An Auto-Grilled-Cheese-ography

Last night—a Saturday night—we grilled sandwiches for dinner. It was a good Saturday, the kind where the whole day just unfolds, and everyone feels energetic, and lots of stuff, as they say in the passive tongue, gets done. So we cleared clutter and scrubbed bathrooms, and continued putting stuff neatly back into our newly blossomed kitchen (although not ALL the stuff; now we have blissfully sparser cupboard shelves and countertops), and we vacuumed, and we mopped.

The boyos went out to shop as men do; they bought essential stuff at hardware stores and at a meat market, and then they treated themselves to a rotisserie chicken, which they brought home and devoured. While they were gone, I had a sweetly solitary lunch of leftover beef stew, which tasted delicious…even more so eaten in a mostly scrubbed, entirely quiet, house.

After lunch, we pitched back in and finished things up, rewarding ourselves with a little late afternoon reading time. And, in the almost-evening, we all trooped out to the mall, where we walked and walked.

So we came home hungry but disinclined to do anything elaborate, culinarily; instead, we decided to grill up some sandwiches.

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Grilling sandwiches was nice because we could all have the same basic thing, but each of us could indulge our own particular whims. Jim had a traditional grilled ham and cheese on Sunbeam bread. Mark chose whole wheat bread; he cut a little organic tomato into very thin slices, and he nestled those slices between his ham and cheese slices. I used two tender pieces of homemade oatmeal bread to make my sandwich.

The huge, non-stick skillet (a Christmas giftie) offered plenty of playing space for our three sandwiches—no jostling, no usurping, just nice, companionable sizzling.

We flipped the sandwiches and rotated them, making sure each square inch of buttered bread surface was nicely seared, and then we put them on plates and whacked them into portions with the butcher knife. We carried our plates, the sandwiches seeping steam and melting cheese, to the table. We blessed the food, and then we ate it.

The bread crunched; the cheese oozed.

“These,” we all agreed, “are SO good.”

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Grilled sandwiches can get boring if you eat them too often. They are also fattening delights, and of course, they, by nature, include gluten. But once in a while—oh, once in a while,—a perfectly grilled sandwich is an absolute delight.

And I started thinking, this weekend, sitting with my lovely sandwich, of my life in terms of grilled cheese.

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I was ten, I think, when I had my first grilled cheese; it would have been around 1965. My mother dropped my younger brother, Sean, and me at Mrs. Wortham’s house right around lunchtime. Mom must have had an appointment, and Sean and I must have had the day off school for some reason. It was not very often–it was, almost, NEVER,–that we were ever babysat.

Mrs. Wortham was warm and welcoming, and she pulled out her silver waffle-making machine and flipped the pads so the smooth sides, not the griddy sides, faced up. While she talked to us, she buttered bread and took cheese out of the fridge and separated it into slices.

She worked quickly, chatting as she moved around the kitchen counter.

“Do you like grilled cheese?’ she asked us.

I looked at Sean and he looked at me. We did not know if we liked grilled cheese, never having had it. But we had been schooled in courtesy, and we knew how to respond.

“Yes!” we answered. “Grilled cheese will be wonderful!”

And, oh my heaven. It WAS.

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The sandwiches were crisp, flat, little packets of delight. Mrs. Wortham asked if we’d like another.

“Oh, yes,” I said.

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I rhapsodized about that lunch for days. My mother was impervious.

I mentioned that we had one of those waffle irons, those heavy, thick-fabric-corded beasts that every family of four or more was, I think, in the 1960’s, required by law to own. Ours was hidden on a high shelf in the kitchen closet.

“I HATE that thing,” said my mother, and the subject, effectively, was closed.

But Mrs. Wortham’s lunch had ignited a zest in me, a delight in a sandwich grilled and ooze-y.

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Is it possible, I think now, that we really never had grilled cheese as kids? Included in a siblings’ group text to celebrate my sister-in-law Mary’s arrival home from the hospital, I slide out the question: Did Mom ever fix us grilled cheese?

My brothers corroborate my memory: we had no grilled cheese sandwiches as children.

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Did my mother know about grilled cheese, I wonder. And, hey: who invented grilled cheese, anyway, and just when did that happen?

I look it up, and I find that the term, grilled cheese only entered the lingo in the 1960’s…maybe right around the time Sean and I were enjoying Mrs. Wortham’s cooking. But the sandwich concept existed before then, HowStuffWorks.com tells me.

Ancient Romans cooked up a similar dish. The fanciful French offered the croque monsieur (https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/croque_monsieur_ham_and_cheese_sandwich/) at the turn of the twentieth century. And in the U.S. in the early 1900’s, J.L. Kraft mass-produced pre-sliced processed cheese. (His empire would become today’s monolithic Kraft Foods.) The cheese slice was not exotic or artisan, not an uplifting, heart-fluttering treat, the writers at HowStuffWorks.com admit. Instead, “it was, simply, a cheap and salable product.”

