Grilled Cheese: An International Primer

Let’s start at ground zero, the American grilled cheese. In 1916, James L. Kraft obtained a patent for processed cheese that was easy to transport without spoiling or perishing. Soon slices of the cheap processed cheese was being heated between slices of mass-produced white bread (Wonder bread was a frequent choice), and the dish became an essential companion to heated canned soups, particularly Campbell’s tomato. Though like any mass-produced/processed product the American grilled cheese has multitudes of detractors, it remains a favorite staple in households across the country.

Across the Pond there’s Welsh rabbit, which is made not with conies but bread, cheese in a sauce and the always-welcome option of beer. The most basic version involves thick slices of bread slathered in a thick cheese sauce made with Cheddar or some other substantial firm, off-white cheese with a slosh of your choice of beer (a good stout is excellent) and broiled. No one really knows any more how cheese on toast came to be called ‘rabbit’ or ‘rarebit’ (the variations in spelling seem to be arbitrary), but both Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin gave a recipe for ‘Lapin Gallois’ and a ‘Wouelsche Rabette’ first appeared in Antoine Beauvilliers’ L’Art du Cuisinier in 1814. Sometimes, my friends, you just have to roll with the punches.

Traveling east across the Channel you find in France the croque monsieur, which is Gruyere cheese melted inside a ham sandwich, topped with a Bechamael sauce, more Gruyere and broiled. A version called croque madame is topped with a fried egg. The dish originated in French cafés and bars during la Belle Époque as a quick snack, the name based on the verb croquer (“to bite, to crunch”) and the word monsieur (“mister”). The sandwich’s first recorded appearance on a Paris café menu was in 1910 and the dish is actually mentioned in volume two (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1919) of Proust’s epic À la recherche du temps perdu, which also happens to be a culinary mother lode.

Then you have raclette, a semi-hard cow’s milk French cheese usually fashioned into a wheel of about 3 lb. that’s heated, either in front of a fire or by a special machine—you can buy a Swissmar KF-77045 Classic 8 Person Raclette (with granite stone top: red) for $120 on Amazon—then scraped onto diners’ plated bread. The term raclette itself derives from the French word racler, meaning “to scrape”. Raclette was mentioned in medieval writings in texts from Swiss-German convents dating from as early as 1291. The cheese was originally consumed by peasants in the mountainous Alpine regions of Valais (Switzerland), Savoie and Haute-Savoie (France). It was then known in the German-speaking part of Switzerland as Bratchäs, or “roasted cheese”. Traditionally, cow herders carried cheese with them when they were moving cows to or from mountain pastures and the cheese would be placed next to a campfire for melting.

In Italy you have what is called mozzarella in carozza, which translates as “cheese (okay, mozzarella) in a carriage”. Sliced mozzarella is placed between sliced, crust-less white bread, dredged in a milk with beaten eggs and either pan- or deep-fried. If you ask me, it’s the mozzarella in carozza—NOT the croque monsieur that’s the undoubted precursor of that classic old diner specialty, the Monte Cristo sandwich, which employs the exact same procedure and ingredients with Swiss cheese and sliced ham or turkey. I substantiate this claim for the simple reason that the Monte Cristo’s origins can be traced to New York City, which has always boasted a great many people of Italian descent and Monte Cristo itself happens to be in Livorno.

So there.

A grilled cheese in Sweden (sounds like a Vonnegut title, doesn’t it?) is called a varm macka, which simply means “warm muck”. Some of you might recoil at such nomenclature, but let me be the first to assure you that when it comes to culinary terminology, “muck” is small potatoes indeed. For the most part, Swedish sandwiches—called smörgås—are open-faced, and even most simple cheese sandwiches are made open-faced and eaten cold. But a varm macka is cheese, not Grevé or Herrgårdsost as you might suspect but rather Gouda (Dutch) or Swiss, sliced, placed on buttered bread and heated in the oven.

Back to the New World and across the Rio Grande is the quesadilla, a tortilla, usually a flour tortilla but sometimes corn, filled with cheese and grilled. A full quesadilla involves two tortillas filled with cheese, stacked and heated, halves are a single tortilla filled with cheese and folded into a half-moon shape. Mexican quesadillas are traditionally cooked on a comal, which is also used to prepare tortillas. They are usually cooked without oil, but quesadillas can be fried to make quesadillas fritas, While Oaxaca (or string) cheese is the most common filling, other ingredients are also used in addition to the cheese, including cooked vegetables, such as potatoes with chorizo, squash blossoms, mushrooms, epazote, huitlacoche, and different types of cooked meat, such as chicharron, tinga made of chicken or beef, or cooked pork. Avocado or guacamole, green or red salsas, chopped onion, tomato, chiles, and cilantro are the most common toppings.

