Defining Nacho Cheese

MRBlog By Timothy Michael Law

One of my favorite blogs is the Culture on the Edge group out of the University of Alabama, and on Super Bowl Sunday Steven Ramey has my stomach growling many hours too early before the kickoff tonight. He’s talking about nacho cheese at one of the smartest blogs on the planet. Huh? Check it out. Ramey refers to the recent Marketplace (economics podcast) interview with Businessweek reporter Vanessa Wong. I had come across her article on nacho cheese a couple days ago in Bloomberg Business, in which she found herself disenchanted:

Wait. So, nacho cheese is just whatever we believe it is?  Are you kidding me? Besides bringing up deeper, noncheese-related existential issues, this left me wondering—do people expect nacho cheese to have any particular flavor? Or color? Or texture? Or is it just any cheese that happens to be on nacho chips?

[youtube id="G_PDRXDTgck" width="600" height="350"]

Ramey breaks down Wong’s interview with host Kai Ryssdal but then ties it into a discussion of symbols and (their lack of) inherent meaning.

Perhaps, without a definition, nacho cheese does not exist. Nacho cheese is whatever the consumer believes it to be. Based on one origins narrative, nacho cheese is cheddar, because its namesake created it originally with cheddar. … Nacho cheese illustrates the ways names, really all symbols, have no inherent meaning. People, operating within society place meanings on the labels. Official definitions, when they exist, establish that meaning, though often people will contest the official definition, building their assertions on an alternative origins narrative or a standard that is broader or narrower than the official definition.

There’s more to read in Ramey’s post, which you should do before you tear open your Tostitos tonight.


UPDATE at 6:01p on the coast of the North Sea:

Craig Martin jumps in on the action and reminds us of the great stuff they do at Culture on the Edge:

This is a perfect example of why the study of religion, when it is at its best, sheds light on workings of all forms of culture and society. There’s nothing unique about our subject matter; religion is not a rarefied realm distinct from profane matters. On the contrary, the modes of analysis we apply to “religion” help us understand the social world in general, whether we’re talking about the Buddha, the maintenance of nation states, or food services.

I would also like to thank Craig for inadvertently giving a plug for the forum taking place this month, which you’ll see up there on the right side of this page.