Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Food Review: Velveeta: Shells & Cheese, by Kraft

As an adult, I should recognize crass advertising when I see it. Bright colors that pop on the foods one eats are contra-indicators of nutrition and taste in the same way that bright colors on insects are contra-indicators of safety and cuddliness. Advertising is camouflage: dressing up like the opposite of what you are. Every grown-up knows this. Anyone who survives much past eighteen years has necessarily braved the ravages of modern advertising and must know, from experience, that the harder an ad man tries to convince you of A, the more certain you may be that not-A is the case.

Nonetheless, I recently found myself boiling the water for a box of Kraft Velveeta: Shells & Cheese. I did not buy this box. It was given to me. And fool that I am, I accepted it, and all it contained.

This particular Velveeta box included shells, a shiny astronaut-packet of cheese sauce, and a smaller white packet of  crumbled bacon. The bacon was something of a selling point on the box's cover:

Creamy Cheese Sauce
with Real Bacon Pieces & Shell Pasta

The Oscar Mayer logo winked at me beside this sub-subtitle. There was also an invitation to find "More Dinner Ideas At VELVEETA.COM." I did not take advantage of this offer.

Boxed mac'n'cheese is a class-oriented meal. There is a vast gulf between the pre-industrial version of this food (fresh macaroni, real cow cheese) and the contemporary Frankenstein which lines the shelves of discount grocers everywhere. Boxed mac'n'cheese is cheap to produce, lasts forever, and is easy to cook. A truly proletarian dish. Most mac'n'cheese I've encountered includes a packet of "cheese powder," which one mixes with milk to produce "cheese sauce."

When "cheese" stops being a noun and is transfigured into an adjective for nouns like "powder" or "sauce," a lie is being told. This is the same trick that's played when beverage producers use "apple" or "orange" or "juice" as an adjective to the word "drink." The connotations of "cheese" or "juice" are appended to a noun which describes only the physical appearance of its referent: "powder," "sauce," "drink." Substances which are non-nutritive gain the appearance of nutrition and taste via creative use of adjectives. These "foods" are the eating-analogue to virtual reality or reality television or televised war: they have only qualities, no substance. (Read Zizek's discussion of decaf coffee, here.)

And it seems to me that qualities without substance are only attractive if consumers don't believe in reality outside their own experience. (By "believe," I mean beliefs that one does, not what one thinks or says that she believes.) Something like Velveeta: Shells & Cheese only makes sense to solipsists who believe that if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it definitely is a duck. "It looks like cheese. They call it cheese. I guess it must be cheese."

Once the shells had boiled, I drained the water and mixed in the cheese sauce and dried bacon bits. A smell filled my kitchen half food-like, half-industrial. I managed to swallow about three bites before my stomach informed me in no uncertain terms that whatever I was eating, it was not food, and it was not welcome. After I fed a spoonfull to my partner to get a second opinion, he punched me in the arm. "Why did you feed that to me?" he said, spitting it into the compost.

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