The image above is readily recognizable as street graffiti. But expression can take many forms. “What is art?” you might ask. Let’s take that “what is . . . ” question in another direction. For example, “what is food?” Or, “can food be art?” Or, “when does food take a form that lends itself to interpretation?” Are these cheesy hypothetical questions? Perhaps not. For example, what is the difference between making delicious cheese like Parmesan vs processing cheese food? Let’s explore.
Turning milk into cheese requires six important steps. Signature techniques have created world-famous products that have literally become art forms, yet the basic steps remain the same. Then, in 1916, James L. Kraft patented his curious idea. Suddenly, there was a new twist to cheesemaking—American cheese appeared on the scene. Is it a new art form or is it vandalism of an age-old beautiful product? The newly created food soon came to be known as a “modern cheese product”—cheese but not cheese.
American cheese is a mild, creamy, salty concoction that is highly processed and artificially colored to achieve a shiny orange-yellow hue. To preserve its luster there needed to be a final touch—individually wrapped in plastic. Although this last step may improve shelf-life, we suppose that its true purpose is to keep the goo from melting together forming some sort of cheesy brick—no, that’s a different product: Kraft Velveeta.
As kids we ate the lower-cost substitute on our burgers, in mac-n-cheese and even as a handy snack sometimes. As adults, however, many of us kicked the pseudo-cheese habit since we have complete control of our eating choices. But, our opinion of that cheesy product took a turn yesterday, thanks to an experience with RJ, our 5-year-old granddaughter.
Driving RJ home after camp, she enthusiastically called out from the back seat, “Look at the American cheese!” Our response was, “What?” She repeated her request a little louder. This prompted a second response, “What in the world are you talking about?” She said, “Look, right there (pointing somewhere to the left)—American cheese.” Slowing the car, we both peered down the street, more confused than ever.
Cheryl said, “Oh, I thought you said, “American cheese.” RJ said, “I did say American cheese,” this time pointing slightly behind us since we had rolled a few feet farther. I turned the car around so we could see exactly what she was pointing toward. As we slowly approached the speed limit sign on the right, she said, “There it is!” I stopped the car and we honed our glances more intently. Sure enough, there on the black and white sign were pieces of American cheese randomly stuck over the 25 mph warning, as if tossed for point value like darts.
We immediately recognized the famed cheese product because of the unmistakable sun-faded color, as well as the iconic size of the squares. Evidently their sticky texture and low melting point made them ideal for quick and long-lasting adherence on a warm street sign.
It appeared that “suburban vandals” had attacked the entire area just nights before. Upon further inspection we found cheese squares on the stop sign, on top of the playground posts and other equipment in the park. They must have used an entire package of cheese-food on their rampage as they ran from sign to sign. But was it a violent outburst or an artistic expression?
When we were kids, we threw expensive eggs as a sticky statement of displeasure. We never imagined that we could have hurled processed cheesy orange squares instead. But, while the eggs were readily available and easy to snatch out of their carton, those squares known as “Singles,” had to be painstakingly unwrapped before they could be slapped into place or Frisbee-tossed at their targets. If the message of the “suburban vandals” was one of displeasure, the meticulous unveiling of each slice of cheese-food would certainly have quelled their rage. In addition, by opting for the Kraft Singles as their “paint,” the extra time involved could have slowed their escape—caught
red-handed orange handed!
Whether the culprits use spray paint on walls or Kraft Singles on signs, the process is pretty much the same. Art or vandalism remains squarely in the eye of the beholder.
So now, for the final question: Did Mr. Kraft commit an act of artistic expression by reformulating real cheese or did he knowingly vandalize a public institution? We cast our cheesy votes for the latter.
Following is a gallery of pictures we captured of roadside art in Florence Italy. The creativity is wonderful and the implementation must have been a real challenge. Hopefully you can still see what the original sign was signaling, yet discover an unexpected drive-by chuckle as well.