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?

James Bartlett

James Bartlett

James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.

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