Extreme Comfort Food 

When the economy slows, diners thrive. And our thoughts turn to grilled cheese.

It looks a little deflated on the plate, too black in spots, and — when cool enough to handle — leaves your fingers with a crumb-flecked gloss of melted butter.

The grilled cheese sandwich is that cliché of food-writing banalities: classic comfort food. Only these days, when your mom mentions she'll soon have to waitress to make up for her decimated retirement portfolio (a flicker of real fear in the joke), classic comfort food is so much more than intellectual nostalgia. These days, grilled cheese can take you to a sun-washed inner realm — the place that bong toke of purple sticky takes you, while spending those last, precious drops of Visa-card juice on porn streaming.

Barbara Mulas seems as surprised as anyone that diners are gravitating to the gastronomical equivalent of the fetal position. In late February, Mulas and her husband, Mark Drazek, opened Sidebar, a brisk, urban gastropub in Oakland's Grand Lake district, where cheese-filled panini stand in as crisp, grill-marked variations on the oozing American classic.

"We've been selling a lot," Mulas said. "More than I thought we would." Mulas and Drazek were the chef/owners behind Berkeley's Zax Tavern, which closed in 2007. Sidebar is their first foray into lunch, a meal where sandwiches, naturally, rule. But melty Panini — my favorite combines Vermont white cheddar, bacon, and tangy Roma tomatoes within implausibly crisp slices of pain de mie from Acme Bread — are selling like, well, hotcakes.

Mulas grew up in New Jersey. Her childhood memories of grilled cheese ooze Kraft American Singles. "But don't print that," she said (oops). The thing is, anyone of a certain generation shares a collective memory of rubbery orange factory cheese and compressible white bread, or maybe Roman Meal if your parents were hip. After all, a shared frame of reference is the very thing that makes comfort food as cozy as a Slanket.

"Right now we're in this extreme comfort food moment," said Kara Nielsen, a trendologist at the Center for Culinary Development, a San Francisco company that develops new food products. "The economy — we're stressed out."

Depending on your age, Nielsen posits, you respond either to the grilled cheese or its T.G.I. Friday's cognate, the quesadilla. She lays out her generational equation, rife with algebraic symmetry. "Grilled cheese is the quesadilla of Gen X, while the quesadilla is the grilled cheese of Gen Y," Nielsen said. The Boomers, as everyone knows, are just annoying.

"From a trend perspective, Boomers and Gen X grew up on grilled cheese," Nielsen said. "It also used to be the mainstay of the kids' menu in restaurants, and an easy food to make with things everyone had in their house. Also something you could find at a diner on the road. Something every kid would eat. Like many comfort foods, they remain in our memories of things that were really benign and beloved."

It may be historical irony that a food so buttery and innocuous has roots in despair. Gabriella Petrick, assistant professor of food studies at NYU Steinhardt, said the American-style grilled cheese sandwich was most likely the invention of home economists seeking ways to solve the protein problem — i.e., getting enough of it, cheaply, to families in the years just before the Great Depression gave people today something to compare the current economic crisis to.

"By the 1920s, you had large-scale industrial food manufacturing and an industrialization of the food industry," Petrick said. She points to a recipe from 1924, "Hot Cheese Sandwich," from a tome called Everybody's Cookbook, edited by Isabel Ely Lord: bread and cheese, pan-fried in butter till immortal. The cheese would have been hand sliced, by the way, since Kraft Singles didn't land in the cold-cut drawers of America's fridges for a few more decades.

A little book from 1945, Soda Fountain and Luncheon Management by J. O. Dahl, places the grilled cheese in the lunch-counter pantheon titled "Seventy-Two Profitable Sandwiches." (It includes the rather disturbing "Winking Eyes": one slice of bread rolled around cheese paste, another rolled around tuna paste, baked and served gazing up at you, like a dog with bicolor irises.) The prototypical diner grilled cheese — called, simply, "Cheese Sandwich" — sold at between 40 and 75 cents.

In these bleak days, successors to the soda fountains of the 1940s may be doing better than almost any other type of restaurant. "Diners thrive in this time, in this particular economy, while everybody else tends to struggle," says Peter Levitt, co-owner and executive chef of Saul's Deli in Berkeley. But even Saul's is taking a hit: Customers are spending less money, and while traffic for breakfast and lunch is still decent, at off hours the place can feel as empty as a Brooklyn bagel shop during Passover. And dinner? Forget about it.

"If they're going to go out at all, they may go out for more comfort food," Levitt said. Saul's is doing a bang-up business in chicken soup and sammies of all kinds, including grilled cheese (with and without tomatoes). But the popularity of his comfort sandwiches seems to offer scant comfort to Levitt, whose ideal grilled cheese involves something altogether more artisanal than a deli price point allows.

"Me, I'd probably go across to the Cheese Board and pick up some cheeses that melt well, some great artisan local cheeses. To do that in a restaurant, you'd probably have to charge $11 or $12. It'd be as expensive as meat."

Is a truly great grilled cheese, inevitably then, one of the comforts of home?

Not really, said Laura Werlin, San Francisco author and educator on the subject of American artisan cheese. Her book Great Grilled Cheese was published in 2004. "Needless to say, I'm a big fan of artisan cheese," she said. "One of the things I've discovered is when it comes down to it, yes, you want to use a cheese good enough to eat on its own, but it doesn't have to be the most expensive one out there to make a satisfying grilled cheese."

What you need, Werlin explains, is a good melting cheese: Gruyere, Monterey Jack, or cheddar, or a mix of all three. And you can enhance any or all of those with a little bit of pricier cheese. "But honestly," she adds, "to me what matters is that the cheese tastes good, it melts well, and you've got really good buttered bread. And then you're going to be happy."

Yes — promise us that warm strands of cheese and crisp, buttery toast will go on making us all happy. No matter what.


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