Food and Culture at Raven
The Shapes of Childhood
by Joe Mills
Growing up, I loved cheese, and "cheese" meant Velveeta. It came in a reassuring block, it had heft, and it had its own cool box. Most importantly, it was versatile. You could melt it, tear it, shape it, shmush it. I particularly liked using the cheese slicer. A metal gadget with a wire and little roller. When you pulled it along one end of the big yellow rectangle, you ended up with little yellow squares. Or, you could make rectangles, triangles, rhombuses, and trapezoids. Long before Tetris, Velveeta had me playing with geometric shapes.
In my family, we mainly used Velveeta to make cheese toasties (which I later learned were called "grilled cheese sandwiches" in restaurants), but for Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mother would make a special dish, "green beans with cheese." This involved opening a can of Del Monte green beans, putting them in a pan with several chunks of Velveeta, and turning on the burner. The cheese melted, the beans warmed, and soon the dish could be scooped onto plates. At the start of the meal, the beans swam in a yellow sauce; by the end, everything had congealed.
At these holiday meals, I also loved the cranberry sauce, or what my family called cranberry sauce. It wasn't a sauce at all, but a type of jelly, and preparing it was one of my first kitchen duties. This consisted of cutting open the can, turning it over, and puncturing the bottom so the red cylinder of cranberry slid out onto a plate. Then I would take a knife and slice the cylinder into inch thick circles and arrange them like a deck of spread out cards. I thought it looked elegant. It was also fun. When you put a slice on your plate, you could divide the circle into various interesting shapes, half moons and triangles with one curved side.
We only would have these two dishes, green beans with cheese and cranberry sauce, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we always had these two dishes at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
When I began living on my own, for the first few holiday seasons I continued making them. Then, as I started having adult meals with others, I discovered there were other types of cranberry dishes, including ones made from scratch with whole berries, ones with ginger, lemon, or orange, ones that were called "relishes," and it also became clear that many people did not consider my cranberry sauce "real" or even desirable. As for Velveeta, at some point I had the embarrassing realization that for many people it was a punch-line. One person explained to my European wife when she arrived in the States, "Whenever someone says Velveeta, you're supposed to laugh." Some people didn't even think of it as cheese. I stopped buying it, and I became, in my mind, not only grown-up, but more cultured and discriminating.
Over the next two decades, I ate holiday meals that often featured dishes from magazine recipes or expensive cookbooks. They were colorful, exotic, visually beautiful. They never looked industrial or geometrical, yet, as much as I praised them upon sitting at the table, I rarely ate them. I would try a bite or two, admire the effort that went into making them, and turn my attention to the potatoes and stuffing.
Then, a few Novembers ago, as my wife and I once again loaded our grocery cart until it looked like the Grinch's sled as he left Whoville, I impulsively tossed a white and red can onto the mound.
Right before we sat down to eat, I found a quiet spot in the kitchen, opened the can, sliced the quivering jelly into circles, carefully spread them in a fan, and put the plate on the table. I expected to be disappointed because as everyone knows "you can't go home again," but I wasn't. The red rounds tasted exactly as I remembered, sweet and tart with an odd stable but soft consistency.
Now each Thanksgiving and Christmas, I make sure that the meal includes this dish. I know it's not "real" cranberry sauce but, for me, it is the taste of childhood, of getting a day off school because of snow, of a small house in a working class neighborhood, of a meal that was special because we only had it twice a year. It is a playful oddly architectural food.
Now, having circled back to the cranberry sauce of my youth, I wonder if one of these days I'll find myself buying that familiar rectangle box. After all, it's been decades since I've had a real cheese toastie, one made with genuine Velveeta and then cut on the diagonal so the square becomes two big triangles.