Welcome to Cheese Week, The Takeout’s weeklong praise of cheeses.
The degree to which the brands Philadelphia, Hormel, and Kraft influenced (nay, bolstered—even defined) my childhood cannot be overstated. Sure, Totino’s Pizza Rolls and Bagel Bites might market themselves as the fun snack teens can turn to in their hour of need. But in our household, my sister and I relied on a snack that was bigger, cheesier, and more indulgent, with a quick cooking time for immediate, melty gratification.
Across much of the past three decades, we’ve sniffed out every excuse to make three-ingredient chili cheese dip, the humble, crowd-pleasing appetizer (or meal!) we’ve stubbornly schlepped into our adult lives, even as our contemporaries have grown more ambitious and creative with their cooking.
Into a baking dish our excited little hands would layer one spatula-spread brick of softened cream cheese, one evenly distributed can of turkey chili (no beans—nothing was scarier or grosser in our picky adolescence than the appearance of a stray bean), and a heap of shredded cheddar. Microwave for three minutes, or place in an oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until bubbling, if you think you’re some kind of fancy bastard. Waiting for this ambrosia to emerge was how I learned that it was neither socially acceptable nor medically advisable to press your forehead directly against the microwave door in eager anticipation.
(Typically, we format our Takeout recipes in list form. But again, it’s a one-sentence recipe! Once more for the cheap seats: Cream cheese + turkey chili + shredded cheddar + three minutes in microwave!)
Sleepovers. Birthday parties. The Real World marathons. Fourth of July fireworks. Family gatherings. Babysitter night. Babysitting night. Nothing-in-the-fridge dinners. First-night-in-a-new-apartment meals. Three-ingredient chili cheese dip is the cherry atop the sundae of living as you wish to, and neither garnish nor enhancements have ever been sought to improve upon its self-actualized and self-evident charm.
It’s probably not the item best suited for work functions or a potluck full of casual acquaintances. Chili cheese dip can look a little disgusting. But dips are never about aesthetic appeal. (In fact, looks are probably fourth down the list, behind deliciousness, cream-to-brain pleasure centers, and ease) In fact, this dip doesn’t resemble anything but a 13-by-9 sheet of melted cheddar until that first extra-sturdy chip is deployed to penetrate its top layer. (In effect, it’s also a three-layer dip.) When two-thirds of a recipe’s three ingredients are cheese, an inflection point is reached. With chili cheese dip on the table, there can be no more pretending that what we are about to indulge in is balanced, or nuanced, or clever, or remotely not-bad for us. It’s gooey and unglamorous and lazy. It’s very, very brown. Chip shrapnel everywhere. An absolute mess. And hovering just above the Pyrex, there’s a visible and joyful surrender on the faces of the initiated. We’re among friends here, and the reward for being among friends is not having to stand on airs. The ugly pile we present is something special, dammit, and it’s your loss if you don’t dig in.
And you really will have to do some digging, because pulling up a heaping chipful requires no small amount of brute force.