The Culinary Cultural Divide: British vs. American ‘Cheese’

Note: this is ‘cheese product,’ not cheese. (AP Photo)

Like countless Brits, lots of Americans love Wallace and Gromit. The two claymation characters — the dyed-in-the-wool Northern Englishman Wallace and his super-intelligent dog Gromit — have won several Oscars over the years and been immortalized in countless toys and memorabilia.

They even helped save a business from going under; creator Nick Park noted that when Wallace referred to Wensleydale cheese in 1995 movie Wallace and Gromit in A Close Shave, the small firm saw a spike in interest and a jump in orders — and was bought back from bankruptcy.

Wallace’s love of cheese doesn’t really translate over to America as well, though. Yes, the great states of Vermont and Wisconsin produce cheese and their own Cheddars, but supporters of Wisconsin’s NFL team the Green Bay Packers are nicknamed “cheeseheads,” and it isn’t meant as a compliment.

Americans are nothing if optimistic though, and the supporters took on the name and proudly wear clownish cheese wedge hats, but overall that kind of sums up the difference between the U.K. and America when it comes to that coagulated, separated and pressed milk stuff.

A work colleague of mine once said that the strangest thing about Americans was that “they thought Monterey Jack was a cheese,” and though that’s a generalization, on the whole Americans tend to see cheese as a kind of garnish or condiment, something to be dipped in, sprinkled or added to something else — say chili fries, hot dogs, burgers or nachos.

Then there is what’s grandly called American Cheese, which is, in fact, not even a cheese. It’s legally banned from calling itself that (hence the “processed” moniker), and contains a mix of milk, whey, milk fat, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate and salt. In conversation it’s often given a single, generic name (rather like Hoover or Kleenex) to represent it, and in this case that’s huge manufacturer Kraft, best known (to Brits anyway) for their perfectly identical, square cut, plastic wrapped, electric orange/yellow slices many U.S. homes buy to keep in the fridge. It’s simple and democratic though, and “American” works for the dinner table in New York, Florida, Ohio, Chicago, Oregon and Los Angeles.

Worse still, here in the U.S. there’s Velveeta and cheese in a can, which is ready to spray just in case you can’t get those plastic sleeves off quick enough, though the unlikely-sounding string cheese has long been a favorite on both sides of the Atlantic.

Over in the U.K., there’s a complete cheeseboard of choices. Region after region across the country has its own particular blends, flavors and colors – and even sub-genres of them – that are fiercely debated and named to reflect where they came from: (Red) Leicester, Double Gloucester, Cheshire, Stilton, Cheddar and of course Wensleydale.

There’s even Caerphilly from Wales, cheese from Scottish islands including Mull, Bute and Arran, and many, many more. U.K. households will probably have eaten — or at least heard of — many of these (probably around Christmas time).

Welsh Rarebit (essentially cheese melted on toast with a dash of something — sauce, an egg — on top) did seem to make the crossover, but here in the U.S. it’s a) usually known as “cheese toast” and b) never comes with the cheese gooey and melty. As for a grilled cheese sandwich though, that’s more common in the U.S. than in the U.K. (or at least it seems that way to me).

Today gourmet cheeses are starting to find their way into fridges, restaurant menus and stores, but in a country this large you might end in the diner or at the dinner table being offered a choice between cheddar, Swiss, Jack or American. For Brits who were raised with a mix of white/yellow chunks in the fridge and a box of crackers in the cupboard, it might be time to call in the UN.

Who wins the cheese war?

  • Yani

    As in all countries, some people have taste, and others don’t. Many of us here in the US eat real cheeses, and not the crap you mentioned. Perhaps it’s the company you choose to keep who lacks taste.

  • expatmum

    I remember being horrified at my first baseball game when I saw what looked like liquid, orange plastic being poured all over a plate of nachos. Gross.

    Mind you, my English grandmother seemed to think Dairy Lea cheese triangles were a perfect addition to our diet back in the day! Yuck!

  • Caitlin

    Yes, I will emphatically add that this American lists cheese as her favorite food, and when she says it, she refers to stilton, red leicester, jarlsberg, brie, etc. etc. It is readily available, readily eaten up, and whole-heartedly loved my many.

