Longings for a Land Where Grilled Cheese is Just Grilled Cheese

I woke up this morning staring at a brick wall. It took me a few minutes to acclimate, as the birds have found their way back to the scraggly courtyard behind my Prospect Heights apartment. But the sound of them always makes me think I’m in Western Massachusetts or, even stranger, there are mornings where I wake up convinced I’m in my childhood bedroom in suburban New York, with the green green lawn and the white snowdrops in bloom in the backyard on those early earth-smellling days of spring. But no, I’m in Brooklyn, tucked into my bright (albeit internally facing”) apartment, alone, just wishing I was in the country.

I’m in a  particularly city-grouchy mood today. Spring is springing everywhere, and I feel like I’m missing it! There is a garden, and a chicken coop too, that need my tending in Western Massachusetts. I’ve just come off a five day whirlwind of a conference called the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professional) that happened to be held smack dab in the middle of Times Square, a blaring, unholy, practically seizure inducing mix of lights, tourists, traffic, litter and noise.

I’ve never been a fan of Times Square. As a kid, I remember my dad, a city boy by birth, squeezing my hand tight while he pulled me through the crowd as we walked to a Broadway show once or twice a year. And when I moved to Brooklyn in my early twenties, despite having landed an office job in the (almost) equally awful land of the West 30s, I avoided walking north through Times Square as if it was a room full of kids with whooping cough. I don’t use the word hate lightly, but I vehemently hate Times Square.

I’m pretty sure I spent more time in Times Square over the past week than I have in my past three years spend (mostly) in New York altogether. And I’m not happy about it. I feel ragged and edgy, exhausted just from playing the “dodge the tourist” game.

But more than anything, I’ve been thinking about something else these past few days. The theme of IACP this year was “The Fashion of Food”, something I find rather irritating, given that my personal interest in food is more about history and legacy (thus the book I’m working on at the moment, along with the extraordinary Rio de Janeiro-based chef and activist, Teresa Corção, who owns the renowned downtown restaurant, O Navegador ). In particular, there was an opening panel session that included the editor  editor in chief of a certain food magazine (which I’ll refrain from naming here) that talked about the real importance of trends in food today and blah blah blah. And then, when the who’s who in the food writing world got up for Q&A and asked him where the space is for enduring food stories– ones with history, identity and place– he brushed aside the question, telling them there is plenty of room for long-form writing on the subject (not true) and that, bottom line is, he has to sell his magazine, and trends–face bacon, kale, Nashville hipsters– equal dollar signs. Okay, I’ll hand it to him. That’s true. But I don’t have to like it. And I don’t have to agree with it being all that sells, either. Not when the grand dame of African American southern food, Edna Lewis, and classicist Jacques Pepin, are still among the best-selling food authors in America.

This morning, lying in bed (where I still currently am), staring out at my brick wall, listening to the confused birds chirp out back, I was pushed over the edge by an article in today’s Times whose headline read: “Rethinking Grilled Cheese: A tour of artisanal grilled-cheese shops, a culinary sub genre that has boomed in New York in the last year.”  Now, I’m sorry, but no. This is not okay. The best reputed newspaper in America, and indeed in the world is paying a freelancer to go out and tour food trucks to eat cheese pressed between two pieces of bread? I mean, come on. You can (and should) make the stuff at home. It’s not rocket science, especially now that you can buy whatever manner of artisanally, humanely, and (admittedly) deliciously crafted ingredients you like for your homemade grilled cheese sandwich. You can even find pretty good bread in most places these days (though I’m partial to the wood-fired sourdoughs my boyfriend– for whom I haven’t yet figured out a clever name for this blog’s purposes, and the only fish in my seas of both bread and men–bakes out of his shop in Western MA). So come on, do we really have to get all Twitter-y about this? Is this really what sells these newspapers? Because I’m having a hard time believing anyone is getting all that jazzed about artisanal grilled cheese. Well, maybe in Williamsburg, but they’re automatically counted as outliers in my book.

After seeing that headline (no, I did not read the article all the way through), all I want to do is hop in the car, roll down the windows, and head up to my other home in Western Massachusetts– the one that trends barely touch, where making an “artisanal” grilled cheese involves my boyfriend’s perfect rosemary or 8-grain bread, a couple thick slabs of bacon, lots of butter, and our everyday (and plenty good, may I add) Cabot cheddar.  Up there, it doesn’t have to be in fashion to be good. It’s just lunch.