Monday, January 23, 2012

The Wu-Wei of Grilled Cheese

     I've managed to burn the roof of my mouth on grilled cheese yet again. Yesterday morning, I lifted some weights, followed by a P90X interval workout with Spartacus, after which we simultaneously felt invigorated and ravenously hungry. While he showered, I meditated in front of the fridge, doors wide open, waiting for a comestible volunteer. There was leftover butternut squash soup, an apple and some fresh blueberries, nothing very exciting. A sandwich of some sort definitely seemed to be in order, but the protein choices were limited to tempeh, almond butter, or cheese. Since creamy soups lend themselves equally well to being slurped from a spoon or dipped into with hot, crusty bread, the idea of grilled cheese materialized as a splendidly viable option.
     As the soup heated over a low flame, I rooted around in the cheese drawer and defrosted a few slices of bread. I came across an unopened wedge of Red Gold Pepper Jack cheese, made by the dairy here at Berry College, as well as a brand new package of pre-sliced Swiss. The blueberries had been rinsed, and were draining in a colander on the counter. Lunch was beginning to take shape. The griddle was already heating on the stove, and I swirled it with a little coconut oil. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, just like butter, and while it melted, I began the business of slicing up the pepper jack cheese. Cheese-slicing is an onerous task, especially if you're dealing with a soft variety; you drag your knife through it, and end up having to peel the rubbery slab from the blade. After a couple of attempts to get uniform slices, I abandoned my knife in favor of a cheese shaving tool. It did a slightly better job, but still sliced unevenly, gouging the poor defenseless wedge. With a modicum of effort, I managed to shave a few ounces' worth of pepper jack, setting it aside while I got the bread toasting on the griddle pan.
     Being both a textural and alimentary experience, grilled cheese demands good bread. I don't like the mushy white or wheat knockoffs because they taste like cardboard, as well as deflating like spent helium balloons when you mash them with your spatula. I totally understand that some people prefer their grilled cheese to resemble communion wafers. My copy of the White Trash Cookbook highly recommends the use of Wonder bread; however, I'm of the opinion that the bread in a grilled sandwich needs to stand up to the cheese, instead of submitting to it. Spartacus and I particularly like sprouted seven-grain bread. Aside from its theoretical digestive advantages, this flourless bread is absolutely delicious, and possesses a substantial crumb which transforms from pleasingly chewy to delightfully crunchy when toasted. Unfortunately for sufferers of celiac disease, it is not gluten-free. I slathered two pieces of bread with coconut oil, dropping them onto the hot griddle, and covered each with a mound of pepper jack. Thinking that the sweet crispness of an apple would complement the spice in the unctuous cheese, I arranged a few Pink Lady medallions over the jack, and covered it all with a slice of aged Swiss. The griddle hissed and popped, and the toasting bread and cheese smelled exactly like it did when I was a kid. On Saturday afternoons, Mom used to make us grilled cheese and tomato soup, which we'd get to eat in front of the TV while Kukla, Fran, and Ollie announced that week's installment of The Children's Film Festival. We were particularly fond of "Skinny and Fatty" and "The Red Balloon."
    The anticipation I begin to feel as I'm preparing a grilled cheese sandwich is an embarrassingly sensual phenomenon. There's a moment where the bread becomes perfectly golden-brown and slightly abrasive, where the cheese oozes voluptuously down the sides, hinting at the velvety abundance enveloped within; this moment heralds a fleeting window of opportunity during which the sandwich will burn if it is not immediately removed from the griddle. It literally happens in the blink of an eye, especially if I'm distracted. Over the years, I've become pretty adept at multi-tasking in the kitchen, so burned grilled cheese is rarely a problem anymore. What gets me into trouble is the contemplation of that first bite. The physics of grilled cheese are relatively simple: you have bread, which is porous, readily permitting the transfer of heat, and you have cheese, the molecules of which are more cohesive, resulting in a slower dissipation of thermal energy. It's a time-dependent exchange, and there is no hurrying it along. Waiting for the sandwich to cool is like opening a portal into a parallel universe where seconds seem like minutes, rapidly usurping any iota of willpower I have left in favor of instant gratification, predictably culminating in that synchronous instant of supreme pleasure and pain where silky hot cheese meets delicate mucous membranes. Ouch!
     According to Lao Tzu, the three greatest treasures in life are simplicity, patience, and compassion. Through the Tao Te Ching, he observes "Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world." I'm learning to be more patient, to avoid getting in my own way by looking out for the way of things, the unity which drives the system. Imposing my will onto people, objects or situations may give the illusion of being in control, but in reality, it interferes with the spontaneous, natural flow of life, obstructing progress and efficiency instead of hastening it. Easy does it, let it be: these are examples of the Tao principle of wu-wei, or not forcing. We've all invoked these concepts at some point or other, but they're easier said than done; we continue to stand in our own light while we work. Western society is impatient. We make things happen, we don't wait for them to take shape. Time flies, and time and tide wait for no one, but is time really of the essence? We really do have plenty of time. I know I wouldn't be as stressed out if I spent more time enjoying time, and less time rushing it. If only I could apply this wisdom to grilled cheese.
Second Cup Tzu-Jan (a related post) 

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