I ate many a PB&J in my youth, but my favorite sandwich was a grilled cheese.
It was warm and gooey, and not something I could take to school. It was special. My mom made them for me. My mom’s best friend made them for me. My aunt made them for me. I ate them all over Fort Wayne, Indiana, and I ranked them. I hope no one ever figured out that I was keeping score. Truly, I appreciated all the grilled cheese sandwiches that came into my life, but a sophisticated 10-year-old like myself noticed the differences.
My most favorite was made my mom’s best friend Terry. My little sister and I spent many a summer day with Terry’s three daughters either at our house or theirs. On the days we were at Terry’s house, she often made grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn’t watch her cook (the sandwiches just magically appeared), but I imagine that she had a system. Making five grilled cheese sandwiches at once is not a simple feat. All five sandwiches have to be ready at the same time, evenly browned (but bearing no black traces), served warm, and (most importantly) gooey.
I always knew that Terry’s were the best, but I didn’t realize why until years later when I started making my own grilled cheese sandwiches. It turns out that Terry used American cheese. American cheese melts quickly and evenly, and its mild flavor is most pleasing to a child’s developing taste buds. She also used white bread, which turns a nice amber when spread with butter and then fried briefly in a skillet. Terry’s perfect grilled cheese sandwiches became the standard by which I measured all others.
Of course, my mom’s grilled cheese sandwiches were the ones I ate most often. I thought they were the epitome of this dish until I had Terry’s. The truth is that cheese melted on bread is delicious, no matter the other factors, so the points separating first place from third place here are minimal. Every grilled cheese sandwich is a winner. That being said, my mom used colby cheese. Colby doesn’t melt like American. It lacks American’s creaminess and therefore turns stringy when heated. Add to the texture the fact that colby just doesn’t taste as good (again, it’s the creaminess), and we have a lackluster grilled cheese sandwich on our plates.
Don’t blame my mom; it was the ‘80s.
What could be worse than colby cheese on a grilled cheese sandwich? Oh, let me tell you.
I have so many cherished memories of the days I spent with my beloved Aunt Nancy, walking her big, lean, amazing dog around her neighborhood, talking about art and books and whatever crossed our minds, but none of these fuzzy memories involve eating. Aunt Nancy also used colby in her grilled cheese. She was my mom’s sister so maybe it was a hereditary thing?
In addition to the colby, there was a bread issue. Aunt Nancy bought what I immediately recognized as grownup bread. It had seeds. This was bread that could only exist in a household with no kids. Aunt Nancy’s kids were much older than me and had left home. It was just her and the dog living in her house, and the dog wasn’t picky about bread. I don’t remember how I reacted to the bread in the moment. I hope I wasn’t rude. I must have eaten it because I can still recall the crunchy, slippery texture of the seeds interrupting the otherwise smooth bread experience.
I can picture us sitting across from each other at the little table in Aunt Nancy’s small kitchen (it seemed so tiny to me then but it was easily the size of the one in my current San Francisco apartment). It was usually just the two of us, and the grilled cheese sandwiches would sometimes be accompanied by the electric glow of a small glass of Faygo Frosh, Aunt Nancy’s preferred soda. I would furtively pass the crusts of my sandwich to the dog, but her size and enthusiasm prevented her from taking the crusts calmly. We would always get caught, but Aunt Nancy was never really mad.
Those were special days in my young life, and I didn’t mind that the sandwich was weird. It was still a grilled cheese, after all. And grilled cheese sandwiches are always right.
Katie Pruitt is not a chef or even a home cook. She is a writer with a lifelong passion for toast. Although she grew up just a couple miles from the Aunt Millie's bakery in Fort Wayne, she now has loaves of Aunt Millie's bread flown to her in San Francisco on a regular basis.