Every year on April 12, Americans run to their nearly-barren pantries and pull out whatever dregs are left to celebrate National Grilled Cheese Day.
And no wonder … the grilled cheese is one of the greatest comfort foods ever invented. Even if “grilled” really turns out to be fried most of the time.
Potato/potahto, grilled/coronary. Semantics.
But you can’t celebrate Grilled Cheese Day all willy-nilly. There are protocols, see.
If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, you had rituals surrounding your grilled cheese consumption. For me, most of those delicious, gooey concoctions slid down my throat while I was home from school, sick. Or “sick,” as the case may be.
In that setting, or in any setting, you have to have certain ingredients and accessories to make your grilled cheese meal authentic.
Here, then, are the building blocks of an authentic 1970s-style Grilled Cheese Day celebration as seen through the eyes of a kid home sick from school.
You can’t have a proper 1970s grilled cheese without plain old white bread. Whole grain was for rich people … for health nuts … for old people … for fools.
Whole grain was for rich, old, foolish, health nuts.
Heck, I don’t even think any store in my town had whole grain bread most of the time. On the few occasions it happened, it was the result of a tofu truck wreck, or something.
And the whole grain was really just white bread with brown paint.
So … bottom line — 1970s grilled cheeses had to be made on white bread.
The cheaper the better, too. I don’t think my mom ever paid more than about seven cents for a loaf of bread.
Same thing goes here as for the bread.
No fancy cheeses need apply for the job of filling in an authentic 1970s grilled cheese.
It’s gotta be cheap, generic, super-processed, plastic-wrapped sheets of good ol’ American cheese. “Cheese food,” I think they call it.
It may only be “food” and not real food, but it melts like your resolve when Betty Jean Rogers used to bat her eyes at you before asking to copy your homework … again.
Gotta be American cheese.
And, again again — the cheaper the better.
You can’t eat grilled cheese all on its own, especially if you’re sick.
You need nourishment, son.
It’s gotta be hot, too, because you have a cold or whatever, and it’s probably cold outside. Wet would also be good since that grilled cheese can get a little dry.
Besides, tomatoes have vitamin C or something.
One word of advice here — if you’re going to splurge on your grilled cheese meal, this is the place to do it.
Go for the Campbell’s. I mean, you want your soup to be thick and rich and delicious, not runny and, well, soupy.
And, for about five cents more per can, you can upgrade from a Pinto to a Cadillac. Or at least you could in the 70s.
If you’re sick, you have to drink 7 Up.
Mandatory, or your ass is going right back to school.
Now, a lot of times, you’ll hear people say Sprite is the thing, but it’s not. It’s 7 Up.
I mean, it’s the freaking uncola. It never had it. It never will. And, if you have a stomach virus, 7 Up will help you form a lifelong psychological connection between nausea and sweet lemon-lime fizz.
In the spirit of full disclosure, my 7 Up was usually the generic version from our local Food Hole Discount Market and Dog Wash.
It definitely wasn’t Sprite, though.
Like I said up there, I was usually sick when Mom made me grilled cheese.
And if I was sick and home from school, I was darn tootin’ going to take my medicine.
If I was really sick, that meant big pills and awful tasting liquids by the spoonful — stuff that came in brown bottles and that you could only get from the doctor’s office.
If I wasn’t quite doctor sick, then it was over-the-counter stuff. But there were criteria — it had to have codeine, and it had to be loaded with alcohol.
So, the original Vicks 44 black formula was usually my chaser for a grilled cheese meal and then … well … sleepytime.
Mom was no fool.
The Price Is Right
Assuming I was able to fight off the ambien angels from the Vicks bottle, I needed something to occupy me while I ate my grilled cheese sandwich.
The Price Is Right was always high on the list of midday TV fare, and if Mom timed things just right, I could have lunch with Bob Barker.
If I hit that part of the lottery, then I could hope for a lucky draw on the games that day — I was always pulling for Hi Lo and Cliff Hangers. I “hit” often enough to make me think it was possible and keep me hanging on through bidding for can openers and bath towels.
If food prep ran late, it was The Young and The Restless, and a promise not to tell Dad.
If I was home for multiple days in a row, or if I was home on a Monday, there was usually some sort of homework hanging over my head.
I mean, you could feel a cold coming on over the weekend, right?
So, if TPIR lagged in action or I just really needed to get some crap done, I’d have to buckle down and crack open my reading book.
“An Apple Fritter for Charlie” or whatever the reading assignment was always went down better with a hunk of grilled cheese and slug of tomato soup.
And I’m pretty sure I turned in more than one math facts table with orange and yellow goo stains.
The Hardy Boys
Sometimes, again if Bob Barker let me down, or if I felt really lousy, I just wanted to curl up with actual fine literature before, during, or after lunch … call it the peri-grilled cheese period.
In those cases, nothing would do except a Hardy Boys book. Why, Joe, Frank, and their chums could lift anybody out of a funk with all their adventures!
And the cough-syrup-induced delirium added an extra edge — did those California Nazca Line creatures just start dancing there in The Mystery of the Desert Giant … or was it just the Vicks?
Boredom is a real thing in lockdown, shut-in situations, and you’ll do anything to overcome it if things get bad enough.
Like play games with your mom.
So, when there was no homework and no worthy TPIR showcase and no Hardy Boys book, we’d break out the cards and wage War through lunch … or drink in some Gin (Rummy).
And when Mom got tired or started feeling off — now, where could she have caught a cold? — I could always work on my card tricks, like using a pen to turn fives into sixes.
Six Million Dollar Man
There were times, of course, when I couldn’t take one more immobile minute in front of the TV or bent over homework or with my nose in a book.
You know, times when the virus was subsiding, or during a midday burst of euphoria before the gloom of another looming school day set in, or right after the bus drove past my house without me on it.
Whatever the case, I had to move, had to play, dammit.
And my Steve Austin doll … er, action figure … was the ultimate do-it-all play thing.
Hell, if you lined things up just right, you could get him to ch-ch-ch-ch-ch a hunk of that grilled cheese right up to your mouth with his bionic arm.
Even now, if you can swing it, Grilled Cheese Day doesn’t get much better than white bread, American cheese, The Price Is Right, The Hardy Boys, and the Bionic Man.
Who says you can’t go home again … to the 70s?