Not long after Mr. Kraft’s cheese-y innovation, Frederick Rohwedder invented a slicer for white bread. Now it was easy to have bread and cheese, and people naturally put them together and heated them up—what a good, simple, dish, especially as the Depression thrust its dismal gray blanket over the land. An open-faced toasted cheese made a filling, inexpensive meal.

If people didn’t call the sandwich toasted cheese, they might call it, before the swinging sixties, melted cheese, and there were many ways of cooking the sandwiches. Legend had it that bachelors would even use an electric iron to quickly toast their versions.

I feel fortunate that the terminology and the process had evolved to the point it had when my mother dropped my brother and me at Mrs. Wortham’s house.

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Although I find it hard to understand, today, why anyone would have left their precious children with twelve-year-old me, a few years after Mrs. Wortham opened up my culinary world, I was babysitting and pocketing cash. The hefty pay-ers at that time shelled out seventy-five cents an hour; usually I was lucky to walk out of a five-hour engagement with two bucks. But still, I had a little disposable income in my pocket, which was a new and wonderful experience.

One of the things my friends and I liked to do—a thing that made us feel independent and worldly wise—was to walk downtown, or to the Plaza, and buy ourselves lunch at the Kresge’s or Neisner’s lunch counter. Some of my peeps got allowance AND had babysitting money.

[“Sheila gets allowance,” I wailed to my mother.

“Sheila helps her mother around the house,” my mother replied tartly, closing that subject for once and for all.]

They could order many things, expensive things, from the lunch counter menus.

I could rarely make the cost of a burger; I looked for other, less pricey treats. So it was at the Kresge’s lunch counter that I asked, “What’s in a grilled ham and cheese?”

The grim woman behind the counter, unhappy in her gold nylon uniform dress, clunky plastic name tag, and stained but frilly apron, looked at me as if I were what my mother called ‘simple.’

Ham,” she replied heavily, “and CHEESE.”

I blushed and ordered it. I had wondered if some kind of sophisticated, subversive ingredients were included…mustard, maybe, or onion, or, God forbid, mayonnaise.

But the sandwich was just exactly what the tired lunch counter clerk told me it was. She brought me a thick white ceramic plate heaped with potato chips, garnished with a pickle wedge, and starring a sandwich, cut diagonally and grilled to perfection on the flat-top.

It was—wow. It was just like a grilled cheese sandwich, only it had HAM in it, too!

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Thus began a new cooking adventure for me. Whenever I was home for lunch, whenever there was ham in the fridge, I’d just grill myself up a ham and cheese sandwich. And life, as it does, rocketed on, and high school melted into college, and jobs loomed large. One of my late-high school, and at times throughout college jobs, was in a supermarket deli, where I discovered all kinds of wonders. We sliced at least four different kinds of ham; the cheeses were even more abundant. I kept the home-folks supplied with ham off the bone; I brought home little paper-wrapped packets of different kinds of sliced cheese to experiment with.

I loved a white cheese with caraway seeds; that and ham on old-world rye bread made a wonderful grilled sandwich. I brought home baby Swiss and muenster and Gruyere; I tried a cheese that melted like butter. We paired them with Virginia ham and boiled ham and even, sometimes, with thin slices of roast beef or an almost-see-through layer of Genoa salami.

In those days I ate and ran to classes and ate and ran to work and ate and ran to go out with friends; the grilled cheese sandwiches did not stay with me. The calories consoled me, and then, disappeared.

I remember one memorable weekend visit to my friend Patty’s apartment, even now. Liza and I drove up together; Patty went to a college thirty miles away, but, as little mobile as I was in those day, it might as well have been across country. So this was a lovely adventure.

We had a wonderful weekend, even though we were all almost broke. Patty’s sweet boyfriend (and now husband) Jeff took us to a great little restaurant called the Alibi, where the Italian food was delicious, abundant, and cheap. We drank beer and told stories, and laughed and laughed. During the day, Patty toured us around all the places that had become part of new-home college life to her. At night we were drawn to college parties, moths to the flames.

We dragged ourselves up on Sunday morning…little boo-boo heads aching from the weekend adventures. And Patty, seemingly unaffected and completely rested despite our late night, pulled out a big skillet and made us all grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. She was a wonderfully watchful cook, and the sandwiches were thick, gooey, and perfect,–just the right carbs and starch to soak up the residue of a profligate weekend.

And the cheese: this was no ordinary American. I asked Patty about it and she showed me the rectangular package. It was a new-to-me treat called Velveeta. The perfect melting cheese! I thought. And once a month, on payday from the college library, my alternate college job, I bought me some.

Ah. The gourmet life.

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HowStuffWorks.com taught me other stuff about grilled cheese sandwiches, too. It taught me that Navy cooks filled sailors’ bellies, in World War II and afterward, with TONS of hot cheese sandwiches.

