When you hear the word "queso," what do you picture?
If you live anywhere outside of South Texas, you probably see cheese, possibly a Mexican cheese like queso fresco or cotija.
If you grew up with Tex-Mex in your life like I did, you hear queso and think of a warm, soothing bowl of melted yellow cheese with chunks of red and green peppers
Of course, the shorthand queso actually refers to chile con queso, a Tex-Mex staple that doesn't contain that much cheese if it's made properly. And by "made properly," I mean with a log of Velveeta and a can of Ro*Tel.
Kraft Foods, the makers of Velveeta, admitted to Advertising Age magazine on Tuesday that consumers may have difficulty finding Velveeta on shelves due to its popularity during football season. This came after Ad Age received reports of shortages at grocery stores in New York and reached out to the company. In spite of one employee explaining that the store wasn't expecting any more shipments until February, spokespeople for Kraft declined to point to any specific issues, leaving the explanation at "a combination of factors."
When I learned this, I immediately panicked, which is exactly what Kraft Foods is hoping we don't do. I can't help it though. Unlike football fans readying for the Superbowl in New Jersey by making cheese dip and wings and other heart attack-inducing seasonal snacks, I eat queso year-round. It's not a special-occasion food for me. I was born in south Texas. Queso is a staple of my diet. And it must be made with Velveeta.
Since news broke of the possible shortage, two big things have happened. First, the Twitterverse coined the term "Cheesepocalypse" (preceded by a hashtag, of course), and second, websites began to aggregate recipes for alternatives to queso or even (gasp) queso made without Velveeta. As far as I'm concerned, aside from the Spanish word for cheese, there is only one kind of queso.
Non-natives don't always understand this distinction. I recall the confused looks on my friends' faces when, in college in Missouri, I announced I was bringing queso to a party.
"What kind of queso?" someone asked.
"What do you mean, what kind of queso? Velveeta and Ro*Tel. Or maybe off-brand peppers if I can't find Ro*Tel here. I guess it doesn't have to be Ro*Tel. Or I could make white queso if you want, but I prefer the regular kind."
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Gustavo Arellano of "Ask A Mexican" fame recently outlined 15 signs you grew up eating Tex-Mex food for the food blog at OC Weekly. One of those signs is "you know the difference between queso and queso," the italicized version being the Spanish word for cheese, and the plain text being the cheese dip.
Having taken years of Spanish classes in the Texas public schools system (little of which stuck), I know the difference between queso and queso, and I can't remember not knowing it. In my mind, queso has always been "cheese" in Spanish, and queso has always been Velveeta and Ro*Tel.
If you look on either company's website, you'll see the two-ingredient recipe listed, often in a place of prominence. Both refer to it as "queso dip," but we all know the addition of "dip" is unnecessary.
I find it amusing that either company posts a recipe at all. It's two ingredients. You melt one of them and mix the other one into it. Done. But perhaps they make it clear that this union of cheese product and diced veggies is a recipe as a means of warning consumers: This is how you do it. Don't mess with perfection.
I've seen plenty of recipes that call for the addition of cream cheese or ground meat or freshly chopped peppers or -- God forbid -- real cheese. I'm not saying any of these things would somehow make the end product less tasty. They would, however, make it less queso.
The secret to great queso is in that ideal ratio of one pound of Velveeta to ten ounces of Ro*Tel, and here's why:
- It's ready in five minutes or less.
- You can cook it in a microwave, and you need to dirty only a single bowl and a single spoon to do so.
- It re-solidifies in the refrigerator, so it lasts longer. Or something.
- Velveeta is a miracle of modern science. When it melts (which it does perfectly) it doesn't produce a greasy slick of melted fat. You will never have greasy queso with Velveeta.
- Ro*Tel comes in original, mild, hot, chunky and Mexican. There is no need to worry about adjusting the spice or the size of your chopped tomatoes and peppers to your preference. It's already been done for you.
- Velveeta and Ro*Tel have shelf lives of, like, forever.
- Ro*Tel is already chopped.
- Velveeta loaves come in six varieties: Original, Jalapeño, Mexican, Queso Blanco, two percent milk and new Sharp Cheddar. Mix and match if you're feeling fancy.
- Along with roaches and sea monsters, loaves of Velveeta and cans of Ro*Tel will likely survive the apocalypse.
- When you melt Velveeta and Ro*Tel together, the bright colors look like a fiesta in a bowl.
- Only the singular combination of Velveeta and Ro*Tel can make you feel simultaneously disgusting and fulfilled after you eat an entire bowl by yourself.
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Velveeta alone is so magical, it has its own fan fiction. People make art featuring it and write poetry about it (Note: Not good poetry). Ro*Tel is less often praised in such lofty forms, probably because generic cans of tomatoes and chiles taste similar, but to really do queso justice, it must contain both Ro*Tel and Velveeta. And those two things only.
Kraft Foods seems pretty confident that the demand for Velveeta won't surpass the loaves being made available at grocery stores around the country. Comments from Kraft seem aimed at assuring consumers that they will have Velveeta for the Superbowl and the Olympics and those rainy days when you feel like eating a large portion of melted cheese product alone in your bed.
But I'm not taking any chances. I'm stocking up. Twenty pounds of Velveeta and 20 cans of Ro*Tel ought to be enough to last me through the winter.
Bring it, Cheesepocalypse.