Ultimate grilled-cheese fighting

The ‘world’s best sandwich’ gets frightening at the Grilled Cheese Invitational
Jacob Richler

While we spend April trying to choose between our usual unpalatable options, down stateside, where even a minority of the popular vote is good for four years, they will instead be focused on National Grilled Cheese Month. It all comes to a head on the 23rd, in Los Angeles, where thousands of Americans barred from riding an elevator more than two at a time will converge hungrily on Center Studios for the 2nd 8th (yes, the second eighth) Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational.

“The competition is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of grilled cheese,” cautions Laura Werlin, author of the seminal Great Grilled Cheese: 50 Innovative Recipes for Stovetop, Grill, and Sandwich Maker, as well as its inevitable sequel, the just-published Grilled Cheese, Please!: 50 Scrumptiously Cheesy Recipes. “It’s a lot of fun, a means of celebrating the world’s best sandwich, and it brings out a lot of creativity.”

Werlin would know, for she was a judge at last year’s event (the 1st 8th GCI), where amongst other things, she was served a sandwich called the “Cheesy Mac and Rib,” a cheddar-based grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with a starch-boosting mound of macaroni and cheese, an ice-cream scoop of pulled pork and a blob of caramelized onion. “It sounds disgusting,” Werlin allowed over the phone from San Francisco, whence she will soon be travelling to judge again at this year’s GCI. “I have to say that I’m embarrassed to admit that there was something about the flavours and textures?… I enjoyed it.”

To see if you would, too, on April 6 tune in to the Food Network premiere of Eat St., a Canadian spin-off of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, built on the same unrelenting close-ups of well-exercised cheeks straining to accommodate yet another oversized sandwich. The episode opens with the Cheesy Mac and Rib, a creation of the L.A.-based Grilled Cheese Truck—perennial favourites at the GCI, a contest which began as a competition between friends, and by last year had grown to attract 250 competitors and 8,000 attendees.

The competition features four categories. The first is technique-focused, and celebrates the grilled cheese sandwich as most North Americans were first introduced to it: called “Love, American Style,” it limits competitors to  white bread, butter and orange cheese. The second (“The Missionary Position”) allows freedom of choice in the selection of bread, cheese and butter, but forbids additional ingredients. The “Kama Sutra” embraces additional ingredients, but limits them to 40 per cent of the filling (60 per cent must be cheese). The final category is even more disturbing: “The Honey Pot” features the same basic rules, but its additional ingredients must be sweet, for a package that “would best be served as dessert.”

This makes several things very clear. First: these people obviously smoke a lot of dope. Second: someone like me who thinks the ultimate expression of the grilled cheese sandwich in winter is a croque monsieur (crustless pain au lait, Gruyère, béchamel, ham), and in summer, a panino caprese (focaccia, fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced tomato, basil), is obviously frighteningly conservative. And lastly, that the American-style, butter-soaked and sharp-cheddar-filled grilled cheese sandwich I occasionally serve my children for a quick lunch is apparently under grave and unsavoury threat.

I felt it last week when I ordered the daily grilled cheese at the Swan diner in Toronto and was given a sandwich filled with three cheeses (Swiss, Asiago and buffalo-milk cheddar) with sliced pear and watercress. It confirmed the expected: that while ripe pear and room-temperature blue cheese is lovely, molten, bland white cheese and crunchy pear is revolting. To feel better, I flipped through my copy of Grilled Cheese, Please!, settling on page 115: the Cheesus Burger, a creation of the Grilled Cheese Grill in Portland, Ore., features a massive burger slathered with ketchup and ballpark mustard sandwiched between two processed-cheese grilled cheese sandwiches, one dressed with onion, the second with pickle. “Oh!” said the waitress, looking at the picture as she cleared my plate. “I’ve seen that on!”