Like all great sandwiches, the grilled cheese is a simple endeavor. In its most basic form, it’s two pieces of bread and a couple slices of cheese, heated to a melty crisp on a hot skillet or grill press. It’s comfort food at its best, a staple of the American childhood experience that, unlike our security blankets or pacifiers, we never quite relinquish as we grow old. Throughout the country, there are restaurants, food trucks, catering businesses, cookbooks, websites and blogs dedicated to its celebration.
In a fortuitous fluke of coincidence, I was pitched last week by two contributors who were both interested in sharing a story about a specific grilled cheese sandwich, one from Philadelphia and the other from Florida. You’ll have a chance to read their reports in the coming days, but in the process of responding to their proposals, I began to develop some thoughts I felt compelled, by way of introducing a sort of mini-package on grilled cheese, to share.
First of all, while this universal adoration is well deserved, I can’t help but feel the grilled cheese has entered a strange new phase in its history. Though the trend is surely not as recent as it seems to me, there has been a noticeable impulse among restaurants to develop what food writers are fond of describing as “elevated” versions of humble and familiar dishes. The grilled cheese, for better or worse, has not been immune. The grilled cheese du jour is more likely to feature local artisan brie than it is the nuclear orange Kraft singles of my youth. Here in Washington, D.C., one would be hard pressed to find an example that was not augmented with arugula, heirloom tomato, applewood smoked bacon or truffle oil. (For Christ’s sake, truffle oil?!) The phenomenon has been well documented elsewhere, so I’ll not belabor it any further.
It’s worth asking when these gourmet interpretations, however exceptional, stop being grilled cheese and become something else altogether. How vague must their resemblance to the traditional grilled cheese become before they’re just toasted sandwiches that happen to include melted cheese? Above all else, the sandwich’s most defining characteristic is its singular, eponymous ingredient. With apologies to The Melt Shop in New York, a sandwich featuring buttermilk fried chicken and red cabbage slaw with a slice of pepper jack probably doesn’t belong on a grilled cheese menu.
Furthermore, as I wrote a couple weeks ago, there is a lamentably small corner in the pantheon of Great American Sandwiches reserved for vegetarian-friendly sandwiches. The grilled cheese remains one of a pathetically small number of widely-available meatless sandwiches. More overwrought variations on the standard that feature, for instance, ham, bacon or, at the risk of repeating myself, buttermilk fried chicken neutralize this often-overlooked but nonetheless very desirable trait of the grilled cheese.
I’ve been told by more than one person that I’m far too concerned with taxonomy, that I worry far too much about what we call sandwiches and not enough about how they taste. It’s probably a fair criticism. Sandwiches should ultimately be enjoyed on their merits, within the environmental and emotional context they’re experienced, and without concern for how they’ve been branded. But I’ll let you be the judge. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll feature reviews of grilled cheese sandwiches from across the country, and perhaps when all is said and done we’ll be closer to answering some of the questions posed here. If not, we’ll eat more sandwiches.