I was probably about thirteen years old during one visit to my grandparents in Italy. Even at that age, I loved that country, but like travelers abroad of any age I got a little homesick. While enjoying the new experiences I did often find myself missing the familiar things too: American cartoons, video games, amusement parks and, as hard as it might be to believe, the food. What I really wanted, even more than French fries, Coca Cola, cheeseburgers or apple pie, was a grilled cheese sandwich. As many southerners have authoritatively informed me, a proper grilled cheese is constructed with real butter, white bread and American cheese singles. This isn’t exactly an easy prospect in the modest Italian town of Castelfranco, Veneto. However, my grandmother, in the tradition of grandmothers everywhere was preternaturally adept at indulging the whims and fancies of grandchildren.
In a large iron skillet she prepared her best “translation” of a grilled cheese sandwich between my linguistically garbled instructions and my mother’s protests not to go to the trouble.
Point of reference: If ever two Italian women are arguing over you in any way, stay verbally and physically out of the way. You haven’t got a prayer of influencing the conflict in any positive way. No matter how loud or persistent they become, no matter what objects may fly or become used to enhance a particular hand gesture, it is imperative that you let this highly charged but mainly ritualistic challenge conclude without interference.
My grandmother won out of course because age and matrilineal rank is the ultimate trump card in a Northern Italian family, regardless of what male Italians might have to say from the safe and private haven of a café, far from the ears of their mothers, wives and sisters.
Good, real, butter was no obstacle because Castelfranco lays near prime Italian cattle country. Yes, there is thriving beef & dairy country in Italy. As a matter of fact, it was not too long ago that the town square of Castelfranco hosted cattle markets. Spaghetti Westerns aside, however, I have never seen an Italian in a ten-gallon hat and chaps.
With regard to cheese, however, the countryside actually worked against us. American Cheese was unheard of. In fact, if presented with a slice of Kraft American Singles, I suspect my grandmother would have summoned a priest. Instead, she sliced several thin pieces from a large wheel kept in the kitchen for the express purpose of satisfying our enormous love of cheese… god, I love cheese. Said wheel was one of those almost ridiculous, iconic depictions of cheese that are consigned to cartoons and cooking shows stateside. Although my perceptions are undoubtedly clouded by youthful mythicism, to this day I insist that the cheese wheel was A) As large as my torso and B) Inexhaustible, possibly regenerating overnight. The second point is a particularly impressive feat given the damage I personally can do to cheese.
Bread too required some compromise. Two roughly even, firm slices of some sort of local loaf served instead of the vitamin-fortified Vunder Bread. It wasn’t grainy, but I recall it having substantial texture and required enthusiastic chewing compared to the doughy stuff we used here.
True enlightenment, the type pursued across a lifetime of discipline and meditation by Tibetan monks was achieved that day as I ate my Italian grilled cheese sandwich and drank an Orangina in the courtyard of my grandparents’ home. I’ve had many, many more canonical grilled cheese sandwiches since then, but never it’s equal. And, no, the image of the Virgin Mary did not make an appearance in my lunch that day.