The Great Grilled Cheese Debate

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In TIME Mag Ozersky writes that only moms, and certainly not the majority of short order cooks, can make a grilled cheese sandwich right. On the other hand, in Huff Post Pollak seems pretty darned excited about the innovative cheesy sammies that are staking a claim in San Fran. What do you think? Should the grilled cheese stay at home or should it take on the world?

Here’s my opinion:

Growing up, a grilled cheese sandwich was one of those special rainy day treats, often served with cream of tomato soup or, even better, mom’s homemade little dumplings simmered in and then served in Lipton’s Chicken Noodle.

Here’s what’s weird to me: Nowadays, you will NEVER find white sliced bread (Wonderbread-style or any other) in either my parents’ house or my own. You will also rarely find anything resembling processed cheese (Note: I have not yet gotten used to calling it “American Cheese”. In Canada we call it “processed cheese” or “cheese slices”. I find it hard to call it American Cheese and I find myself wondering why Americans even want to claim it as their own, especially since it doesn’t actually qualify as “cheese” in some U.S. jurisdictions where it must be labelled as a cheese analogue instead! (That’s according to Wikipedia, here.))

Despite the usual lack of these quintessential ingredients in my house, the most perfect, comforting, lazy-day-on-the-couch-in-front-of-the-food-network grilled cheese sandwich still MUST be made with white sliced bread and a cheese analogue. Anything else starts to feel too fancy and cannot possibly satisfy.

While that is a true grilled cheese to me, it is actually really hard to find such a thing in a restaurant. Restaurant grilled cheese sandwiches tend to fall into two distinct categories: diner-style and fancy.

The diner-style grilled cheese sandwiches never measure up to my mom’s version even though they often use sliced white bread and processed cheese. What’s the problem? They don’t use enough cheese and I doubt they use real butter or even margarine half the time, but instead some kind of cooking spray or oil. The sandwich winds up dry-ish on the inside and soggy instead of crispy on the outside. And, it always lacks the strata of soft “bread fluff”, as described by Dan in Episode #1 of The Sporkful, which should be found between the cheese and the crunchy exterior of a well-constructed grilled cheese sandwich.

The fancy grilled cheese sandwiches are a different food altogether. As soon as you use something other than plain sliced bread (something like multi-grain, sourdough or, god forbid, a ciabatta roll), that childhood comfort goes away. Throw on some aged cheddar or a bit of gruyère and you’re on your way to a completely different experience.

Now don’t get me wrong, I agree that this different experience can be a good or even a great one. I’ll even acknowledge that these sandwiches do qualify as grilled cheeses. I mean, I couldn’t justifiably send one back to the kitchen. What would I say? “I ordered a grilled cheese not a grilled cheddar!” These fancy pants sandwiches qualify but they’re just not my rainy day treat.

I therefore seem to be coming down on the side of Ozersky from Time Mag who says that the grilled cheese should stay out of restaurants and remain with mom.

But I’m actually agreeing, to a point, with Pollack’s piece in the Huff Post as well. See, at the end of his article he draws a distinction between the grilled cheese of our mothers’ and the grilled cheese of the restaurant. He acknowledges that these are a different species and that is something I can definitely get behind.

What I can’t get behind is just about everything else he says.

He goes on for paragraphs detailing the different ways that grilled cheese sandwiches can be made in a restaurant and listing the pros and cons of each. I’m sorry but if it is cooked in a sandwich press or in a convection oven (i.e., if it has not been grilled!) it is not a grilled cheese sandwich.

Pollack gets me beyond hungry when he mentions the goat cheese, prosciutto and fig preserves sandwich from Mission Cheese. But when I finished drooling I had to shake my head and say, “That isn’t a grilled cheese sandwich! That’s a grilled goat cheese, prosciutto and fig preserve sandwich.”

