The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Grilled Cheese and Me

Why are people ashamed of grilled cheese sandwiches? Why is it that they are so often relegated to the kiddie menu? Granted, I first started eating grilled cheese when I was a kid. But it's still a favorite of mine and at times I resent having to order from the kid's menu like some kind of culinary social outcast. “Look at that poor man! With all our double-decker Angus beef burgers and triple-decker turkey and chicken and ham sandwiches, all served with a veritable vegetable garden of toppings to choose from, he orders a grilled cheese!” Yeah, so what?

Let me give you a little backstory.

Growing up, I was the poster boy for extremely picky eaters. I had an uncle who predicted that, because of my ridiculous diet, I'd be dead before I turned eighteen. (I have, by the way, outlived that uncle.) But he could have been right. Until I was about ten years old, the only thing I would ever eat in a restaurant was French fries and a either a Coke or a chocolate malt. That's it. Period. No exceptions.

Oh, I'd eat other things at home, of course, and one of my favorite things to eat was cheese. A slice of good old plastic, processed American cheese would make me the happiest kid on the block.

It was my grandmother who started expanding my diet by applying simple logic to my unusual eating habits. And the first expansion supplied by that logic was a grilled cheese sandwich. “You like cheese, don't you?” “Yes, Grandma.” “And you like toast, right?” “Yes, Grandma.” “Well, why don't we try putting the two of them together and see how you like that.” Damn, she was good! And so was that first grilled cheese. I've been hooked ever since.

Now, I can't say that grilled cheese sandwiches are always among the ranks of kiddie fare. Cracker Barrel, for instance, has a killer grilled cheese – made with cheddar cheese on sourdough bread – right there on their regular menu. But most mainstream restaurants either put them at the end of the regular menu in fine print – like they're hiding them – or they list them on the kid's menu. Believe it or not, I was once refused a grilled cheese at a chain family-style restaurant because they were only served to those “12 and under.”

There are a few innovative restaurateurs who have developed eateries dedicated solely to the humble grilled cheese – although many of their creations are far from humble and, in my opinion, far from being grilled cheese. These offerings are euphemistically referred to as “adult” grilled cheese or “gourmet” grilled cheese.

All well and good, but a grilled cheese sandwich, made the way God intended it to be made, should consist of three elements; bread, butter, and cheese. The bread should be plain white bread. Put a slice or two of cheese on a lightly buttered slice of bread. Top with another lightly buttered slice of bread. Lightly butter the outside surfaces and put the whole assembly on a flat-top grill or in a flat-bottomed pan where you will toast it to golden brown, melted perfection. Ta-dah! That's a grilled cheese!

But when you start adding roasted vegetables and exotic condiments and unusual breads – well, you're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

I guess it's just because I like my sandwiches simple. They look at me funny at Subway because when I ask for a ham and cheese sandwich, that's what I want; ham and cheese. No onions, olives, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, cole slaw, mustard, mayonnaise, relish, ketchup, vinegar, or any of the dozens of other extras they offer. Ham and cheese. On bread. That's it.

So it should be with grilled cheese. I mean, what does the name imply? A cheese sandwich on a grill, right? There's nothing in there about sundried tomatoes and roasted red peppers. If I wanted those things I'd ask for a roasted red pepper and sundried tomato sandwich with cheese.

Here are a few selections I found masquerading as grilled cheeses on a “gourmet” menu: Grilled Cheese with Butternut Squash, Onions, and Balsamic Syrup. How about a grilled cheese made with goat cheese, spinach and mustard? Or one with russet apples and gouda? Or brie and pears with red onions and arugula?

Thank you, no.

We all know the story about John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich, and his contribution to culinary history. And did he ask for two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun? No. He asked for a piece of meat between two slices of bread. Simplicity. And that's what a grilled cheese should be; a slice of cheese between two pieces of bread. Toasted.

Now, cheese on bread has been around for about as long as there has been cheese and bread. You can find references to cooked bread and cheese in ancient Roman cookbooks. But it wasn't until the early 20th century that the combination we now know as “grilled cheese” really came into fashion.

Prior to the 1920s, if you wanted to fix yourself something as basic as a grilled cheese sandwich, you had to work for it. First you had to build a fire in the stove. Then you had to haul out a chunk of cheese and a loaf of bread from the pantry and cut slices from both. Then you had to bring out the heavy artillery, aka the cast-iron pan. It was all very labor intensive. Progress, in the form of gas and/or electric stoves that lit with the turn of a knob, opened a lot of doors. Even so, early grilled cheeses were more along the lines of “cheese toast.” They were open-faced affairs comprised of a slice of toasted bread and a sprinkling of grated cheese. But then along came more progress; pre-sliced bread and packaged processed cheese. All the makings of the modern grilled cheese were now in place. A second slice of bread was added to make the sandwich more substantial and … well, sandwich-like, and suddenly, even kids could create a satisfying meal with little effort and less expense.

And, unfortunately, therein lies the problem. Grilled cheese sandwiches became a kiddie staple almost from the beginning because a) kids liked them and b) kids could make them. I know. I started cooking at about age 7 and a grilled cheese was among the first things I learned to cook.

Now, I don't mean to say that upgrading the grilled cheese is a bad thing. I long ago stopped eating plastic American cheese. I sometimes make my grilled cheese sandwiches with different kinds and combinations of cheese. And since I bake my own bread, I haven't had gummy, store-bought white bread at home in years. But that just means I've improved the quality of the ingredients. I haven't radically altered the basic concept of a grilled cheese sandwich.

I guess it's all part of the American predilection toward excess. Somehow our national psyche still drives us to be bigger and better than everybody else, even in our food. By way of example, check out shows like “Man vs Food” someday. Simplicity, it seems, is equated with paucity, and we Americans just can't tolerate that, so we dump everything but the kitchen sink onto our plates just because we can. Look what happened to pizza once Americans got a hold of it.

So call me boring, call me pedestrian, call me dull, mundane, and humdrum. I'll continue to eschew “gourmet” grilled cheese sandwiches in favor of a simple comfort food staple made with a slice or two of cheese between two slices of bread. Serve that up with a bowl of tomato soup and some potato chips or French fries and you've got a cheap, easy, satisfying meal. Is it “adult?” Well, I'm an adult and I think so. Is it exciting and innovative and “gourmet?” Nope, but then neither is another of my favorites, peanut butter and jelly. And when it comes to the most important question – is it good and does it give you a warm, fuzzy feeling when you eat it – the answer is a resounding “yes!” That's all that really matters, anyway.

Mangia bene!

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