My teenager had about a half hour to find herself something to eat before an evening debate team meeting, and she was being obstinate. There was an assortment of leftovers to choose from, both homemade and from restaurants. She could make a salad, cook a package of ramen noodles, eat a bowl of cereal.
None of it sounded good. She wasn’t hungry yet. She would be fine. Could I just let her finish her show? “How about I make you a grilled cheese?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said.
Most any parent would recognize what I just did, which was to pull the infallible grilled cheese sandwich card. It is the food — sometimes loved, sometimes tolerated, never rejected — that follows your children through life.
You made grilled cheese when they were still in highchairs, and then made it for that finicky friend from kindergarten who used to come over for playdates and wouldn’t eat anything else. You made it for the group that assembled in your kitchen after trick or treating. You made it for dinner more often than you’d like to admit because you couldn’t get your act together to go shopping. You made it when they came home from high school after a really cruddy mean-girl day. You made it before the prom because you knew they wouldn’t eat anything later.
Fact: No one’s grilled cheese tastes anything like yours, even if they use the exact same ingredients.
Another fact: Grilled cheese sandwiches are always better at home, made by a parent.
The gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches that restaurants serve always bite. You know what I’m talking about — the three cheeses with tomato and basil. They’re terrible because chefs see them as vehicles for excess. You get these weighty behemoths on flabby, over-buttered bread with rolls of cheese escaping the crusts like round bellies from Polo shirts. That’s not appetizing.
A touch of excess works. I love the way the lady in our company cafeteria takes the grilled cheese out of the panini press, cuts it in half, then twists the two halves round and round to break that obdurate strand of cheese that doesn’t want to let go. That’s appetizing.
But the best grilled cheese is a paragon of restraint. When our kids were little we used the fluffiest, most marshmallowy white sandwich bread, one Kraft Single slice, and a generous smear of soft butter. A quick turn in a hot skillet renders the two slices of bread crisp on the surface while the inside puffs. It somehow fuses with the cheese that doesn’t have much body at this point beyond its function as stringy, delicious goo. Your tongue can alight briefly on a rivulet of molten cheese for that “aah” moment, but a more sustained happiness comes from the miracle of cheese-infused bread.
At one moment in my grilled cheese career, I got sick of coaxing refrigerator-cold butter into spreadability with the help of a microwave set on stun (defrost), and I got the bright idea to use mayonnaise. Looks gross, works like a charm.
We have, however, given up totally on Wonder Bread and American cheese. Now my grilled cheese sandwich likely consists of 12-grain bread and thin, thin slices of sharp cheddar or gruyère. I do still use mayonnaise to coat the bread, and then I cook it in a preheated skillet to get the all-important puffiness in the center. If the bread blackens slightly we don’t care. If the cheese doesn’t fully melt, that’s a tragedy.
I still strongly believe that you are doing greater grilled cheesedom a disservice by overstuffing a sandwich to make it seem more of a meal. Better to make an extra sandwich or two to split.
I fear the grilled cheese serves as the very last vestige of pure kid cooking in my repertoire. No matter what is going on in our lives, I will scrounge up a couple of slices of bread and an end of cheese to make my kid this sandwich. My kid will act like a kid when she takes it. For that reason alone, I have no choice but to go through these timeworn motions with love.