  • LO_TS

    I’ve never had a problem getting “real” cheese since moving to the USA. Which is lucky because I detest American slice cheese – just eww and rubber!

  • http://twitter.com/Reality_Jane Melody Jane

    This article is fantastic! It makes me love being American as well as love being a lover of Great Britain. I don’t mind admitting that my adoration comes from an appreciation of our two cultures and the amusement that often ensues as our cultures attempt to sort out how they can have similarities which make us almost forget that they are, indeed, completely different.

    The interesting thing is that many Americans (not all, obviously) look to England, most specifically, as one would look to a much elder sibling; sometimes with great respect, aggrandizement and overt attempts to impress with oddly stylized mimicry; and other times dismissive, disrespectful and overconfident that your past experiences have no bearing on our present day circumstances.

    I will tell you that it wasn’t until I was an adult that I tasted some of the various cheeses you mentioned in your article. Some I enjoyed very much, while others I did not have the palette for, apparently. However, I will not pretend that when I go to a movie one of my favorite indulgences, as much of a chav as it may make me, is to get my nachos covered in the heated orange glop which has been sitting in the back for no less than a day and undoubtedly gave Russell T. Davies himself the idea for Doctor Who’s “Living Plastic”. It is glorious to me; however, I would never pretend it is worthy of a grand review or that I am anyone of consequence to be touting it at all.

    Continue, please, to bemuse and be puzzled by your younger counterparts across the pond. We will, no doubt, continue to look up to you; attempt to do as you do; say that we don’t; shout at you for noticing our flaws; and peer back over our shoulders to see if you notice when we attempt to improve. I see that you have. Cheers. (o:

  • Monkey_pants

    Gah – articles like this are so ANNOYING. You are generalizing! I don’t know a single American that would touch so-called American “cheese” with a ten-foot pole. There is so much amazing cheese being produced in Northern California and Vermont – you guys need to get out of New Jersey more.

    • dw

      Agreed — except that someone must be touching it with a ten-foot pole, or it wouldn’t be so ubiquitous in supermarkets.

  • CHRIS
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1198917643 Richard Toczynski

    As a chef, who is married to a Brit, I have to say that not only do most Americans not know cheese, they are completely ignorant to how great REAL cheese is. I was raised in a Polish household where bread, cheese and butter were staples. I am proud to be a cheese snob and fully appreciate the marriage of cheese and bug. “Cheese” in a can, indeed.

    • xarophti

      The quote you’re for which are reaching, “Chef”, concerns the marriage of COW and bug to make cheese. And I’m American.

    • Jefe’ von Q

      That was a rather interesting statement you made. I happily read it while finishing my Limburger on rye, with pickled onions and stone ground mustard.

      The last producer of Limburger is about a 50 minute drive south of me as I type.
      Dr Google knows!

  • John

    Mate, I might have agreed with you in the past but this last month driving around the southern US states and San Francisco I have rewritten my past biased views. Just the other day in two separate supermarkets in Santa Fe I was totally impressed by the range and quality of cheese on offer…local stuff too, not all fancy euro stuff. A lot of Irish cheddar….does that say something. Did see some Wensleydale though. Hmmmm…guess you’d say what does an Australian know about cheeses…plenty! Lets not get too precious now….:)

    • Jojo

      That’s a Gouda point, John!

  • happyhippygirl

    Sadly, I have been known to eat an entire can of Easy Squeeze Cheese. It’s salty, gooey, cheesy and just plain delicious on crackers or celery. Also, it is a matter of money and convenience. After working 12 hours a day and still having no money, I have no more room to worry about silly things like cheese. When I hear “easy as sliced cheese” I say OK!

  • Moribund Cadaver

    You do realize that most Americans are perfectly aware that Kraft slices are not “the good stuff”. Real cheese, as it is being defined here, is quite rightly popular all across the United States and easy to be found and had.

    The processed imitation foodstuff trend is now global, not just an American thing. However, if we want to blame Americans for their part in it, it is probably true that the 1950s and the “baby boom” were responsible for the fast spread of cheap, pre-packaged fake foods as millions of postwar households had to cheaply feed scores of new children and the technology to manufacture low quality but inexpensive processed foods was coming into its own.

