Thursday, June 29, 2006

Eating. grilled cheese.

It seems madness to eat grilled cheese sandwiches in the dead heat of summer, but I was too lazy to go to the grocery store, and I had some cheddar left over from a previous culinary excursion, along with a loaf of bread rapidly going stale on the counter. So grilled cheese sandwiches it is.

The grilled cheese of my childhood came from the school cafeteria, orange Velveeta sandwiched between slices of white bread, cooked on the vast griddle behind the counter, served on partitioned plastic trays with a cup of cream of tomato soup on the side. Always cream of tomato. I've never understood how it became a classic, that combination of the golden, toasted sandwiches, melting cheese, and the creamy tomato soup, pale red, faintly sweet and creamy in contrast to the sandwiches. The classic winter lunch. Grilled cheese sandwich day at school was my favorite day of the week. I rarely made it at home. If I did, it was in the toaster oven, slices of American cheese on whole-wheat toast. It was never quite the same. It wasn't until I paid a visit to some friends of my parents that I understood what made grilled cheese grilled cheese.

I was ten or eleven, visiting old friends of my mother. I have known them for as long as I remember, and they have always been Gigi and Papa. For lunch one day, they made grilled cheese sandwiches. All married couples have points on which they disagree. With Gigi and Papa it was the correct method of making grilled cheese sandwiches. I sat at the counter and watched them slice cheddar from a block of cheese, arrange the pieces on the bread. One of them (I forget which) made the sandwiches the way I did - in the toaster oven. The other fried them in a pan on the stove. In a pan of foaming, browning, melting, butter. It was a complete revelation. The bread didn't merely toast, it turned crisp, taking on that elusive, buttery, nutty, brown flavor that you get from cooking with butter. It was incredible. I don't think anything will ever taste as good as the memory of that grilled cheese sandwich. There would be no turning back for me now.

When I am in a hurry or just don't feel like turning on the stove or washing the skillet, I still make toasted cheese sandwiches in my toaster oven. But that is not a true grilled cheese sandwich. Now I make mine on good bread, crusty country bread, sometimes miche from the French bakery in the Pike Place Market if I'm lucky. I slice it as thinly as possible and brush the outsides with melted butter or olive oil. Usually I use sharp or medium cheddar, white, orange, or whatever other cheese I have on hand. I grill the sandwiches in a ridged cast-iron grill pan until the bread turns golden, striped from the pan, crisp and buttery and filled with molten cheese that rushes across my tongue as my teeth bite through the bread...

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