You know one thing that bugs me about the French? Their cigarettes. Gitanes, in particular. Their boxes are too big; they burn funny; and they taste like a pile of burning hair. But the Frogs love 'em and are absolutely convinced that Gitanes are the best smokes on earth.
Know what else? Their cars. The Renault was quite possibly the worst automobile ever built -- an awful conglomeration of spare parts, factory rejects, spit and toothpicks, incapable of speeds in excess of 38 miles per hour or of traveling more than a hundred miles without some vital part (say, a wheel or the entire transmission) falling off or seizing up to the accompaniment of dramatic showers of sparks and thick, black smoke. When I was very young, my folks owned a Renault. It was our family car -- the one my dad got in exchange for the muscle cars of his youth when he became a father. He was a mechanic, a former amateur race-car driver, the kind of guy who could fix anything from a toaster to a television to a faulty nuclear reactor if given the right tools and a couple Genny Cream Ales. Further, he lived his entire life as if hooked up to a constant, low-volume Valium drip -- the calmest, most relaxed person you'd ever want to know, who never did anything quickly, was slow to anger like a bomb with a mile-long fuse, and rarely spoke without giving long consideration to what he was going to say. Like if he wanted an extra Eggo waffle for breakfast, he'd have to start thinking about it 'round dinnertime the night before, and even then he might not make up his mind till lunchtime.
But the Renault drove him nuts with rage. He'd be driving down the road with his young bride beside him, his firstborn son -- me -- in the back seat squalling like a demon and shoving fistfuls of candy corn up my nose, and all of a sudden, something awful would happen to the car, like the windshield falling into their laps or the brakes failing on a downhill run toward a frozen lake. That's when my dad would lose it -- yelling and cursing in the broad, grunting blue-collar patois that I always figured he must practice at work where I couldn't hear him -- until he brought the Renault skidding to the side of the road and attacked it with a fury of tools and bad language he reserved for machines that didn't do what he wanted them to do.
Cigarettes, cars, Jerry Lewis movies, their infuriatingly xenophobic conceit and pat insistence that everything of any cultural value in the vast panoply of human existence had its origins on French soil and generally in the vicinity of Paris -- there are a lot of things about the French that piss me off. But none quite so much as their fervent belief that all cuisine begins and ends with them.
And what gets me even worse is that they're right.
It's not that the French invented everything we eat today. A lot of it, yeah, but not all. What the Gitane-smoking surrender monkeys were best at was making lists, denoting processes and slapping sexy-sounding names (velouté, béchamel, Indochine) on everything they wanted to take credit for. A brown sauce, for example. It's made of meat drippings, some bone stock, maybe a little wine, some flour and butter paste (renamed roux in the Franco-culinary lexicon and demarcated into no fewer than six specific varieties), and it has been used by every meat-eating culture the world has ever known. Brown sauce is not French any more than it's Bulgarian, British or Belgian. But you know what is French? Espagnole -- the brown mother sauce -- as well as sauce bordelaise and demi-glace and glace de viande and all those other variations on the simple brown sauce, sexed up by a language that seems made for culinary descriptives, their ingredients and preparations painstakingly codified into the French canon.
The French didn't invent the brown sauce, but they named it and classified it and thereby claimed provenance over its entire lineage and history. Espagnole is French because the French say it is, and anyone who argues is a boob and a swine and la tête d'un pénis -- which is, again, just a particularly lyrical way to call someone a dickhead.
Still, the French put a lot of work into the classification and co-opting of Continental cuisine, and gussying up all that country grub that was the actual base for their own regional cookery, so fine, let them have their mother sauces. They can keep their entrecôte and côte de boeuf, too, their onglet and poulet and confit de canard. But it's high time we Americans learned a lesson from the Frogs and took something back: pain et fromage.
Is there anything quite as integral to the experience of growing up in America as the grilled-cheese sandwich? Today, American cuisine has taken a turn toward the cannibalistic -- an endless cycle of interpretation and reinterpretation swallowing its own tail, Ouroboros-style, resulting in West Virginia-tidewater barbecue shacks popping up in California and Deep South-baked mac-and-cheese casseroles getting all bunged up with truffles and chiles in the five-star palaces of American nouvelle cuisine. Enterprising cooks are making Kobe beef hot dogs. Buffalo meat is served all over the country. But what's missing from this mad scramble to cobble together a culinary identity out of a thousand disparate regional personalities is the one thing the French are best at: a canon, a codex culinaris Americana, one bold statement saying "This is ours, and don't mess with it."
The grilled-cheese sandwich is ours, and I want it back.
I propose that the revolution begin at Chedd's Gourmet Grilled Cheese, a little place close to downtown Denver that specializes in that most humble of modern peasant foods, which shall hereafter be known, in the French style, as the American mother sandwich.
Chedd's is a nice spot. Open for six months, it's spare, clean, bright and unassuming, flanked by a yoga studio, surrounded by the well-scrubbed facades of brand-new loft apartments. Better still, there's unmetered parking all around it -- and I know how much culinary rebels hate to pay for parking.
