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.


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

job secrets
10 Secrets of Hotel Room Service

Guests visiting New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1930s enjoyed an amenity that was unheard of at the time: waiters delivering meals directly to their rooms. While the Astoria’s reputation for luxury has endured, room service is no longer exclusive to five-star stays. Roughly 22 percent of the country’s 54,000 hotels [PDF] are willing and able to bring breakfast, lunch, or dinner to people who prefer to eat while splayed out on a large and strange bed.

To get the scoop on what goes into getting food from the kitchen to your floor, Mental Floss spoke with Matt, a hospitality specialist who spent a total of 10 years working in and around room service for a major San Francisco hotel. Matt preferred not to use his last name; since his stories sometimes involved naked people, undercooked chicken, and Oprah, you can understand why. Below, check out a few things you should know before you dig into that tray.


When a room service delivery employee takes a tray from the kitchen to your room, it’s typically covered in a metal lid to retain heat and to prevent other guests from sneezing on it. The higher up you are, the longer it has to travel—and the more that lid traps steam, soaking your food in moisture. “Food sweats in there,” Matt says. “Instead of having crispy, toasted bread, you get wet toast. The longer it stays in there, the worse it gets.” If you want crunchy fries, you’d better be on the first couple of floors.


A seafood dinner is presented on a plate

That lid is a nuisance in other ways. Because it traps heat, it’s effectively cooking your food in the time it takes to get from the chef’s hands to yours. “If you order a steak medium, it will probably be medium well by the time it gets to you,” Matt says. While you can try to outsmart the lid by requesting meat be cooked a notch lower than your preference, it's not so easy to avoid overcooked fish—which will probably also stink up your room. Instead, stick with burgers, club sandwiches, or salads. According to Matt, it’s hard to mess any of them up.


Just because you see a menu in your room, it doesn’t mean the hotel has a kitchen or chef on-site. To cut costs, more hotels are opting to out-source their room service to local eateries. “It might be ‘presented’ by the hotel, but it’s from a restaurant down the street,” Matt says. Alternately, hotels might try to save money by eliminating an overnight chef and having food pre-prepped so a desk clerk or other employee can just heat it up. That’s more likely if sandwiches or salads are the only thing available after certain hours.


Two coffee cups sit on a hotel bed

No, not for the reason you’re thinking. Because so many hotel guests are business travelers who are away from home for weeks or months at a time, some of them get tired of eating alone. When that happens, they turn to the first—and maybe only—person who could offer company: the room service waiter. “People are usually traveling alone, so they’ll offer you food,” Matt explains. Sometimes the traveler is a familiar face: According to Matt, he once sat down to eat with Oprah Winfrey, who was eating by herself despite her suite being filled with her own employees. He also says he had a bite with John F. Kennedy Junior, who wanted to finish watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High before heading for his limo.


Busy hotel kitchens aren’t always paying attention to whether the chicken wings they buy in bulk are frozen raw, frozen cooked, or somewhere in between. “Ask for them extra crispy,” Matt says. That way, they’ll be cooked thoroughly regardless of their freezer status. “I recommend that to everyone.”


A hotel guest pours milk into a bowl of cereal

Breakfast is undoubtedly the busiest time for room service, and those little cards that allow you to check off your menu items the night before are a huge help. “It’s great for everybody involved,” Matt says. “The kitchen can pace themselves and you can get your food on time.”


Yes, guests answer the door barely clothed. No, this is not optimal. “We don’t want to see it,” Matt says. “It's something we dealt with numerous times.” While it's likely your waiter will use discretion, any combination of genitalia, drugs, or illicit activity is best kept out of their sight.


A hotel room service tray sits in a hallway

That move where you stick your soggy fries outside your door? It can lead to some awkward encounters. Matt says he’s seen other guests stop, examine trays, and then pick up discarded food from them. Other times, people leave unimaginably gross items on the trays. “I’ve found condoms on there. Divorce paperwork. All kinds of things.”


Weird people aside, “We don’t really want it out there,” Matt says. “It stinks.” Instead, dial 0 for the front desk and let them know you’re done eating. They’ll dispatch someone to come and get it.


A tip is placed near a hotel check

People pay out the nose for room service, with hotels adding surcharges for “service” and “in-room” dining that can turn a $5 club sandwich into a $15 expense. That’s not great news for guests, but it does mean you don’t need to feel bad about not offering a cash tip. Those service fees usually go straight to the employees who got your food to your room. “I never tip,” Matt says. “Most of the time, the service and delivery charges are given to the waiter or split between the people who answered the phone and pick up the tray. It’s better to leave it all on paper to make sure it gets divided up.”

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.


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