How to Eat a Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Do you still use jelly?
This was the subject line of an e-mail I recently received. It wasn’t spam. It was from an ex-boyfriend.
“Do you still put strawberry jelly on the tops of grilled cheeses?” continued the body text. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have them any other way. I can’t eat a grilled cheese sandwich without thinking of you.”
This wasn’t meant to be a love letter. My ex and I broke up long ago. We were on congenial terms and as platonic as two people who’ve seen each other naked and once said I love you can be. Since we prided ourselves in our abilities to move from a break-up, into new relationships, new states and new lives, we checked-in on each other every few months or so. My ex was checking-in, so I platonically responded:
“I rarely put jelly on my grilled cheeses. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with other condiments. You should try it.”
I doubted he would. A grilled cheese with strawberry jelly on top is an unforgettable, un-go-backable, oxymoronical force of nature, especially when made by someone you’ve seen naked and to whom you’ve once said I love you.
The grilled cheese sandwich is my thing. For the right person, I can put six slices of cheddar between two buttered pieces of wheat bread, grill it for like, five minutes, cut it on the diagonal and smear wholegrain mustard over the top. To the right person, this sandwich will be the taste equivalent of how much I care. Because I do care. When I make you a grilled cheese sandwich, I like you. I really, really like you.
Like all foods steeped in the perfection of simplicity — omelets, shortbread, tomato sauce — there are only a few ingredients necessary for a well-made grilled cheese sandwich. You can customize based on cheese preference. You can serve it on white or wheat bread, but the grilled cheese is worth knowing how to make because, like all foods steeped in the perfection of simplicity, it reaches divine status through unyielding attention, and because everyone who eats one has a story to tell about it.
For me, the grilled cheese began with Allison Owens. Allie was my childhood best friend — the ringleader of two. She didn’t use training wheels. She had an older sister. Allie was wise. Because she was six-months older and six-inches taller, I relied on Allie to show me the workings of the world from our block in suburban Kansas. As a skort- and Keds-wearing six-year-old, many of my firsts were facilitated by Allie: first video game; first R-rated movie; first slumber party; first midnight snack; first grilled cheese with experimental condiments.
In plaid boxer shorts and an oversized t-shirt, I walked in a Tweety Bird-slippered shuffle from my house to hers, two doors away. The thick hum of July evening breeze blew on the back of my unshaven knees. I hoped Allie wouldn’t make me ride bikes later. In one arm I carried Ice Cream Bear, in the other a small bag of overnight essentials, including the toothbrush I’d invariably fail to use. I wondered what we’d make for dinner.
In Allie’s parents’ kitchen, under the supervision of Dr. Owens (we were only six after all), we melted cheese between two buttered slices of bread. I feared the stovetop. I feared a burnt sandwich. Spatula at the ready, I crept up on the sizzling pan, but Allie and her dad shooed me away — something about being patient.
Learning to leave the sandwich well alone was and remains a formidable task. If ever an inexperienced friend is charged with sandwich-making, he or she will compulsively check the sandwich’s underside for burning — like the fledgling owner of a wristwatch — until there is more crumb than slice, and the cheese is not sandwiched, but untucked and burning — congealing — on what unfortunately always turns out to be a non-stick pan. You can’t keep checking. Sometimes you’ve just got to know when to flip. In the canteen of Lathrop, my college dormitory, I watched as hair-capped cooks rolled Wonder Bread around wheels made of butter. They’d unwrap slices of school-bus-yellow American Cheese, slap the Kraft Single between doughy pieces of white bread, throw it on the grill, prepare another sandwich, and then flip the first one, all without looking away from the television in the corner that always seemed to air episodes of Friends. Sure, these were slapdash sandwiches. Sure, a dozen Bounty paper towels couldn’t soak up the grease, but they were never burnt, and with a hangover, they were fucking delicious.
They were more delicious with strawberry jelly, which is what I first discovered 17 years before, as the olfactory jetstream of butter and crisp bread wafted from the fogging stainless steel of Allie’s kitchen and landed on my paper plate, where it took the form of a grilled cheddar and Swiss cheese sandwich on wheat bread cut along the diagonal. Even as a yet un-self-proclaimed foodie, the pungent nuttiness and creaminess of the cheese paralyzed my senses. I asked for the ketchup. Instead, Allie opened a jar of gooey, seed-ridden strawberry jam. With the same knife we used to butter the bread minutes before, she smeared a glop of the viscous pink fruit across the top of her sandwich. Then, she smeared a glop over the top of mine. I abhorred the gesture. I crossed my arms, ready to refuse a dinner I had so eagerly awaited. But I remembered that Allie was wise, and as she was six inches taller, there was a closet full of hand-me-downs galore that she would pass on if I simply appeased her experimental, epicurean labors. Deep in the pit of my empty, growling stomach, I knew that Allie wanted me to like this grilled cheese sandwich — her grilled cheese sandwich. Because I was her best friend. She really, really liked me.
Making a grilled cheese is a game of paying attention to not paying any attention at all. We seasoned grilled cheese sandwich makers understand: When it’s down to the last two slices of bread, you don’t get a do-over without having to run an errand. But that just means you have to believe you’ll get it right. Anyway, the grilled cheese sandwich is about immediate, gratifying nourishment. If it’s not ready to eat in five minutes, it’s not worth eating.
At the same time Allie and I were playing Indian Princesses and foraging wild onions in her back yard, I was being tested and poked and checked-up on by several doctors. By kindergarten I had learned not to flinch at needles or pin pricks. I was a perpetually sick kid. On a near weekly basis, I would see Dr. Price, my otorhinolaryngologist, and after the usual saline sinus rinses and extensive tonsillectomy planning, my mom would drive the boat-sized Chevy Caprice to Winstead’s where she would order a Diet Coke and ask me what I’d like for lunch. I wanted a Tiny Tot Sized chocolate milk shake and a grilled cheese sandwich on wheat (Winstead’s was a Kansas City fixture — a drive-thru and diner acclaimed for its steakburgers. As a little girl, my mom would be lucky to go to Winstead’s once a year. She would order a single steakburger with everything, including cheese — certainly not a grilled cheese sandwich, but a meal worth remembering). We’d sit in slippery vinyl seats in a shade that qualified somewhere between seafoam and jungle green (I possessed a Crayola-inspired color vocabulary). I’d tap my bitten fingers on the pink and grey speckled Formica tabletop. We’d order. Then, I’d walk to the juke box, pop in a quarter and wait for “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley to play. Before the last chorus had finished, my grilled cheese would be waiting, in a grease-soaked wrapper, with a bottle of Heinz 57 at its side. My mom showed me how to pour the condiment from the glass jar so it only went where I wanted it to go. We played hangman while I dunked my sandwich into the sweet tomato ketchup and scoffed at the alleged merits of mustard.
As we wrote notes on diner napkins, I reached a clarity that to this day I believe only food can elicit. We didn’t know what was wrong. We didn’t know why I couldn’t get well. But I was sure that whenever I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, it came out fast. I was sure that all it took was butter, a couple pieces of bread and a slice of cheese. I was sure that as long as it didn’t burn — and it never did — my sandwich would taste as it should — always better than expected. I was also sure that grilled cheese on wheat was my thing. And as I sat and sniffled and tried not to breath through my mouth, I was sure that for five minutes being sick mattered slightly less to my mom and me. Because the grilled cheese sandwich was immediate, gratifying nourishment. And I really, really liked it.