, that secret ingredient was Velveeta. With its creamy-smooth texture and moderate flavor (easily masked by the chocolate, sugar and nuts), it makes a surprisingly decent fudge base.

I just googled “Velveeta fudge” expecting to find references just to the Kraft home page and those recipe sites that have dubious culinary credentials. Instead, I find tons of hits, including this recipe from the queen of Southern cuisine herself, Paula Deen.  Apparently Deen had also made the recipe on an episode of Ellen Degeneres; comments on the show’s web site include one from a user named “someone with a taste bud and some dignity” who completely railed on the idea that Velveeta has any real food value (though acknowledged the aforementioned  salsa [Rotel, to be exact] combo as acceptable!). I also came across this counterpoint to Deen’s Degeneres appearance, on Serious Eats. I had no idea that delving into Velveeta fudge this morning was going to unearth so much interesting reading, so many heated debates about the virtues of the dish.

Moral high ground in the world of food is tricky to navigate. Does supporting farmers markets and choosing to consume only sustainable seafoods (two of my pet convictions) mean you can’t also dig into mainstream (if slightly guilty) pleasures now and then? I rarely accept any position that suggests I can choose only “black” or “white” but nothing in between. Just like fat intake and alcohol consumption, there’s a lot to be said for balance and moderation in this area of food virtuousness. I think many of us  have lines we personally don’t want to cross–such as stepping into a McDonald’s or eating processed snack foods. But for the most part I prefer to spend time, and meals, with people who are pretty open-minded about the world of food.

After all, in another WSJ article recently, Raymond Sokolov wrote of going to an Olive Garden restaurant in Manhattan this winter and reflected thoughtfully (if not too complimentarily) on the menu. He also waxed a bit on the food-world’s obsession with dismissing all things mainstream in favor of what has been deemed correct and authentic by the foodie guard. I found it a breath of fresh air that a writer of Sokolov’s experience and stature gave  fair play to both sides of the foodie-elite fence, discussing the elegant Spiaggia and everyday Olive Garden in the same breath.

Come to think of it, I will be heading to a friend’s house to watch the game on Sunday. I wonder if I even dare to inject a bit of Velveeta into our menu….

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