    Sadly, in the US, “foodstuff” like this is generally seen as what poor people eat or families struggling with too many children – or poor college students. The recent trends in a renewal of an appreciation of quality foods is partly due to a generation that grew up being fed poor food products realizing that there’s a lot more too it than that. The pendulum always swings both ways.

    • dw

      most Americans are perfectly aware that Kraft slices are not “the good stuff”

      I’m not sure this is true. If it were, then why is cheese seen in some US circles as a foodstuff worthy of derision or denigration? I’ve never seen this phenomenon in Britain or any European country.

      • Jefe’ von Q

        I think that leads back to the folks with no taste. That’s generally a great sign of a lack of interest (okay I get it) or just general dimness. They are also “undecided” voters and the people who cannot make a buying decision without consulting (as a primary or only recourse) Consumers Reports.

        Anyone else care to share this can-o-worms?

  • Craig

    Wensleydale? Yes, Sir. Oh, I’m sorry sir, I thought you were referring to me, Mr. Wensleydale.

    • dw

      The cat ate it, sir.

  • Erik

    Sure, you can get any cheese you like in the US, but I cannot argue with the author’s point. As much as I detest it, there is always plenty of American Cheese Food Product Soylent Stuff on the shelves of the supermarket. Somebody must be buying it.

    • Jojo

      Yes. We used to use Velveeta for fish bait! The trout seemed to like it!

  • Christy

    Why in the world are there still so many in this world that heavily rely upon the sad practice of “snobbery”? It is highly disturbing and extremely disgusting to see such a huge disconnect between what is happening in the world right now to so many vs the issues most of the bloggers on this site consider important. Yes, we know that you Brits don’t consider kraft mac and cheese a delicacy. Guess what? Neither do we. It was never intended to be and is not served or marketed as such. BUT even if it were, it still would not make the consumer less of a person or you more of one. And it certainly would not validate or excuse the disrespectful, snide and generally classless tone that I have observed in many of the articles written by a few specific “authors” here. Having class is about treating everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of where they come from, how they pronounce something and yes, my dear, even what cheese they choose to consume. Let me assure you that your “humor” has not gone over my head as a result of my regional location. I can and do appreciate ALL styles of comedy…including driest of wit. Even at 9 yrs old I spent every Sunday evening glued to the tv watching “Are You Being Served” and “Keeping Up Appearances”. Obviously, there are many more recent British comedy shows I also enjoy. Many people don’t enjoy the same shows or comedy styles, but I can guarantee you it is not because they “don’t understand” it. British style humor is not “higher-level” comedy. It is simply a matter of preference. The exact same can be said about ALL differences. It’s time to realize that fact.

    • Josie

      True, Monterey Jack IS a cheese, created by the same basic process as most other cheeses, and Velveeta and American slices have a place in my kitchen, but let’s not kid ourselves. This article is about cultural differences, and as a culture, we don’t have the history or variety that can be found in Great Britain. Except for the comment about Monterey Jack, I found the article to be spot on and not so much snobbery as an unapologetic reporting of the facts.
      Right now, I have Kraft American slices, Velveeta Original, store-brand Pepper Jack slices, and Stilton with Cranberries in my fridge. String cheese sometimes finds it way in there too, and believe it or not, it’s often a decent mozzarella. Cheese in a can? Not for me, but I won’t judge. If you like it, enjoy!

      • dw

        Actually the variety of cheese made in the US probably equals that of Britain. It’s just that you have to go to farmer’s markets or gourmet stores to find the good stuff.

      • Christy

        Yes, I realize that this particular article may be more about the cultural differences. It seems, however, that no matter the subject matter, there is an overall tone of both this and many of the other articles.

  • http://twitter.com/ARoomWithBooks Jasmine Rose

    I don’t eat Kraft singles unless I’m feeling nostalgic (I don’t actually know if my mom made grilled cheese with them, but they remind me of my childhood anyway.)
    I love cheese. In fact, my husband and I have celebrated the past three anniversaries celerating with a tray full of various cheese and crackers. In general, though, we can’t afford to eat like that so we just buy cheddar. If that makes me uncultured so be it.
    Also, I’m well aware nacho cheese is not a cheese at all, but I love it and I’m rather okay with eating it whenever I get a craving.

