Graphic: Karl Gustafson
Acquired TastesIn Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.  

I grew up in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, which I declare is the unofficial cheese-spread capital of the world. Why? Kenosha County is home to the Mars Cheese Castle and Bobby Nelson, both tourist attractions and renowned cheese spread purveyors. It was the birthplace of the Merkt’s cheese company, which was based in Bristol, Wisconsin until the early 2000s. Plus, there’s no record of any other county staking a claim to this prestigious title.

Cheese spread was part of Kenosha culture when I lived there, and thus we did things that may seem odd to non-Wisconsinites. For a fifth-grade school project, I organized a trip to a cheese-spread factory, because what group of 10-year-olds wouldn’t be fascinated by dairy processing? Crocks of cheese spread were a frequent item sold during southeast Wisconsin school fundraisers. Cheese spread is ubiquitous in American grocery stores, but I remember seeing just so much of it growing up.

This background instilled in me some strong opinions about how best to use cheese spread. But first, let’s tackle the definition of cheese spread itself. Cheez Whiz, Laughing Cow, and pimento cheese are all forms of spreadable cheeses, but I would not consider them cheese spread. Spread is really shorthand for cold-pack cheese: a simpler, blended, smooth combination of blocks of cheese (usually cheddar or Swiss) and a creamier element, like milk or butter. It’s common to find flavors like horseradish, herbs, spices, or nuts blended in.

Cheese spread thusly defined, let’s talk about how best to use it. I maintain cheese spread in its unadulterated form is best consumed at least 15 minutes after taking it out of the refrigerator. This is common sense. But I’ve seen people that couldn’t wait, sacrificing crackers as they shatter against the cold paste. Allowing the cheese to warm up significantly improves its spreadability.

Advertisement

Second, and most importantly: You’re missing out if you just put cheese spread on crackers. This would be like just using butter as a pancake topping. Granted it’s not as versatile as butter, but when used in the right scenarios, cheese spread can be vastly superior to other cheeses.

You just have to know its limits. A word to the wise: Cheese spread doesn’t always adhere well to foods, so it isn’t a great nacho topping. The joy of nachos comes from the layer of cheese that cements itself to the hot chip; cheese spread slides off too easily.

Advertisement

I’ve listed below some of my favorite applications of cheese spread, from the mundane to the eccentric.

Grilled meats

It’s not rare sight in Chicago to see a cheese spread like Merkt’s slathered on cheeseburgers or hot dogs, and for good reason: decadence. Cheese spread in the channel of a sliced hot dog makes for a killer francheezie. Better yet, a spin on the Seattle-style hot dog should use Swiss cheese spread in place of cream cheese, if you ask me.

Advertisement

Chili

This is a case where the spread just dissipates into the chili, which is something you can’t get with shredded cheese. Use a spoonful of a cheese spread flavor of your choice. You get the smoothness and heat-neutralization from the cream, and the same notes of cheese without the stringy bits.

Advertisement

Tomato soup

Using the same principle as chili, substitute out some of the butter or cream at the end for a dollop of cheddar-cheese spread. There’s little trace of the spread once incorporated, but it departs a mellow tang and neutralizes some of the acidity.

Advertisement

Baked potatoes

Slather cheese spread between the skin and the meat of the potato. Let it sit while you eat the fluffy interior. By the time you get to the skin, you have this melted spread/potato hybrid that is a spin on a potato skin, sans bacon. Now if you just want to make traditional “casual restaurant appetizer” potato skins, skip the spread and use shredded cheese.

Advertisement

Raw fruits and vegetables

Let’s get a little out there! Substitute cheese spread for peanut butter. Spread it on a green apple slice, or make a nouveau ant-on-a-log with dried cranberries and sharp cheddar.

Advertisement

And last but not least:

Fudge

Yes, fudge. Uncooked cheese, butter, sugar, and cocoa powder, kept cold. I know of people that are into the mix of chocolate and cheese. Wacky! How does it taste? The best way I can explain it is: It tastes like fudge and cheese. Eating this made me think of The Old Man’s wine on Christmas morning in A Christmas Story, in that it’s not bad, but it’s not good either. I include it here because it’s an example of the ingredient’s versatility, and because there’s no wrong way to eat a cheese spread.

Advertisement