I learned that April 12 is National Grilled Cheese day, and I have marked that on my calendar so that, this year, we can properly celebrate. (https://nationaltoday.com/national-grilled-cheese-sandwich-day/)

I found, to my fascinated horror, that, in 2004, someone bought a partially-eaten, 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with the Blessed Mother’s visage seared onto it by whatever skillet it was cooked in. Asking price? $28,000.00.

In 2007, I discovered, Kraft Foods sponsored a contest asking people to upload home videos celebrating grilled cheese sandwiches. The next year, Kraft asked people to share their favorite grilled cheese memories. Then, in 2009, Los Angeles hosted the first Grilled Cheese Invitational.

That oozey, melting contest would continue through 2014.

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And then I remembered, too, that Ohio is home to a restaurant chain dedicated solely to grilled cheese sandwiches and variations on that theme: Melt Bar and Grilled. We have been wanting to go to Melt since we saw it featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, and since we learned that there is a Melt right outside of Columbus.

It might seem odd to base an entire menu on a grilled cheese sandwich, but, the website tells me, Melt’s chef-owner, Matt Fish, had a vision. “Where most people saw a quick meal comprised of two common kitchen staples, Matt envisioned the potential for so much more… ‘comfort food, all dressed up,’ as he put it.”

Oh, I get it, Chef Fish, I get it; and so do a lot of other people. The restaurant, begun in Cleveland, now has twelve branches throughout Ohio. (Once I asked my Comp II students to write about a memorable food experience. Three of twenty wrote about eating at Melt Bar and Grilled.)

You can even buy a Grilled Cheese and Crossbones hoodie (designed, I believe, by an artist named Derek Hess) at Melt Bar and Grilled. We look forward to a visit on the wonderful day when we are all vaccinated and eating out can become, again, an anticipated treat. (https://meltbarandgrilled.com/what-is-melt/the-melt-story/)

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Anyway. Such a simple thing, the grilled cheese sandwich: a couple of slices of bread, a choice of cheese; a little butter. Maybe, for a truly decadent treat, the buttered bread dipped in parmesan cheese before grilling. A frying pan and just the right heat.

Such a treat and such a comfort after a busy Saturday. And who knew what a rich history the humble sandwich offers?

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Have a warm and wonderful week. And, hey—do you grill a sandwich or two? If so, I’d love to hear about your ingredients and techniques.

14 thoughts on “An Auto-Grilled-Cheese-ography

  1. Kim Allen

    I loved the story and love grilled cheese. When I make it I butter the bread on the outside, although I have heard that mayo gives it a nice crunch and flavor. I usually use provolone because it is what I have with some smoked paprika, from my childhood Welsh rabbit on toast which is all about gooey cheese with a zing, which now I have to look up because truthfully I haven’t thought about it in decades. You conjured up the memory! I would also put on tomato, probably on a oat bread! What a fun read. My favorite lunch in school was grilled cheese and tomato soup, so I would have to have some of that as well with mine, as an adult.

    1. Yes, Kim: tomato soup and grilled cheese..a classic. I have good memories of grilled cheese in the high school cafeteria…and thanks for the Welsh rabbit mention; I am also going looking for the recipe. We’ll have to compare notes…that may be a weekday meal coming up!

      1. Kim Allen

        I did a cursory lookup, It was called Welsh Rabbit and then it was changed to Welsh Rarebit because it didn’t have rabbit. I am sure I was corrected when I was a child. How funny I went back to the more fun name. Again, your blog prompts a memory long forgotten. Thank you.

  2. I can’t say I can actually recall the first one I had. They were a staple growing up I feel; my dad was a big lover of cheese. I don’t think I’d ever had one with anything but real cheddar cheese for many years. My daughter’s riding coach had a special grilled cheese with ham, a slice of onion and a dill pickle cut up on it. It’s darn good as it adding some chili jelly. Calories make it something I don’t have regularly but my husband eats one every day for lunch on it with some kind of meat. I chuckled at many parts of your story but the part where you ask what is on the grilled ham and cheese sandwich brought a smile. Seems like the kind of thing I would have done as a country bumpkin.

  3. Loved your ode to grilled cheese here, Pam. Maybe you could do a follow-up feature on Mac ‘n cheese? My favorite food. Just kidding, I really enjoy your reminiscences

    I don’t remember the Melt restaurant, though. I’m wondering if they were big after I left Cleveland in the mid 1950s.

  4. Tina E Redmond

    I love grilled cheese! Two of my favorites: Gouda cheese with honey spread on it on a rustic or crusty bread and brie with sliced pear on a croissant.

    And I like to have my grilled cheese with tomato soup with elbow macaroni in it!

  5. Being vegetarian, grilled cheese was my introduction to America. It is still my favorite comfort food (though pizza and fries are up there). I make it with thin sliced tomatoes, and fine-chop green chilies. Try it with soup and fries. In California we have a place called The Melt for people like me who think this comfort food to cuisine. 🙂

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