What’s in Your Nacho Cheese?

Nachos with cheese and peppersBeing Super Bowl Sunday, it is time to think about that staple of Super Bowl parties, nacho cheese. Despite its ubiquity as a term in our society, no official definition exists, according to a recent interview on Marketplace (the economics radio program) with the host Kai Ryssdal and his guest Venessa Wong. You can listen to the interview below.

The Food and Drug Administration has official standards for labeling cheeses such as Cheddar, Parmesan, or Blue Cheese, but nothing regulating nacho cheese. In the interview, Wong and Ryssdal present several ways of dealing with the absence of a standard definition. 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.

Regular readers of Culture on the Edge know where I am heading. 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. Ryssdal and Wong even suggest that the absence of an inherent meaning allows nacho cheese to be “anything you want it to be.” Of course, if I use cream cheese (with carrots, onions, and basil) to make a nacho cheese dip, I suspect that many would question my culinary abilities, even in the absence of an official definition. As social constructions, names and meanings require recognition from those with whom you are communicating, or the communication breaks down.

Thus, nacho cheese illustrates nicely the complicated ways that people construct the meaning of terms within the context of the broader society. The absence of any inherent meaning in terms does not make the items disappear, nor does it make those terms inconsequential (some people have made lots of money with the label nacho cheese), but the definition, any meaning, really, is our creation.


Photo “Mmm…Nachos” by jeffreyw via Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

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