The Grilled Cheese: America’s Favorite Sandwich

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.

Find Em: Chedd’s, Austin, TX/Sous Falls, SD/Eau Claire, WI; The American, San Francisco, CA; Grilled Cheese & Co, Catonsville/Sykesville/Baltimore, MD; The Melt, San Francisco/Palo Alto, CA

Make Em: Oooey-Gooey In & Out Grilled Cheese, Grilled Goat Cheese with Fig and Honey, The Francesca Grilled Cheese

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Mac and Cheese: America’s Favorite Comfort Food

The first known recipe for a macaroni and cheese casserole was recorded as far back as thirteenth century Italy. In the medieval cookbook Liber de Coquina, the anonymous author describes layering sheets of lasagne with powdered spices and cheese (likely parmesan) of choice. This recipe (called de lasanis), while certainly not the same as the modern version of macaroni and cheese, is none the less a viable predecessor.

As with many of today’s foods, the exact origin of macaroni and cheese has been lost over time. The most popular story is that this cuisine made its way to the United States by way of Thomas Jefferson who experienced numerous pasta dishes while in both Paris and northern Italy. When he returned to Monticello in 1787, he brought back a pasta machine so he could continue to enjoy the dishes he had grown to love.

Documents in the Library of Congress show that President Jefferson enjoyed serving “macaroni pie,” an earlier version of what we know as baked macaroni and cheese, to guests at state dinners. While he certainly did not invent the recipe, this helped popularize it throughout American, and the American South in particular.

The 1824 edition of the century’s most influential cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, written by Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph, includes a recipe for “Macaroni and Cheese.” It contains only three ingredients–macaroni, cheese, and butter–layered together and baked in a 400-degree oven. By the mid 1880s, recipes for macaroni-based casseroles appeared in numerous cookbooks as far west as Kansas.

The first pasta factory opened in Philadelphia in 1798, although it wasn’t until after the Civil War, with the development of the hydraulic press, steam-powered mill and the influx of Italian immigrants , that America’s pasta-making business started to grow. Still, many of the affluent families continued to import pasta from Europe. It took World War I and the resulting halt of imports, to have a major impact on this new American industry. The number of pasta factories almost doubled between 1914 and 1919.

In 1937, during the throes of the Great Depression, Kraft Foods introduced boxed macaroni and cheese. The company’s advertising slogan “make a meal for four in nine minutes,” resulted in an immediate success, and sales of over eight million nineteen-cent boxes of the product in one year. With the advent of World War II, Kraft’s boxed macaroni and cheese dinners continued to gain popularity due to its convenience and a shortage of fresh dairy products.

Today, chefs all across this great nation are putting creative twists on this popular comfort food, elevating it to a dish worthy of being served in the finest of restaurants. While still a mainstay of college student cuisine, there are now variations substituting brie and goat cheese for the familiar cheddar-based sauce; rotini and farfalle for elbows; and the addition of exotic mushrooms, caramelized onions, figs, and proscuitto.

There are even restaurants serving only macaroni and cheese, such as S’Mac in Manhattan’s East Village, NY ($7.75 to $10.75); Homeroom in Oakland, CA ($7.75 to $9.50); Cheese-Ology in University City, MO ($7 to $8.50); Macdaddy’s in Denton, TX (prices not listed).

So whether you go for the old standby mac and cheese common to barbecue and soul food establishments across the south, or hanker to try one of the gourmet varieties in a big-city sit-down restaurant, or just feel like enjoying the boxed version microwaved in your own home, know you’re in good company, because everyone from 3 to 103 loves macaroni and cheese–America’s most popular comfort food.

Try Em: (Top six mac & cheese brands) Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Annie’s Elbows & Four Cheese Sauce, Clear Value Shells and Cheese, Krasdale Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Hodgson Mills Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, Pasta Roni Shells & White Cheddar

Make Em: Old-Fashioned Macaroni and Cheese, Fannie Farmer’s Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese, President Ronald Reagan’s Mac and Cheese