Farther south in Venezuela is the arepa de queso, a stuffed corn cake made from masa flour and then cooked on a cast iron skillet. The arepa is filled with local farmer’s cheese (mozzarella is a viable substitute) and then griddled again. Thee word arepa comes from “erepa” which means corn bread in the language of the indigenous people of Venezuela and Colombia. Early arepas were made with cassava (or yucca) flour as well as corn.

Finally, in Brazil you have a fascinating dish called the bauru. The traditional recipe calls for cheese (usually mozzarella) melted in a bain-marie, slices of roast beef, tomato and pickled cucumber in a French bun with the crumb (the soft inner part) removed. The bauru’s origins are actually well documented. In 1934, a student at the Faculdade de Direito do Largo de São Francisco, in São Paulo, Casemiro Pinto Neto[2] (known as Bauru for coming from the city of the same name in São Paulo state), entered Ponto Chic, a traditional eatery and student hangout, and asked the cook to prepare a sandwich from his specifications. “Bauru’s Sandwich” was an immediate hit, and eventually became the best-selling dish at the place. Many other eateries offer sandwiches named bauru with different combinations of ingredients—using sliced ham instead of roast beef or sliced bread instead of French bread. The city of Bauru eventually named the traditional bauru as the city’s official sandwich, codifying the recipe in a municipal law and instituting an official certification program.

Orange Spice Cake

Put 3 cups sugar and 1 ½ cup softened butter in a large mixing bowl. Cream together until light and fluffy. Add 5 eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in alternately 3 cups of flour and a cup of milk. Stir very well. Add a half cup of orange juice concentrate, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and cinnamon, and a half teaspoon of nutmeg, allspice and ground cloves. Mix thoroughly and bake at medium high (375) until lightly browned. Serve toasted slices with drizzled honey.

Snow Ice Cream

Combine 1 cup of milk–heavy cream or evaporated milk is better–in a bowl with 1/2 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. You can use another flavor such as maple or almond. Stir in 2 gallons (8 cups) of fresh snow; use only the cleanest, freshest snow. Mix very well. You should have enough snow ice cream for four people.

Steak for Two

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the country was overrun with cosmopolitan, “Continental-style” restaurants of that combined high style with leather banquettes, white-linen table cloths and dishes of American and European influences, many of them involving a bit of theater and dramatic preparation. One of the dishes often found on the menus along with Crab Imperial and Chicken Cordon Bleu was Steak Diane, a retro-glamorous dish combining Escoffier’s Sauce Diane, a sauce poivrade with cream, served with venison (Diana, you’ll remember, was goddess of the hunt), and simple steak au poivre, a timeless recipe for filet mignon. Steak Diane is not in the classical cannon, but has tons of cachet nonetheless, and in the day was usually served flambé, as were Cherries Jubilee, Bananas Foster, and Crêpe Suzette. Steak Diane is a wonderful dish to serve at an intimate dinner for two. Sure, it’s expensive, but indulging on a special occasion is completely justified, and it’s easy enough that even you Bobby Flay wannabes can handle it.

Slice a 12-oz. filet of beef into two medallions, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper (use plenty), dust with flour and sauté in butter for only a minute or so on each side. Set the meat aside on a warm plate. Add another pat of butter to the pan, a cup of sliced mushrooms, two finely-diced shallots, and a crushed and minced clove of garlic. When the mushrooms are cooked through, deglaze pan with a little sherry or cognac. (Note: this is the point for flambé; ensure the liquid is hot and use one of those fireplace lighters. Don’t do this in the bedroom.) Mix in a couple of teaspoons of Dijon mustard, about a half cup beef stock and an equal amount of heavy cream. Reduce, adding more cream if necessary. To serve, spoon over the beef medallions and top with chopped scallions and parsley.

Willadeen’s Spoon Bread

Willadeen Monahan and her sister, Geraldeen, used to sing on the local radio shows in north Mississippi back in the 1950s. They were pretty and could sing up a storm, but the act never went anywhere, and in time they both married and settled down, Geraldeen in Kosciusko and Willadeen in Como, where I became her neighbor. Panola County gets mighty cold in the deep Delta winter, and when the north wind came whipping down on us like a blue devil, Willadeen would call us up and say, “Y’all come on over and get some of this spoon bread to keep you warm. You know I make the best in the world!” And she did. Here’s her recipe.