Inside, the walls are sparsely hung with mementos of Wisconsin, home state of Dirk Bruley, the owner and a man richly steeped in cheese. There's a state flag, some framed posters with pictures of cheese or witty sayings about cheese, a map where you can stick a little pin to mark where you came from (if you are one of the lucky few to have escaped from Wisconsin), another map that shows the hundreds of cheese- (and beer-) producing regions of America's Dairyland. (New state motto: Wisconsin -- More than just snow!) In back are the counter and cooler cases packed to their glass fronts with cheese, cheese and more cheese. And behind the counter is Dirk or his wife, Wendy, or sometimes both, and sometimes their boys as well, the whole bunch of them looking just as pure and wholesome as a tall glass of fresh milk. In short, Chedd's is the last place anyone would expect to foment a revolution.
Which is why it's so perfect.
From here -- from this very spot -- we will take back the sandwich as an archetype of American cuisine and elevate it to the lofty heights where it belongs. And it will start with the lowly mother sandwich, because grilled cheese is all that Chedd's does, and I respect the Bruleys for this single-minded, brilliant, peasant obsessiveness. On the chalkboard hanging behind the counter, Dirk and Wendy have writ large all we need to know about the revolution, listing twelve kinds of bread, 35 kinds of cheese (almost thirty brought in from Wisconsin), eight meats and a dozen varieties of vegetables and spreads. There are also condiments, mustards and dressings. Taken in toto, according to my careful calculations, this makes for 17 billion possible sandwich combinations.
Take that, Escoffier.
The plain grilled cheese, font of all wonders, results from the simplest unification of yellow cheese, white bread and heat. At Chedd's, the mother sandwich is built with Vienna white -- a soft, dense bread with a tender crust like Wonder's Continental cousin -- and mild Wisconsin cheddar, grilled in a sandwich press. This is a calculated, studied, perfected version of the Velveeta-on-white-bread sandwich we grew up with as kids, a taste that wakes in anyone who was ever a child in America some seriously comforting sense memories of snowy nights or long summer afternoons with Mom (or Dad) at the stove and cartoons on the TV. This is what we ate when we were poor and there was nothing else, or what we ate if we weren't poor and wanted nothing else. It is Americana typified, Norman Rockwell, Ozzie and Harriet and the nuclear family all rolled into one. It is childhood on a plate.
And from this most basic of beginnings, the variations are endless. Maybe you spent summers with your hippie aunt in San Francisco -- the one with all the cats, who always smelled like burnt grass clippings -- and were forced to endure her vegetarian, macrobiotic, cruelty-free diet. At Chedd's, turn your bread to cracked wheat or Aspen seven-grain, your cheese to Monterey Jack, maybe add some pesto or sun-dried-tomato spread, and there you go: grilled cheese, Haight-Ashbury style. If you were more of a So-Cal kid, there's the California Coast -- one of Chedd's signature melts -- with Jack, sun-dried tommy and tuna on grilled Dakota bread.
Or perhaps you grew up among the brownstones of the Upper West Side and would feel at home with the Rye Knot -- wonderfully mild light rye grilled with delicately sour aged Swiss, pastrami and Thousand Island dressing. Me? I was a Rust Belt kid and miss my beef on weck, but there's a melt in the new American mother sandwich pantheon that goes a long way toward filling that particular hole in my belly: the Heartburn. Sharp, mean, green horseradish Jack melted on a white rustic roll with roast beef, onion and spicy mustard -- but hold the sauerkraut, please. Not all food memories from my childhood are good ones.
There's the Oinkey for the pork fanatic, with bacon and salami, bacon cheese (sharp cheddar studded with bacon bits and greasy with pork fat) and salami cheese (done the same way, but with salami) on a beautiful, solid and crusty potato-rosemary roll from Bluepoint Bakery. Another version combines farmer's cheese (like a sharp white cheddar), dill havarti (soft and smoky European), pesto and relish on marble rye; it emerges from the press crisp and greasy and packing more competing and complementary flavors between two slices of bread than any sandwich since the Dagwood.
Chedd's extra-sharp cheddar is delicious -- mean and punchy with a wicked, dry-mouth bite. Its mozzarella is delicate, its Limburger the real deal, all gooey and stinky and nasty as anything. Chedd's has artisan cheeses like wild morel and leek (which makes for a great grilled cheese on sourdough), Tabasco-jacked Cajun, German brick and baby Swiss to be mixed and matched any way you like. It also offers your basic picnic foods -- mayo-heavy red-skin potato salad, sour German potato salad and more, depending on the day -- as sides. For those whose hearts are still in Wisconsin, a different variety of Sheboygan bratwurst is offered every single day. And finally, Chedd's does soup, most notably a tomato-basil that's rich, thick, just a little spicy and perfect for dipping, as well as a Wisconsin cheese soup that -- oddly enough, given its origins -- tastes like heavy cream, like butter, like salt and pepper and not at all like cheese. Dropping an extra brick of white farmer's into the pot would make all the difference.
But who cares about soup when we're taking back our country's heritage? Pain et fromage? No more. Croque-monsieur? Gimme my Oinkey and get outta my face. The American mother sandwich -- the lowly, meek and modest grilled cheese -- is ours to fight for, and Chedd's is where I'm making my stand.
So, who's with me?
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