Mom's Grilled Cheese and Other Childhood Memories

What do you think of when you hear the term “comfort food”?

For me, several things come to mind… all, not surprisingly, connected to my childhood. Even though she worked a more-than-full-time job at the family bakery in Balboa, Calif., my Mom somehow found time to cook dinner six nights per week. Her only “day off” was Tuesday, when the whole family would go bowling together, and then eat dinner at the bowling center’s coffee shop.

In our family, “comfort food” ranged from a tuna-and-peas casserole to meatloaf, and from spaghetti to broiled hamburgers.

There was something unique about each dish. I hated peas – I mean HATED them – but for some reason, I loved the tuna-and-peas casserole. It was the only time I would eat peas. To this day, I don’t know why that was.

Mom made meatloaf with a combination of hamburger meat and ground-up sausage meat, and added a can of vegetable soup and about a cup of corn flakes in the mixing bowl.

Spaghetti? Mom would take a pound of ground round and fry it, stirring constantly, before adding the spaghetti and sauce to the pan. And you wouldn’t believe what we’d eat with it: a salad with homemade thousand island dressing and sliced avocadoes, along with warm cornbread topped with butter and maple syrup.

Mom was from Vermont, so we’d put maple syrup on just about anything. But as part of a spaghetti dinner? Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

When making hamburgers, Mom would crack a raw egg into the meat mixture. Nothing too unusual about that, but then she’d also add a package of dry onion soup mix. Best burgers ever. Adding even ketchup to them would be an insult.

Mom wasn’t a gourmet cook, by any stretch of the imagination. But she was a very good one, and every one of her meals was accompanied by something you’ll never get in a restaurant: a whole lot of love.

That even extended to my favorite of all comfort food: Mom’s grilled cheese sandwiches. Of course, she had an advantage with this particular dish, because the bread she’d use was baked at the family bakery that same day. The best bread is fresh bread, regardless of the type.

And when it was grilled cheese night at the Johnson house, no two sandwiches were the same. Mom would customize them to accommodate personal preferences. My Dad liked his with bacon – and not just bacon, but CRISP bacon. Me? I’ll eat anything that includes avocado, and Mom somehow always managed to find a perfectly ripe one to slice onto my grilled cheese.

I’ll never perfectly replicate my Mom’s cooking, in part because she didn’t work by recipes – all the ingredients and preparation techniques were in her head. But I can come pretty close, particularly when it comes to grilled cheese and avocado sandwiches.

As a kid, I’d drink a big glass of milk with my sandwich. These days, wine is my beverage of preference, and I’ve found that I like white wines with grilled cheese, and preferably whites that have been chilled down a bit.

Chardonnay works well. So does Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio. And Gewurztraminer can be an inspired choice.

When it comes to “comfort food” sandwiches, I follow none of the wine-pairing “rules.” My basic plan of attack is to simply pair a hot sandwich – such as a grilled cheese – with a chilled wine, and to pair a cold sandwich with a room-temperature wine.

For me, the difference in temperature between the wine and the food is the only contrast I really need. The flavors seem to take care of themselves.

After all, part of the fun of eating comfort food is not having to think about it.

Posted in Editor's Journal
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