Preheat oven to 400. Sift 1 cup of white or yellow cornmeal into 2 cups of lightly salted (1 teaspoon) boiling water. Lower the heat and stir vigorously until it becomes a stiff gruel. Remove from heat and mix in a cup of cold milk. This is best done with a whip, and some people will use half-and-half or cream for a more sumptuous dish. Add 2 well-beaten eggs and 2 tablespoons melted butter. Blend until very smooth and ladle into a heated, well-oiled 8-in. baking dish. Willadeen used a skillet, which gives a nice crust. Bake until firm in the middle and nicely browned, for about 40 minutes, less if you’re using cast iron. Serve hot from the oven.

Cinnamon Cocoa Mix

Mix 2 cups powdered sugar with a cup of cocoa, 2 ½ cups dry milk, a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of cornstarch, and a teaspoon ground cinnamon, or to taste. Mix very well and store in an airtight container. This makes about 5 ½ cups. When serving, place two heap-ish tablespoons of the mix in a mug, stir in about a half cup hot water or milk (a drop of vanilla or almond extract is di-VINE!), combine thoroughly, top off with more hot liquid and stir. Serve immediately.


Mrs. Johnny Vaught’s Brunswick Stew

When you’re the wife of a football coach, you often  have to feed a BIG crowd, and if you’re the wife of Johnny Vaught, you want a Southern recipe that everybody loves. Such is the case with Brunswick stew, a favorite dish for gatherings in the South since Daniel Boone barged through the Cumberland Gap. By my reckoning, this recipe could easily feed either 20 people or the Rebel offensive line at one sitting.

Water Buffalo

We are what we eat: our food is very much an indication of who we are, of our place on the planet in every facet of our existence: our age, our geography, our society, our ethnic background and our own sense of self.

You’ll often hear of fish being talked about as trash fish. Trash fish is a slang term for what U.S. state agencies and anglers call rough fish to describe larger fish species not commonly eaten or fished for sport. A fish considered rough fish in one region may be considered a game or food fish in another, often due to culture or tradition. For example, the common carp is considered an undesirable rough fish in the United States and Australia, but is the premier game fish of Europe and the most valuable food fish across most of Asia. Gar is an undesirable nuisance in most places in the U.S., but in Louisiana it’s mashed, made into balls with seasonings and fried.

Buffalo is a genus (Ictiobus) of freshwater fish common in the United States. It is sometimes mistaken for carp because of its flat face and large, silver scales running along the body, though it lacks the whisker-like mouth appendages common to carp. Buffalo live in most types of freshwater bodies where panfish are found, such as ponds, creeks, rivers and lakes. From a fishermen’s point of view, the buffalo is difficult to catch; the preferred method is with gill nets.

According to Dr. Jim Steeby, former research and extension professor at MSU, “There are three species of buffalo: bigmouth, smallmouth and black. The smallmouth, also called the razorback, is most commonly caught in rivers with hoop nests.

“We can spawn and grow them with catfish in ponds,” Jim said. “They are minnow family fishes so they have bones in their flesh, but it’s a Southern favorite; the ribs are the best part. In the Delta at Stoneville, we did mostly catfish research, but we worked on some other species. Back in the early 60s they started growing buffalo in ponds in Arkansas, then switching to catfish as the market for them was better. Buffalo are not grown much anymore. Most of the harvest comes from commercial fishermen. If the market were bigger we could easily supply it, but buffalo seems likely to remain a regional favorite.”

Jackson chef Nick Wallace said that the unpopularity of buffalo might have something to do with the bones, “But you can go to some of these Southern fish markets and find buffalo. It’s not cooked in the restaurants at all; maybe because the chefs don’t like the quality because of the bones, I’m not sure; maybe it doesn’t fit to their clientele. But fish markets that do six hundred, seven hundred thousand dollars a year, they have it. It is seasonal, mainly winter, but it has a long season. To me, it is a delicate fish. If you eat it, you have to eat it delicately. Last July, I called Mark Beason early one morning, and I said, ‘Mark, I have B.B. King coming in, and B.B. wants some buffalo.’ Mark took his nets to the Big Black River and an hour later I had two big mouth buffalo. I checked it for abrasions and dark marks; you want to watch out for things like that. The whole fish is edible, and the tail is great. B.B. wanted it the next day, too. I had gotten a couple more, and he took two whole buffalo with him. They had a kitchen on his bus, and he had a guy with him who was back in the kitchen when I was cooking it, looking over my shoulder.”

