How did Tex-Mex enchiladas, the precursors of which are believed to date to Mayan times, come to include that most reviled of modern processed foods, Velveeta?
Tex-Mex food expert Robb Walsh reports a likely culprit: the surplus agricultural commodity known as government cheese.
Queso fresco, the mild Mexican cheese traditionally used for enchiladas, was a scarce commodity in Texas supermarkets until the late 20th century. In plentiful supply, however, was the pasteurized processed American cheese that had been a staple of government-sponsored surplus food distribution programs for decades.
When the federal government launched its food relief program in the midst of the Great Depression, long shelf life was deemed essential for the products that it handed out. So when the government purchased surplus agricultural commodities, it processed the more perishable items to ensure that they would survive transport and distribution.
In 1933, the program’s first year, it turned 11 million pounds of natural cheese into the foil-wrapped bricks that are still familiar today: The government used a method that closely resembled one that Kraft had recently developed for Velveeta.
Walsh’s friend Richard Flores recalled that his Houston-based Latino family relied heavily on this processed cheese. His mother, aunts, grandmother, cousins, and neighbors all used it to make enchiladas and many other dishes.
“You used what you had,” he said. “What we had was American processed cheese.”
Government agencies even published cookbooks and booklets containing recipes that used surplus cheese, as did food banks and other charitable groups. One popular cookbook, “Cooking on Extended Benefits: The Unemployment Cookbook,” was published by a Pennsylvania food bank that served laid-off steelworkers in the early 1980s. Its first printing of 6,000 copies sold out in a month.
Government cheese’s keeping qualities, mild flavor, and resistance to curdling when melted also made it appealing to school lunch programs, food banks, and home cooks. Tex-Mex restaurants also took note of Americans’ growing fondness for the cheese and began to use it.
The result? Today, Tex-Mex enchiladas with processed cheese are the iconic version.
When we developed our Tex-Mex Enchiladas recipe for Cook’s Country, instead of going with the processed cheese typical of the dish, we opted for a mixture of cheddar for flavor and Monterey Jack for smooth meltability.
Chow Town readers can get the recipe free until Tuesday, Feb. 24, at CooksCountry.com.