I somehow made it through childhood with minimal exposure to what I now realize was a cherished part of many growth spurts: grilled cheese and tomato soup.
This iconic lunch combo, as American as a burger, wasn’t in my parents’ cooking rotation. And forget about school lunch. It only took a sloppy Joe or two and one of those reddish, dry slabs they shamelessly called “pizza” to teach me the importance of packing a lunch. I remember being dimly aware that the school-lunch eaters sometimes had grilled cheese and tomato soup, but I was never intrigued.
Not that I could have learned at school the joy of biting into the glistening edge of a dunked grilled cheese, at once crusty and soggy, dry and wet, acidic and fatty, melty and cheesy. But I can now see how for many, this dish was eye-opening.
It’s also a hearty meal, a complete source of protein and vitamin C, which is why during the Great Depression, school cafeterias stockpiled cans of tomato soup and grilled cheese materials. I knew none of this until a Los Angeles-based client reached out, asking if I would investigate a certain Depression-era meal from southwest Montana.
“My Grandma Fay, who lived in the Bitterroot Valley, used to prepare tomato toast, which was basically a piece of toast smothered with a creamy tomato sauce. She probably used real cream back in the day, topped with a cooked egg if you had them.”
I never did track down Grandma Fay’s recipe, but the research process — and the keywords involved — occasionally brought me to corners of the web occupied by crusty grilled cheese sandwiches and smooth, tangy tomato soup.
The archetypes and keywords were on my mind when Chad Dundas, a friend of the column and noted novelist, Tweeted despairingly, “Perhaps my biggest disappointment as a father so far is my children’s unwillingness to recognize the splendor of pairing grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. They could take or leave it, and I’m considering petitioning for a DNA test.”
Dundas might not have been Grandma Fay, but I knew I needed this man of letters as my guide like Dante needed Virgil. He wasn’t looking for angles to improve upon perfection. The soup was Campbell’s. The bread was white. The cheese was American.
I brought those ingredients home, and the next thing I knew, I was making the combo for my kids, who all wolfed it down like it was their first taste of food. Soon my kids’ hungry friends were over, also wanting food. When the dust settled, I had stuffed six little bellies for about $7.
That night, feeling deviant, I texted Dundas.
“Have you added any special ingredients in the intervening years of single and family living? Any secret sauce you bust out when everyone is asleep and you need some midnight power?” I asked.
He didn’t text back, and I felt awkward.
Left to my own devices, and in honor of Grandma Fay’s tomato toast, I worked on cooking an egg in the middle of the grilled cheese, which turned out to be pretty tasty, like a cheesy egg-in-a-nest. Then I turned my attention to the soup.
The Campbell’s label suggests mixing the contents with a can of milk or water, which, if done right, also salvages whatever soup clings to the can — an important Depression-era trick. But I found milk dulled the tomatoey sharpness, which lessened the dramatic contrast between soup and sandwich. The soup already has bread mixed in, which adds a certain bisque-like creaminess, even without cream.
If you have serious soup eaters, that can of water is the way to go, but I kept finding leftover soup after the sandwiches were long gone. Now I leave it thick, with added garlic, black pepper and hot sauce.
Finally, Dundas got back to me after giving it some thought. He suggested perhaps making a second sandwich.
It was a bit too little and a bit too late. But hey, Virgil only brought Dante within sight of the summit.
Grilled cheese and egg sandwich
This time of year, when heirloom tomatoes taste like soup and are so ripe you can suck the juice out of them like a spider feasting on a hornet, consider using fresh tomatoes in the sandwich.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat two tablespoons of oil on medium. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and pepper. After about a minute of fragrant stir-frying, add the soup to the sizzling garlic oil, mixing it quickly. After a minute, turn off the heat and make the sandwich.
Add a tablespoon of oil to a heavy-bottomed pan preheated to medium. Swish a piece of bread around the pan like you’re mopping up gravy, then add the cheese. Make a frame with your thin rectangles of cheese around the edge of the bread and crack the egg in the middle. Add the second piece of bread. Pour the last tablespoon of olive oil onto the top of the upper slice. When you smell the bottom start to burn, flip the sandwich and cook the same amount of time on the other side. Allow it to cool to a safe temperature and slice it corner to corner.
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