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A Tribute to the Grilled Cheese Sandwich

A grilled cheese sandwich is a staple food for children because it's simple, quick, and cheap to make. Kids like simple food, and an American cheese slice on white bread is as simple as it gets. Melt it by frying it in butter, and that adds a dose of love to the dish. When we get older, the pleasure that sandwich brings stays with us, even as we add adult touches like gourmet bread, a variety of cheeses, and extras like vegetables and spices. A grilled cheese is both vegetarian and kosher, but if that's not a concern it is certainly acceptable to add meat as well. Your basic American chain restaurant knows this, which is why the patty melt, a grilled cheese with a hamburger patty and sauteed onions on rye bread, became so popular. Image by redditor thebeefytaco.

one a day #3

Grilled cheese goes naturally with another comfort food from your childhood, tomato soup, which made at least one author relate the sandwich to artist Andy Warhol. Add another side dish or two (raw veggie sticks or potato chips), and you have an inexpensive family meal. I invested in a large electric griddle (in part) so I can made a dozen sandwiches at a time for my family of six -it requires precise timing, but it can be done. That just makes us part of a world of grilled cheese lovers -and they are all over the internet. Image by Flickr user dave milsom.

grilled cheese

Folks have been melting cheese on bread ever since cheese and bread were invented. The earliest pizzas were mainly cheese baked onto a disc of bread dough. The grilled cheese sandwich we know has been common since the 1920s, when sliced bread and American cheese became available in groceries. It was a direct descendant of both the toasted cheese sandwich (which is not fried) and the Cheese Dream, an economical open faced hot sandwich in which the main ingredient was melted cheese. The earliest publication mentioning the Cheese Dream seems to be from 1918, but the recipe became popular during the Great Depression. Image by Flickr user hmmlargeart.

Today, this simple comfort food and all its grown-up variations are more popular than ever. So popular, in fact, that you can find restaurants that specialize in grilled cheese sandwiches. Just this week inventor Jonathan Kaplan, who developed the Flip camera, open a grilled cheese restaurant in San Francisco called The Melt, which he hopes will become a chain. It won't be the first. The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen already serves San Francisco. Chedd's Gourmet Grilled Cheese is open in Austin, Texas, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In Maryland, you'll find Grilled Cheese and Co. There's Cheesie's Pub and Grub in Chicago. Melt Bar and Grilled is preparing to open their third location in Ohio. The Grilled Cheese Grill has two outlets serving Portland, Oregon. And the Melthouse Bistro is planned for Milwaukee.

If you can't get to a restaurant for a grilled cheese, maybe one will come to you! The Grilled Cheese Truck is a sandwich truck specializing in, of course, grilled cheeses, and makes its rounds in the greater Los Angeles area. Image by Arnold Urtiaga Jr.

Of course, a grilled cheese sandwich is easy to make at home when you're there. It's just a matter of making a cheese sandwich, buttering the outside, and cooking it until the cheese melts. After that, there are so many variations and possibilities for added ingredients that there are entire websites devoted to grilled cheese recipes -and everything else to do with the humble but beloved grilled cheese. The Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Academy is "an institute dedicated to deliciousness," where you can find recipes for all kinds of sandwiches and a guide to Wisconsin cheeses. Many blogs sooner or later posts lists of the best or most outrageous grilled cheese recipes (examples here, here, and here), but there are also entire blogs dedicated solely to the grilled cheese. Pictured above is the Spinach Pesto Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Closet Cooking.

Shane Kearns at Grilled Shane blogs about everything to do with the sandwich, from recipes to news to opinions to art and music -all about grilled cheeses. The sandwich pictured is a recipe Shane posted featuring Tillamook cheddar and baby bok choy. Another blog, The Quest for the Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich reviews grilled cheeses at restaurants all over.

One of those blogs, Grilled Cheese Social, has plenty of recipes, but the latest post is about making grilled cheese with an iron. You might recall seeing this done in the 1993 movie Benny & Joon, which led Roy (shown here) and Laura to recreate the scene just to see if it could be done. The verdict: yes.

There's even a grilled cheese dessert recipe, although maybe not as sweet as, say, ice cream. The recipe for the sandwich pictured above uses brie and dark chocolate on sourdough bread. A post elsewhere proves you can talk about sex and make your audience hungry for a grilled cheese sandwich.

Even stranger is the grilled cheese martini, which is supposed to replicate the taste of the sandwich (and tomato soup). Australian bartender Shawn Soole at Clive's in Victoria, BC, achieves this taste by infusing rum ahead of time with a real grilled cheese sandwich. Beecher's Handmade Cheese in New York City developed their own recipe using vodka. Now it is also available in Seattle and probably other places. Image by Shawn Soole.

Competitors

With all this love for the grilled cheese, it only makes sense that Americans would have a competition about it. Behold The National Grilled Cheese Invitational, held in Los Angeles every year during National Grilled Cheese Month (April). A maximum of 300 competitors have 50 minutes to create sandwiches in up to four categories, separated into amateur and professional divisions. There are also non-cooking competitions at the event, such as the costume contest, poetry contest, and a "cheese-calling" contest. Image by Flickr user Alexi Kostibas.

Grilled Cheese Haiku

golden delicious
warm cheese melts me to my soul
i’ll have another

-by matt

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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