    • Josie

      OT, I know, but I got a chuckle out of seeing the word ‘uncultured’ in an article about cheese and things pretending to be cheese.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daisy-Brambletoes/846520385 Daisy Brambletoes

    Sorry, lads, but I’m one of those yanks who likes my cheese in chunks or strips, and never the fake stuff that you spray out of cans, the Velveeta, or (gag) that unappetizing stuff called American cheese. I don’t mind s;iced cheeses on a sandwich, cheese melted into a pizza, baked with maccaroni into the popular cassarole known as “mac & cheese”, and yes, sometimes as garnishes for tacos. But many Americans actually do like their cheese – with crackers or anything else that strikes our fancy. Some of us like it by itself as a high-protien snack, and you can find a lot of varieties here.

  • dw

    Perhaps because “American Cheese” is so godawful, cheese is seen as un-American in some parts of the Union. Hence the derogatory epithet “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” for the French.

    I love the many wonderful artisan American cheeses available from places like Whole Foods. Tragically, only a small minority of Americans seem to have easy access to this culinary goodness.

    • Jefe’ von Q

      Come to Madison, WI. LOTS of good stuff.

  • Texan

    As an American, I must say that the only thing the processed cheese slices are good for is making grilled cheese. Also Wensleydale cheese with cranberries is one of my favorites.

    • Jefe’ von Q

      It’s also good for a quick snack or on a baloney sandwich.

  • Christy

    In regards to the discussion theme of cheese, a few observations. It is well known that Britain’s close proximity to France and their goods has a greater impact than that of Britain’s actual cuisine. So, for British to claim better/higher quality gourmet food than America would be similar to America laying claim to having superior Mexican food . Come on now…

    • Jefe’ von Q

      HAH! Mexican food seems to be the same no matter where you are. Not that I’ve ever eaten Mexican in Europe.

  • Alice

    Velveeta and processed cheese foods were created to use the nutritious but easily spoiled whey, and to make a cheese that lasted longer and was cheaper. It might not be “quality” cheese but it helped a growing nation with a lot of people who couldn’t afford good cheese. It helped children grow up healthy.

    Yes, real cheese is nicer and tastier, but it’s also more expensive. I believe we should make a movement towards less processing and more natural foods, yes. It would be healthier for everyone. But even today, there are many, many Americans who can’t afford real cheese. They do the best they can for their children, and it’s nothing to be mocked over. My opinion. :)

    • Jefe’ von Q

      Good reply! (I’m not being sarcastic) Except the “mocked over” part.
      The reality is that cheese lovers get to be a bit snobbish about it. Sort of like a driving enthusiast poo-pooing a Toyota Camry or a Chevrolet Impala. No explanation should be necessary.

  • http://www.facebook.com/linda.altland Altland Linda

    I’m sorry, but where ever did you have Welsh Rarebit that was NOT melted and gooey? Even Stouffer’s (which is frozen) state that “Welsh Rarebit is a savory sauce of melted cheese…..”

  • daftasabat

    my faves are Dragon Welsh cheese, Davistow Cheddar, Cheddar with Balsamic vinegar and also Cheddar with Pickled onions and chives yummy in my tummy :)

  • dalek-emperor

    I’m from the States and I loathe Kraft cheese.

  • larin

    I enjoyed a nice plate of sliced cheese and crackers just last night. It was Tillamook Cheddar that I had to slice myself. Cup of tea, Chuck?

  • just dropping by

    Just so you know, anyone from Wisconsin is a cheesehead. They don’t have to be a Packer fan. I’ve many friends who are cheeseheads. And to make it all fair, they refer to me as a FIB, but it’s because I am and we’re all still friends.

  • Jonny

    Holy christ, have you not been to the grocery store and found the “Cheese Aisle” yet. Get that cartoon sheep to find it for you. They have Cheddar and everything!!

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