I grew up in multiple households. One championed the frozen offerings of the Schwann Man; the other featured a mixture of prepackaged foods (such as Kraft Dinner and SpagettiO’s), augmented by handmade specialties such as potato skins and key lime cake. For the most part, I was eating (I think) what most American kids were eating: inexpensive, well-rounded meals put together with ease. One dish that showed up in both households came mostly unassembled, and turned out to be one of my favorites: the classic combination of grilled cheese and tomato soup.
Quality wasn’t necessarily what folks had in mind when this meal entered the American oeuvre. It first appeared in the 1920s with the arrival of government cheese. In days when canning tomatoes wasn’t a hobby, but a necessity, I can see how this meal could easily become a winter treat. Moving forward in my own history to the early ’80s, it makes sense that a young (broke) family would present this for dinner, to the happy approval of three daughters; bread, cheese and sugar-spiked canned soup are way cheaper than proteins. And today, as my friends start to feed their own children, they seem to find the pairing an easy alternative to the drive-thru. Throw in the fact that grilled cheese is on the curriculum of many home economics classes (a Kraft lobbying decision, perhaps?), and it’s one of the first dishes that awkward teenagers attempt when they fumble through their first apartment kitchens.
Even as an adult, further from my awkward teenage years than I’d like to admit, I crave this combo. Not because it’s easy, not because it’s inexpensive, not because its quick. (It’s remarkable how quickly grilled cheese and tomato soup can turn into a decadent and expensive process taking an hour to prepare and costing upwards of $15 per person.) Usually, when I reminisce about a dish, it doesn’t live up to my dreamy standards; not so with grilled cheese and tomato soup. As a grownup, I don’t need crappy American cheese singles and white bread; instead, melty cheddar is enveloped by whole wheat bread and dipped—not because it needs to be dipped, mind you; this version is a far cry from the dry and bland sandwich of school lunch fame—into creamy Snowville-spiked tomato soup with hints of ginger and cumin.
This blog’s mission statement is inherent in its name: We eat and travel, and, in doing so, attempt to absorb something true from the places we visit. While I’m not embarrassed by my Americanness, I do tend to veto quite a bit of the food from our own culture; I’d never present the wares of the Schwann Man or something from the center of the grocery store to a passerby. Tomato soup and grilled cheese rise through the packaged masses, though. That combination—I believe—really contributes to our cultural identity, maybe even more so than the oft-cited baseball and apple pie. Though I know two people who might have something to say about that.
Mrs. Dekker’s Grilled Cheese Sandwich Recipe
Heat butter over low heat on a skillet. Place the cheese in between the two layers of bread. With a butter knife, spread a small dollop of mayonnaise on both sides on the exterior sides of the bread. Place the sandwich in the skillet on low heat. Flick some water onto a lid and place it on top of the skillet. Cook until both sides are golden brown and cheese is melted.
adapted from Gourmet, December 2004
1 large onion, coarsely chopped (2 1/4 cups)
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh jalapeño chile including seeds [I omitted]
2 teaspoons finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 1/4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth (18 fl oz) [I cut the chicken stock to 1 1/4 cup and added 1 cup of Snowville Creamery Milk]
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1. Drain 1 can tomatoes, discarding juice, then purée with remaining can tomatoes (including juice) in a blender.
2. Cook onion, garlic, chile, and ginger in oil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy nonreactive pot over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until onion is softened, about 8 minutes. Add cumin and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in puréed tomatoes, broth, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 2 teaspoons salt and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes. Working in 3 or 4 batches, blend soup in blender until smooth (use caution when blending hot liquids). Transfer soup as blended to a sieve set over a large bowl and force through sieve, discarding seeds.
3. Stir in sugar and salt to taste. Reheat in cleaned saucepan if necessary.