Thank you, Earl of Sandwich.
Technically, there were multiple Earls of Sandwich, but the one worth thanking in this case is English aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, without home the sandwich as we know it today wouldn’t exist. As the story goes, Montagu ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread and others, seeing this, began to order “the same as Sandwich.”
Without the sandwich (the sandwich not the Earl), we wouldn’t have reason to celebrate one of the most perfect comfort foods ever invented: the grilled cheese sandwich.
As it turns out, today is “National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day,” and while it may not be a holiday recognizable with greeting cards in its honor — YET — it’s certainly a culinary creation as simple as it is splendid in its ability to satisfy almost any hunger, big or small.
Historically, the grilled cheese sandwich’s origins can be traced back to ancient times, with records of Romans putting together recipes for cheese to be melted on top of breads — they must have needed some on-the-go foods for building all those aqueducts — but the modern grilled cheese sandwich’s roots can be traced back more than a century and credited to a Canadian-American entrepreneur and inventor named James L. Kraft.
After being forced out of the cheese wholesale business by his partners at the time, Kraft began a new business in Chicago in 1903, selling cheese from a horse-drawn wagon, which despite being a good idea at the time, was limiting in that the cheese couldn’t be transported over long distances due to A) spoilage, and B) the fact that it was a horse-drawn wagon.
By 1915, Kraft perfected a way to manufacture a blended, pasteurized cheese which he called “processed cheese.” Apparently, he didn’t put a lot of thought into what to call his new creation.
The upside of his invention was that it was more resistant to spoilage and could be transported over further distances, thus causing his company — and product’s popularity — to grow exponentially. In 1916, he patented his invention and soon began selling Kraft cheese across the country.
With the new availability of cheese, it was only natural for Americans to do what they do with pretty much everything else: try to eat it on a sandwich, and soon enough, the grilled cheese began to take shape.
Early grilled cheese sandwich recipes were made by mixing Kraft’s grated cheese with a binding agent, such as salad dressing or white sauce or mustard, and toasting the sandwich between two slices of buttered bread. At the time, these were called “Toasted Cheese Sandwiches” —something to which they may still be referred by grandparents around the country.
During World War I, the United States Army purchased 6 million pounds of Kraft’s cheese, and by WWII, Navy cooks prepared countless “American cheese filling sandwiches” for hungry sailors.
During the Depression, hard-hit families found Kraft’s processed cheese to be a cheap and filling meal, and school cafeterias at the time purchased cans of tomato soup to go with toasted cheese sandwiches to satisfy the Vitamin C and protein requirements for school lunches, thus explaining the grilled cheese and tomato soup combination — an association which remains strong to this day.
After this, grilled cheese sandwiches went viral, appearing on plates and in schools and restaurants nationally and eventually, abroad.
In 1949, Kraft Singles — individually wrapped slices of processed cheese — were introduced, making it even easier for home cooks to make grilled cheese sandwiches.
Today, grilled cheese remains a popular staple of childhood (and in my case, adulthood), with grilled cheese gourmets broadening their grilled cheese experience, experimenting with variations to the simple “toasted bread and sliced cheese” sandwich. Grilled cheese can be made with as many different breads — white, wheat, multigrain, pumpernickel — and/or cheeses — Cheddar, Swiss, Pepper Jack, Muenster, and others — as one has access to and inclination for.
So again, thank you Earl of Sandwich — and James L. Kraft — for unintentionally creating one of the most economical, convenient, adaptable and American foods ever invented, and to everyone else, happy National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day.