Am I being picky? I don’t think I am. At least, those guys over at The Sporkful seem to agree with me. Dan will allow some bacon as an “accoutrement” and perhaps one vegetable. Mark, on the other hand, thinks that anything other than cheese is a sacrilege (note though that he does allow blue cheese in his grilled cheese sandwich so we are not soul mates).

Other evidence that I’m not being too picky: There are often specific NAMES for sandwiches once they get beyond just cheese. A grilled cheese with ham is a Croque Monsieur and, I just learned this today, a grilled cheese with tomato is a Croque Provençal. If it’s name is something other than Grilled Cheese, then it’s NOT a Grilled Cheese.

And certainly, if it needs an elaborate description that contains any nouns other than bread, cheese, butter and grill then you’ve definitely left the grilled cheese planet. That’s my opinion.

The end.

But P.S. I’ve added goat’s cheese, prosciutto and figs to my grocery list. Guess what we’re having for dinner tonight?!



8 Responses to “The Great Grilled Cheese Debate”

  1. Dani — September 20, 2011 @ 8:14 am (#)

    I hated American cheese as a child and I still hate it as an adult. I found it liberating to realize I could make a regular, non-fancy grilled cheese with whole grain (store bought, soft, sliced) bread and cheddar. That’s the only kind of grilled cheese I’ve ever made for my kids, although occasionally I add tomato. Hmm, am I depriving them of one of the wonders of childhood?

    • Christine — September 20, 2011 @ 2:07 pm (#)

      Honestly, since I never have white bread and processed cheese in the house, I don’t think my J has ever tasted the grilled cheese sandwich of my youth. But he has had several made out of whole wheat and cheddar. I often eat one alongside him. And I like it. It’s just not the same to me because it’s not what I grew up with. For him, I imagine that whole wheat and cheddar grilled cheeses will be comfort food. And for your little ones, it will be whole grain and cheddar too.

  2. phyllis — September 19, 2011 @ 3:30 pm (#)

    as much as I have grown to love pannini sandwiches in the last few years, when in doubt of what to make for the little ones for lunch, the grilled cheese sandwich always comes to the rescue.

    • Christine — September 20, 2011 @ 2:08 pm (#)

      It’s true. The best thing about it is that it holds together in little fingers. I made J a roast pork and tomato sandwich today and he could not lift it to his moth without everything falling out. I found myself wishing I’d just made a grilled cheese (or a grilled pork and tomato with melty cheese to hold it all together).

  3. adventuresindinner — September 19, 2011 @ 1:05 pm (#)

    Totally agree. I loved my squidgy white bread sandwiches with cheese slices and tomato soup growing-up too. It’s odd but I will unlikely ever make that for my kiddo. We just don’t seem to have those ingredients in the house.

    Fig and goat cheese we likely will ;)

    I do worry that my kiddo will be the food snob at a birthday party asking if this meat was locally raised and is from a heritage breed.

    • Christine — September 20, 2011 @ 2:09 pm (#)

      lol! I would love to see the looks on the parents’ faces!

      I know what you mean though. J has never had a grilled cheese like the ones I grew up with for the same reason. He gets whole wheat and cheddar grills. Still good but not the same.

  4. Mikaela Cowles — September 19, 2011 @ 12:09 pm (#)

    You are so right. Grilled cheese just isn’t the same when it’s made healthy or fancy. Grilled cheese is the only time I am okay with seeing someone open a Kraft Single and some cheap white bread. But, I have had a few untraditional grilled cheese sandwiches which tickle my fancy as well. They might be bastardized, but sometimes I like throwing in a little tomato, or mixing it up with apple and brie. Even with the variety, I still like coming back to good old tradition.

    Now you have me hungry…..

    • Christine — September 20, 2011 @ 2:11 pm (#)

      Oh! One of my faves is tart apple with sharp cheddar. I’ve actually been playing with a focaccia bread using those ingredients. If only it could stick around long enough for me to take some pictures I might be able to post the recipe!

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