Between the Lines: Food for life
Published 1:01 am, Wednesday, March 3, 2010
I'm delighted that our granddaughter is crazy about grilled cheese sandwiches. If nothing else, this proves that the bloodline is true. She is one of us. Our son-in-law, Tom, cuts the gooey, fried sandwiches into tiny pieces for her. Charlotte takes each one in hand, studies it, puts it in her mouth and then smacks her lips. No mistaking what a baby loves.
My mother raised seven children on grilled cheese sandwiches. This really wasn't Mom's idea of a balanced meal, but she soon realized that when the grocery money got low, five pounds of Land O'Lakes could go a long way. She could have put steak on my plate, but I would have picked grilled cheese over that any day of the week. I remember this was one of the best things about our family growing up in mid-century America. We were fortified by simple things in both food and faith. Obesity wasn't such a problem for kids in those days. We spent our days running all over the neighborhood until we nearly dropped from exhaustion. We weren't worried about our arteries or our GPAs. Lunch was a much more immediate concern.
Our first stop after Sunday Mass was the Italian store on Main Street. Three handsome brothers sang as they worked the slicing machines and flirted with the housewives. I loved to watch the men, muscled and full of bravado, slicing through the various cuts with an operatic flourish. The rhythm of the hands was everything as they caught the slices, almost caressing them. Next came the rapid wrapping of the cheese and ham in butcher paper that carried all the scents of the store home with it. Finally, they would grab a pencil from behind an ear as they weighed and priced our order. It was a great show and I was salivating with hunger from all the sights and smells. I could've eaten the sawdust covering the bare wooden floor of the store right then and there.
Being the meat-and-potatoes-style of Irish-Americans, we were overwhelmed by the complex scents of food and spices and a culture of gustatory pleasure that was completely foreign to us. My brothers and I stood near the deli counter pointedly holding our noses at the odor of dried codfish, cured meats and pungent cheeses until our mother scolded us for being rude.
"It stinks in here, Ma."
"Don't say such things! People will hear you." After her reprimand I took to holding my breath as if I were swimming under water. My sense of smell was keen in those days and the mingled aroma of so many openly displayed Mediterranean foods left me woozy with sensation. My head and feet seemed to switch places. I was high on provolone.
But it was all worth the wait. Especially for the pillowy Lisbon rolls we counted out from the wooden bins that would set up the sandwiches. Actually, it was broiled cheese that we perfected in Mom's oven. But I am getting ahead of myself here. The full story continues with the ride home. We each held a grocery bag on our lap, and it was a huge stroke of luck to have the one with the cheese in your possession. I can still remember my nose being tickled by the serrated edge of a brown paper bag as I savored the intoxicating smell. It was heaven to be so near the fragrant goodness of Land O'Lakes. I inhaled guiltily and with my appetite even further whetted, could barely wait for lunch.
While Mom was busy driving the old Chevy home, we slyly loosened the paper wrapping and quietly folded a piece of the fresh cheese into our mouths. Usually a half dozen slices were gone before she discovered the security breach. "Stop that right now! You can't be eating the cheese in the car. It has to last all week for your sandwiches." Mom knew as well as we did that nothing lasted all week. There was hardly any shelf life for any food product on Old Town Road. We devoured everything in sight without shame or restraint. My father complained that all his children did was eat, and that none of us was worth the cost of feeding us. And Mother fretted over how to make the groceries last as long as the week did. We were like termites eating through house and home. My father used to say he heard us chewing in his sleep.
Grilled cheese was our mid-point between hunger and gluttony. Dad tended to regard hunger as a character-builder, and he often preached against the sin of gluttony even though none of us weighed 100 pounds soaking wet then. We had all cut our teeth on those large blocks of Velveeta, the salty, tasteless cheese that came packed in a rectangular cardboard box. Velveeta was rubbery, pliable, fake-looking stuff. It was fun to slice it with an old wire cheese cutter and then watch the piece fall away from the rest of the neon orange block with just the right thickness. Mother soon learned that her growing family needed something more.
The "white" cheese, as we called thin-sliced Land O'Lakes, even took on the character of the suburbs as we entered the 1960s. It was modern and new like the homogenized post-war suburbs spreading across the land. This was cheese with little old-world flavor, but it could be mass-produced and had a long shelf life. This cheese was sliced to order, and eventually each piece came individually wrapped in plastic for sale in the supermarket. People pulled up to the Italian store in Fords and Chevys -- big cars with their radios playing pop music and baseball games. They came for cheese for healthy, happy American kids with Davy Crocket caps, hula hoops and Nancy Drew books. Yes, as sure as the moon is made of green cheese, so the American soul is made of sliced cheese.
Once home, we fired up the oven immediately. No sooner had the groceries come in the door then we were opening the packages and beginning our assembly line. Someone was needed to slice the rolls; someone to butter them for toasting; someone to count out the cheese slices and place them on the roll; someone to watch the sandwiches through the glass window of the oven door; someone to take them out, put them on paper plates and slice them. It was definitely a group effort and one of the rare happy cooperative ventures we participated in as kids. The sandwiches were done to perfection when the cheese began to pucker and turn slightly brown under the broiler's heat. The edges of the Lisbon rolls also got toasted and they had to be quickly removed from the oven just before they burned. There was definitely a small art to making these sandwiches just right. One extra minute of cooking could turn them into a charred mess to be tossed into the back yard for our dog.
He never complained, and neither did we. We were simply too busy eating.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.