Grilled cheese sits in our memories, quietly searing on the back griddle, ready to be served up with a spatula on a rainy day. Most of the time, we aren't even aware of the grilled cheese sandwich until we need one and the time is just right. The alchemical taste of char and butterfat returns to mind, a childhood memory like a mother's embrace or the smell of a soccer field: never to be forgotten completely, there when you need it.
At least, it was that way. The grilled cheese sandwich is now seeing something of a heyday, and it's hard to forget. Soup and a sandwich has left the diner and entered the hip vernacular, spawning food trucks and menu items and whole grilled cheese restaurants. An age-old formula of bread and cheese (panini, baguettes, fondue) is given a distinctly postwar-American treatment. But we pepper it up now, with multigrains and Gruyère.
We should have seen this coming. The generation that's building restaurants now grew up on nostalgia. We emulate the sepia-toned photographs of Mom and Dad on big-wheeled bicycles and work eight-bit Nintendo tones into our music. And we love grilled cheese.
It was cute, at first.
When I lived in Portland, there was a food cart that sold grilled cheese
sandwiches and had a dining room inside a whimsically painted school
bus. All you needed was Michael Cera and a Klonopin and you'd be back at
Montessori School, having snacktime with all your friends and all the
colors. Adults eating kid food! How awesome! There were, of course,
cheese and filling options: prosciutto, mushrooms, whatever. This is
what modern folks being "artisanal" is all about: elevating old standbys
with new, smarter, more "adult" ingredients.
And then the virus spread. When a trend makes it down here to South
Florida, you know it's serious business. The local cart Ms. Cheezious
cranks out an interesting menu of sandwiches that are by all accounts
delicious, on marble rye and beyond. A friend recently told me -- much to
my horror -- about consuming, voluntarily, a "seven-cheese grilled cheese
Boca Raton's Delray Beach's Dada. I was hardly surprised when she
described slight gastrointestinal discomfort afterward. There was
reportedly sheep's cheese.
The grilled cheese is a natural fit down in Miami, where the childhood
desires are just as strong, but they're motivated by a sociopathic state
of prolonged infancy rather than twee nostalgia. Miami's all about
getting baked, gawking at enormous titties, and eating food a 2-year-old would approve of. Everyone's a step away from crying
because they lost their toys, and the oral fixation needs to be sated by
something. Sometimes this means grotesquely oversize "gourmet"
hamburgers or ice cream or pizza. Stoner food, for when we forget all
our adult refinements and nutritional guidelines. And there's nothing
wrong with that.
But the crass spread of the grilled cheese into winking haute menu item
risks devaluing the deep currency of our childhoods by marketing this
simple concoction until it's as overplayed as the burger and ripe for
parody. Then we'll get bored and start filling our grilled cheeses with
rutabaga or water chestnuts or whatever other bullshit keeps things
interesting. The iconic vanilla kid sandwich will start to need kinks.
That will all continue for a while until we forget about the whole
trend, leaving behind the grilled cheese restaurants in search of the
next great trend. A few years may pass, and we'll get older and more
jaded, no doubt.
Then you'll stop in an old diner and see soup and a sandwich on the menu
for under a fiver. You'll dip in, take a bite, feel the pull of the
processed cheese food, and remember how good it is to be genuine, how
very adult it is to treat your nostalgia with restraint.
Stefan Kamph: Twitter | Facebook | Email