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, herders carried cheese with them when they moved from one pasture to another, 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.
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 (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.