Grilled Cheese: Fuel of Champions

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Week Five
Total Mileage: 33 miles
Weekend meal: Grilled cheese

I ate grilled cheese three times last week.

It's not the worst meal to have over and over when you're training for a marathon. The sandwiches are filling and calorie-dense, and provided you use the right bread and cheese, they offer a dose of fiber, calcium, and protein. But compared with my roast chicken, spicy peanut noodles, and baked ziti, The Week of Grilled Cheese felt like a wash.

It's all my parents' fault, of course. They came to visit for the weekend, and between trips to the National Gallery and the Library of Congress and walks along the Mall, there was no time for grocery shopping. I did work in my weekend runs—12 miles on Saturday and six on Sunday—but I didn't do my usual weekend cooking extravaganza.

With Gruyère and Vermont white cheddar enclosed by two thick slices of multigrain bread, this was by far the most luxurious sandwich of the week.

I fed myself on restaurant leftovers for the first few days of the following week, but by Wednesday my section of the fridge was all but empty. I went to Potbelly for lunch and ordered their latest menu addition: three-cheese grilled cheese with tomato and bacon. It was okay—too heavy on the bread, and the bacon was soft, not crispy—but it filled me up for the rest of the day. I made it to the grocery store on Thursday, but that evening was my roommate's going away happy hour, and after a gin martini on an empty stomach—I'd gone for a five-mile run that morning and hadn't eaten enough during the day to quell my hunger pangs—there was no way I was going to turn on the stove. I took two pieces of whole-wheat bread, slathered them with some pesto we had in the refrigerator, then added two slices of Swiss cheese. After a minute or two in the toaster oven, my dinner was ready.

That accounts for the second and third grilled cheeses but not the first one, which I ordered at Founding Farmers while out to lunch on my parents' last day in D.C. With Gruyère and Vermont white cheddar enclosed by two thick slices of multigrain bread, this was by far the most luxurious sandwich of the week. But why order a grilled cheese—a sandwich so easily made at home—at a restaurant that has everything from Barackwurst sandwiches to lobster macaroni and cheese? I can point the finger at my parents for that one, too.

When I was growing up, my mom taught me to make grilled cheese pretty much the way I made it on Thursday night: stick two pieces of bread in the toaster, add a few slices of Muenster or Cracker Barrel extra-sharp cheddar, then zap in the microwave for 30 seconds (we didn't have a toaster oven). The sandwiches tasted good enough, especially when I loaded on so much extra cheese that it oozed out of the sizes of the bread, or when I substituted bagels, but I never understood why grilled cheese at a diner always tasted so much better. The bread was both toasty and soft at the same time with a buttery aftertaste, and the cheese was smooth and uniformly hot instead of the often lumpy, uneven melt of the microwave.

At first, I thought it was because the diners we went to used American cheese instead of the slightly fancier varieties my family preferred. I tested my hypothesis by making the toaster-plus-microwave grilled cheese with Kraft singles. I was disappointed.

It wasn't until I went over to lunch at my friend Rachel's house around fifth grade that I learned the secret. Her mother announced she was going to make us grilled cheese, then got out the skillet and a stick of butter. I watched in amazement as she fried our sandwiches—no toaster! No microwave!—and then presented us with grilled cheeses that tasted even better than the local diner's.

When I asked my mother why she never made us grilled cheese in a skillet, she cited health reasons: bread and cheese are a diet-busting combination as it is without bringing butter into the mix. I accept my mother's noble logic, even if it means I never learned how to make skillet grilled cheese properly. My efforts have always produced bread that's either burned or overly soggy and cheese that hasn't melted all the way through.

This deficiency particularly bothers me when I'm in training and can handle the extra butter, so even though I'm perfectly capable of making a perfectly acceptable grilled cheese sandwich myself—even after a gin martini—I still find myself ordering them at restaurants. I'll tackle more ambitious projects in the weeks ahead—red beans and rice with just the right amount of spice and smokiness, sweet potato soup that uses curry and coconut milk to fend off blandness—but for now I'll leave grilled cheese to the professionals.

Recipe: Skillet-Free Grilled Cheese

Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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