We’ve all heard the popular story of how in 1762 a hungry John Montague, Earl of Sandwich, ordered some meat stuffed between two pieces of bread in order to continue playing a game of cards. The idea caught on and the sandwich was born. But it would be some 160 years later, with the advent of affordable bread and inexpensive processed cheese, before the modern grilled cheese sandwich would debut.
The first “grilled cheese” sandwiches were actually cooked open-faced with grated “American” cheddar cheese on a single slice of bread. Naval cookbooks from World War II indicate that sailors aboard our ships were served hundreds of broiled “American cheese filling sandwiches.” This was probably because not only was this sandwich economical, it also met the government nutritional standards.
By the 1950s, these delicious and economical sandwiches were served in school cafeterias throughout the country as part of a healthy meal, usually accompanied with a bowl of tomato soup. At some point, perhaps the early 60s, a second slice of bread became a standard ingredient, most likely because it was the cheapest way to make the sandwich more filling.
A curiosity has been raised by some over the name of this popular sandwich, particularly since recipes for “grilled cheese” sandwiches did not appear in print until the 1960s. Prior to that, cookbooks and articles referred to them as “toasted cheese” or “cheese dream” sandwiches. The preferred cooking method called for broiling which, although perhaps passé in today’s society, is the North American word for the verb “grill.” And while almost everyone “fries” their grilled cheese sandwiches on a cook-top range in a skillet or sauté pan, or on a griddle, you won’t find a recipe named “fried cheese sandwich.”
Today, the classic grilled cheese sandwich has been transformed into a gourmet delight. From substituting focaccia, ciabatta, or other artisanal breads for pre-sliced white bread, to using gruyere, havarti, or smoked gouda instead of American. We’ve also given this sandwich an extra touch of class by adding such items as bacon, nuts, avocados, heirloom tomatoes, and pesto.
So whether it’s the quintessential American version or one of the many gourmet varieties, the fact is everyone loves grilled cheese sandwiches. If you are of one these more than two billion folks who each year crave this iconic wonder, here are three outstanding recipes to try. And for those who can’t boil water without burning it, or just feel like letting someone else do the cooking, we’ve included some great places that specialize in America’s favorite sandwich.