“It has a nice pink flesh,” Nick said. “The fish needs to be eaten piping hot because the taste is more pronounced when you eat it hot. If you let it cool down, it’s almost like a muscle, the fish tightens up. You want to handle this fish hot. When my granny made buffalo cakes, she would get her hands in the hot cooked meat to make them. That’s what I like about cooking this type of fish, it actually takes work, it’s not just a simple meat you slice on the bias and throw in the skillet. You have to really touch this food, feel it, know it and work with it. She’d make the cakes like a croquette. She’d put mustard in the cakes and if you’re making a buffalo sandwich you’re going to want good mustard on it: white bread, mustard and tomatoes. Best sandwiches in the world.”

“Buffalo should stand out a lot more than sea bass, halibut and tilapia,” Wallas adds. “We were raised on Mississippi fish, that’s what we were used to, and that needs to be talked about. I just don’t understand how you can go to a restaurant and find sea bass on the menu, when you have anything you could really want to be sustainable here in Mississippi.”


You Might Be a Gay Redneck If …

You met your last boyfriend at Waffle House.
You manscape with a hunting knife.
You cheer for the NASCAR driver with the cutest jumpsuit.
You wish the Indigo Girls would “shut up and sing.”
You keep a colorful stash of Speedos in your bass boat.
You go commando in your overalls.
You always request “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” at the gay bars.
You attend Gay Rodeo events to find a personal trainer.
Your pickup truck horn plays “I Love the Nightlife.”
You smoke Mistys because you like how the slim box fits into your Wranglers.
You tailgate at Barbra Streisand concerts.
Your mullet has frosted tips.
You root for the hillbillies in Deliverance.
You wish R.J. Reynolds would make Cosmo-flavored dip.
The Gay River Expo disqualified you for using a trolling motor.
You think Kid Rock is sexy.
You’re saving up to buy a Pensacola timeshare.
Your Pride float spends the rest of the year on cinder blocks in your front yard.
You carry a camo-patterned man purse.
You were once thrown out of a leather bar for violating the dress code.
Your Miata has Truck Nutz.
Your commitment ceremony was catered by KFC.
Your personal scent is buck lure.

What a Sundial Should Say

The story goes that Samuel Goldwyn was walking in a garden and came upon an unfamiliar object. “What’s that?” he asked the gardener.
“A sundial,” the gardener responded.
“What’s it for?” asked Goldwyn.
“It tells time by the sun,” the gardener replied.
“My God!” Goldwyn said. “What’ll they think of next?”

Goldwyn was famous for his malapropisms, which eventually came to be known as Goldwynisms (“Keep a stiff upper chin.”; “Include me out.”), but this tale about him not knowing what a sundial is must surely be an invention. Sundials are among the oldest forms of timekeeping, and over time they have become something of an art form in themselves. In 1872, Mrs. Alfred Garry published the exhaustive Book of Sun-Dials, which includes sundials from across the globe from the earliest times, either attached (to a building) or detached (stand-alone). As decorative as they are instrumental, it’s unsurprising that a great many sundials find their way into gardens, where, in a tacit refutation of Berkeley, they mark the passing hours among nodding flowers and bumbling bees.

My garden boasts a sundial, a single pillar topped with a bronze face. I found the dial some years ago on a neighboring property belonging to the same company that owns my apartment building. When I called them up to ask them if I could move it into my garden, they said, “What sundial?” Thinking quickly, I said I must have dialed the wrong number, hung up, and with considerable effort involving a rope and a wheelbarrow, moved the heavy pillar a half-block down the street to my herb bed, where it stands today.

The face on my dial is worn and has no gnomon. Take note, people: you can buy a sundial face with a gnomon, but not a gnomon without a face. It also has a rather trite motto: “Tempus Fugit.” Mrs. Garry’s book lists no less than 1,682 mottoes. They all have something to do with aging, the ephemerality of life, or the movement of the heavens. This year, I’ve vowed to have a new face made for my sundial, complete with an ornate (yet accurate) gnomon, and upon it, I am going to have inscribed those immortal words that taught my generation about the movement of time:

It’s just a jump to the left . . .