Extreme Comfort Food

When the economy slows, diners thrive. And our thoughts turn to grilled cheese.

It looks a little deflated on the plate, too black in spots, and
— when cool enough to handle — leaves your fingers with a
crumb-flecked gloss of melted butter.

The grilled cheese sandwich is that cliché of food-writing
banalities: classic comfort food. Only these days, when your mom
mentions she’ll soon have to waitress to make up for her decimated
retirement portfolio (a flicker of real fear in the joke), classic
comfort food is so much more than intellectual nostalgia. These days,
grilled cheese can take you to a sun-washed inner realm — the
place that bong toke of purple sticky takes you, while spending those
last, precious drops of Visa-card juice on porn streaming.

Barbara Mulas seems as surprised as anyone that diners are
gravitating to the gastronomical equivalent of the fetal position. In
late February, Mulas and her husband, Mark Drazek, opened Sidebar, a
brisk, urban gastropub in Oakland’s Grand Lake district, where
cheese-filled panini stand in as crisp, grill-marked variations on the
oozing American classic.

“We’ve been selling a lot,” Mulas said. “More than I thought we
would.” Mulas and Drazek were the chef/owners behind Berkeley’s Zax
Tavern, which closed in 2007. Sidebar is their first foray into lunch,
a meal where sandwiches, naturally, rule. But melty Panini — my
favorite combines Vermont white cheddar, bacon, and tangy Roma tomatoes
within implausibly crisp slices of pain de mie from Acme Bread
— are selling like, well, hotcakes.

Mulas grew up in New Jersey. Her childhood memories of grilled
cheese ooze Kraft American Singles. “But don’t print that,” she said
(oops). The thing is, anyone of a certain generation shares a
collective memory of rubbery orange factory cheese and compressible
white bread, or maybe Roman Meal if your parents were hip. After all, a
shared frame of reference is the very thing that makes comfort food as
cozy as a Slanket.

“Right now we’re in this extreme comfort food moment,” said Kara
Nielsen, a trendologist at the Center for Culinary Development, a San
Francisco company that develops new food products. “The economy —
we’re stressed out.”

Depending on your age, Nielsen posits, you respond either to the
grilled cheese or its T.G.I. Friday’s cognate, the quesadilla. She lays
out her generational equation, rife with algebraic symmetry. “Grilled
cheese is the quesadilla of Gen X, while the quesadilla is the grilled
cheese of Gen Y,” Nielsen said. The Boomers, as everyone knows, are
just annoying.

“From a trend perspective, Boomers and Gen X grew up on grilled
cheese,” Nielsen said. “It also used to be the mainstay of the kids’
menu in restaurants, and an easy food to make with things everyone had
in their house. Also something you could find at a diner on the road.
Something every kid would eat. Like many comfort foods, they remain in
our memories of things that were really benign and beloved.”

It may be historical irony that a food so buttery and innocuous has
roots in despair. Gabriella Petrick, assistant professor of food
studies at NYU Steinhardt, said the American-style grilled cheese
sandwich was most likely the invention of home economists seeking ways
to solve the protein problem — i.e., getting enough of it,
cheaply, to families in the years just before the Great Depression gave
people today something to compare the current economic crisis to.

“By the 1920s, you had large-scale industrial food manufacturing and
an industrialization of the food industry,” Petrick said. She points to
a recipe from 1924, “Hot Cheese Sandwich,” from a tome called
Everybody’s Cookbook, edited by Isabel Ely Lord: bread and
cheese, pan-fried in butter till immortal. The cheese would have been
hand sliced, by the way, since Kraft Singles didn’t land in the
cold-cut drawers of America’s fridges for a few more decades.

A little book from 1945, Soda Fountain and Luncheon
Management
by J. O. Dahl, places the grilled cheese in the
lunch-counter pantheon titled “Seventy-Two Profitable Sandwiches.” (It
includes the rather disturbing “Winking Eyes”: one slice of bread
rolled around cheese paste, another rolled around tuna paste, baked and
served gazing up at you, like a dog with bicolor irises.) The
prototypical diner grilled cheese — called, simply, “Cheese
Sandwich” — sold at between 40 and 75 cents.

In these bleak days, successors to the soda fountains of the 1940s
may be doing better than almost any other type of restaurant. “Diners
thrive in this time, in this particular economy, while everybody else
tends to struggle,” says Peter Levitt, co-owner and executive chef of
Saul’s Deli in Berkeley. But even Saul’s is taking a hit: Customers are
spending less money, and while traffic for breakfast and lunch is still
decent, at off hours the place can feel as empty as a Brooklyn bagel
shop during Passover. And dinner? Forget about it.

“If they’re going to go out at all, they may go out for more comfort
food,” Levitt said. Saul’s is doing a bang-up business in chicken soup
and sammies of all kinds, including grilled cheese (with and without
tomatoes). But the popularity of his comfort sandwiches seems to offer
scant comfort to Levitt, whose ideal grilled cheese involves something
altogether more artisanal than a deli price point allows.

“Me, I’d probably go across to the Cheese Board and pick up some
cheeses that melt well, some great artisan local cheeses. To do that in
a restaurant, you’d probably have to charge $11 or $12. It’d be as
expensive as meat.”

Is a truly great grilled cheese, inevitably then, one of the
comforts of home?

Not really, said Laura Werlin, San Francisco author and educator on
the subject of American artisan cheese. Her book Great Grilled
Cheese
was published in 2004. “Needless to say, I’m a big fan of
artisan cheese,” she said. “One of the things I’ve discovered is when
it comes down to it, yes, you want to use a cheese good enough to eat
on its own, but it doesn’t have to be the most expensive one out there
to make a satisfying grilled cheese.”

What you need, Werlin explains, is a good melting cheese: Gruyere,
Monterey Jack, or cheddar, or a mix of all three. And you can enhance
any or all of those with a little bit of pricier cheese. “But
honestly,” she adds, “to me what matters is that the cheese tastes
good, it melts well, and you’ve got really good buttered bread. And
then you’re going to be happy.”

Yes — promise us that warm strands of cheese and crisp,
buttery toast will go on making us all happy. No matter what.

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