Presidents, veterans, mothers, fathers — they get a day. But grilled cheese gets a month. In the end, it may just deserve it.
In case you haven’t heard, April is — or more accurately, has been — National Grilled Cheese Month. (As usual, I’m arriving late to the party hoping I’ve brought enough tasty treats to win back hearts before it’s over.) I can’t quite ascertain the origins of the tradition, and at first I really didn’t understand its raison d’être. To my knowledge, there have been no Grilled Cheese Half-Marathons raising funds for lactose intolerance research, no candle-lit vigils to Eat Back the Night, no eloquent speeches by Parmesan-American figureheads. I’d run across a slew of celebratory articles and contests, along with quite a bit of fanfare over at the excellent blog Pithy and Cleaver, but no overarching national mission statement. At first I thought it was just a case of the end justifying the cheese, an unspoken agreement that grilled cheese is a fine sandwich that deserves a month, end of discussion. Not that there would’ve been anything wrong with that. But the more I think about it, the more I reaize there may be greater forces at work.
Probably almost everyone who has grown up in the U.S. in the past 75 years has a chapter or two of Personal Grilled Cheese History. As a kid, I approached the subject with a mix of familiarity and longing. Our family’s standard grilled cheese was more of a cheese toast — open-faced, on rye or whole wheat, topped with thickish slices of cheddar and run quickly under the broiler. To think of it now is to appreciate its slender, almost European elegance and restraint. But back then, it lacked a certain something. And that certain something was three individually wrapped slices of American cheese and a generous pat of butter. Mom could smell a gram of trans fat through plastic wrap as early as 1981, so pasteurized processed cheese food entered the house only rarely, as the result of supermarket begging sessions with an especially feverish pitch. In fact, now that I’m a parent, I can see that American cheese may have been Mom’s special little way of screaming “Shut the hell up” to us in public. We savored every gummy, mouth-prickling bite of that edible admonition, usually straight from the package, in the car on the way home. We probably wouldn’t have wanted to dilute it with bread, even if it had lasted until we got there.
The coveted and elusive real grilled cheese was only available to us at Greek diners and friends’ houses. My kindergarten best friend’s mom served not only proper grilled cheese, but also a gloriously delicious dinner called “pennies,” which was an unapologetic sautée of sliced hot dogs and white potatoes. For snacks, there were Jello pudding pops and uncomfortably large handfuls of Pringles served in bike baskets and even straight from the sidewalk if you happened to find yourself riding at an ill-advised clip. There was also an inground pool to feel nauseous in afterwards. God, I loved that place.
Sometimes it takes falling in love to make you appreciate the idiosyncrasies of your past; and I did eventually begin to recognize cheese toasts for the humble pleasure they offer. Circa 2002, Umami Boy went through a lunch phase dubiously named “cheesy bread,” during which he regularly prepared for himself what amounted to vastly inferior cheese toasts. Each one had a single, inch-thick hunk of cheese in the center, half melted, surrounded by naked, anemically toasted bread. Believe me when I tell you that there is nothing quite like cheesy bread to throw cheese toast into stark, beautiful relief. Even in the throes of that dark time, Umami Boy managed to love (or fear?) me, and my condescending, faux-European grilled cheese pedigree, enough to offer me correctly melted and distributed cheese toasts without so much as a request. Maybe I should have known back then that he would prove to be a brilliant architect of cobbled-together lunches for children and a devoted baker of homemade bread. Maybe I’ll tell myself I did know and appreciate it all, and tell him a jazzy little story called “Labor and Delivery: Erasing all Prior Transgressions in 72 Cumulative Hours.”
As it turned out, though, we never really found our footing among the cheese toasts. In the end, we’re a little too thinky and hyper for such a plainspoken meal, and we needed a sandwich that shared those characteristics. We’re okay with that. We’ve experimented with many a high-maintenance grilled cheese throughout the years, and we’ve basically been happy with them all.
But this is the one we keep coming back to. It has lots of smooth, tangy melted cheese. It has bread that slowly develops a golden, buttery crisp on the outside while remaining soft on the inside. It has bacon, which really needs no further justification. And it has a peppery, assertive side to make you appreciate the depth of its richness. Sure it’s a meal, but it’s also a pretty decent primer on learning to really know your family and yourself. It’s a personal and fitting destination that helps you appreciate the journey. It is, I think, a sandwich that deserves a month.
Grilled Cheese with Bacon and Arugula
If you’ve been poking around these parts for a while now, you probably know that I’m not so keen on formal recipes for sandwiches. But if a sandwich gets a month, I think it also gets a recipe, just for kicks. Here you have it.
Makes 2 sandwiches
4 slices good, crusty sandwich bread, such as a sourdough boule or a loaf of chewy rye (or as in the picture, no-knead whole wheat), sliced to approximately ¼-inch thickness
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ pound Fontal or Havarti cheese, more or less depending on the size of the bread
4 slices good bacon, cooked until just crisp
2 small handfuls baby arugula
1-2 Tablespoons butter
Divide and spread the mustard onto two slices of the bread. Top each of the two slices with a layer of cheese to cover the entire surface of the bread (you’ll put an equal amount of cheese on again in a minute, so don’t overdo it here). Top each cheesed slice of bread with two slices of bacon and a small handful of arugula. Add another layer of cheese to each sandwich, and top each with one of the remaining slices of bread.
Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a skillet big enough to hold both sandwiches. When the butter is melted, add the sandwiches to the pan one by one, letting the first side soak up a bit of butter and then flipping each sandwich immediately so the other side gets coated in butter as well. (Alternatively, you can develop the foresight to soften the butter ahead of time and spread it on the outsides of the sandwiches before adding them to the skillet. Some people swear by this practice, but I find it requires more patience than I typically have.) Cook the sandwiches slowly, adjusting the heat as necessary and pressing down on the sandwiches occasionally with a large spatula, so that the outside browns nicely while the cheese is melting. When the first side is browned and the cheese on that side has melted almost thoroughly (it will continue to melt during the rest of the cooking), flip each sandwich to brown and melt the other side.
Cut in half and serve immediately to the family you know and love.