HistorEats: Grilled Cheese Grows Up
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John Montagu (better known as the Earl of Sandwich) has been getting the credit for putting meat, veggies, and cheese between two slices of bread since the 1600s. The Greek pita, another type of sandwich, can be traced back to well before the 1700s. But sandwiches have been along far longer than this even if modern people would never mistake one for a giant sub.
Is it possible that what we know today as the Kraft singles and buttered-bread grilled cheese had humble beginnings before the first century? Sheep were among the first domesticated animals but their milk, while being tasty, spoiled very quickly without refrigeration (especially in Egyptian deserts). Before a time of freezers and temperature control, cheese was the ultimate way for people to preserve their dairy.
So while there is little direct evidence to support the “grilled cheese” as a century’s old recipe, it’s hard to believe that—having these two basic ingredients more frequently than other foods—ancient people would’ve never thought, “Hey, it’s a cold night. Why don’t we use this fire to melt some cheese over our pieces of bread?”
Though a humble beginning, the popularity of the modern grilled cheese really has more to do with war and industry than refrigeration methods.
In the early 1900s, bulk cheese (those round cheese wheels you’ll only see in specialty grocery stores or Europe) was under monopoly control like all the other product produced on a large scale While bulk cheese was practical in the early centuries of human history, it eventually dries out and is fairly unwieldy for apartment or city-living. (Try to imagine rolling a ten or fifteen pound wheel of cheese through the subway turnstiles on your way home from the store.)
Thankfully, there once lived a brilliant Canadian door-to-door cheese salesman named JL Kraft. Well-acquainted with the problems of bulk cheese, his invention of processed cheese in 1916 narrowly beat out others to receive the first patent. During World War I the United States ordered six million pounds of his tinned cheese to feed our soldiers abroad. The foil-wrapped Kraft cheeses stored well and were cheaper to produce than bulk. It was a winning combination all around.
Still, the grilled cheese didn’t truly take off until the best invention of the 20th century—sliced bread—which didn’t come along until 1928. Setting aside the convenience of both these products on their own, the joint efforts of heavy marketing from both Kraft and Chillicothe Baking Co. (who advertised their bread as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped,” giving way to today’s popular catchphrase) combined to make grilled cheese sandwiches one of the most popular meals both at home and in school cafeterias.
The origins of the usual North American accompaniment of Campbell’s Tomato Soup are also in convenience and marketing. Condensed soup takes out all most of the water making the product smaller packaging-wise and cheaper for the consumer. Campbell’s tomato was the first type of condensed soup in the company’s history—first made in 1897.
Back before the worries about sodium and cholesterol, tomato soup was just a good source of Vitamin C and grilled cheese not only served up two major food groups but was easy for Mom to make for the kids. How could anyone resist a grilled cheese sandwich and soup on a cold day?
TRY GRILLED CHEESE OUT FOR YOURSELF....
I don’t like to get fancy with grilled cheese. Sharp cheddar melted inside crispy bread hits the spot. But it leaves me wanting more. Grilled cheese, to me and many grown-ups, is more of a glorified snack than a meal. It’s what we crave at 1:00 am, or what we order when we’re just peckish. It's all because when we're children, we ate grilled cheeses alongside tomato soup ,and washed it all down with Juicy Juice. As adults, grilled cheeses are comforting, but only relics of what used to be enough to fill us up.
There comes a time, though, in our culinary lives when we trade in Spaghettios for spaghetti bolognese, Goldfish for Triscuits. I consider these welcome upgrades.
So, if you had to choose between enduring Kraft's grilled cheeses of old, or enjoying sandwiches seasoned with adult accoutrements, which would you prefer?
Grown-up Grilled Cheeses (Serves 2-3)
-2 pans (preferably cast iron), one small enough to fit inside the larger one
-6 slices of bread (Try 3 slices of whole wheat, and 3 of pumpernickle)
-3 different cheeses of your choice, all grated (I recommend gouda, gruyere, and sharp cheddar)
-6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
-1 tablespoon of butter
-1 sliced avocado
-1 thinly sliced green apple
-1 tomato, thinly sliced and gutted
-1 large, sweet onion, thinly sliced
-mustard, to taste
-brown sugar (for caramelized onions)
-Smart Balance (regular butter works, too)
You’re free to mix the above ingredients in any which way you please, but my favorite combinations are pictured below.
10 Easy Steps:
1. Place a lightly greased skillet on medium-high heat
2. Place two slices of bread before you. Spread condiment of your choice onto one slice of bread, then cover the slice with cheese, followed by desired toppings
3. Place the other slice of bread on top
4. Brush one side of the sandwich with ½ teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil
5. Place the sandwich onto the hot skillet, oily side down
6. Place the smaller skillet on top of the sandwich, gently pressing the two slices together
7. Cook to desired level of doneness (crispy bread takes about two minutes per side)
8. When the cheese has melted and the bread is crisp, transfer to a plate
9. Cut diagonally