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Winning combo: Grilled cheese and tomato soup are classic comfort for a reason

Ari LeVaux
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It's glorious to bite into the dunked edge of a grilled cheese, at once crusty and soggy, dry and wet, acidic and fatty, melty and cheesy.

I somehow grew up with minimal exposure to what I now realize was a cherished part of childhood for basically everybody else: a grilled cheese sandwich alongside a bowl of tomato soup.

This iconic lunch combo wasn’t in my parents’ or friends’ parents’ cooking rotations, and forget about school lunch — I was a food snob from day one, not down for school lunch.

I had no idea how glorious it is to bite into the dunked edge of a grilled cheese, at once crusty and soggy, dry and wet, acidic and fatty, melty and cheesy. I can now see how for many, this dish was eye-opening.

It’s also a hearty meal, a complete source of protein and Vitamin C, which is why during the Great Depression school cafeterias stockpiled cans of tomato soup and grilled cheese materials. I knew none of this until a Los Angeles-based client reached out, asking if I would investigate a certain Depression-era meal from southwest Montana:

“My Grandma Fay, who lived in the Bitterroot Valley up the Burnt Fork, used to prepare tomato toast, which was basically a piece of toast smothered with a creamy tomato sauce. She probably used real cream back in the day, topped with a cooked egg if you had ’em.”

The research process, and the keywords involved, occasionally brought me into cyberproximity with the grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup combo.

The archetypes and keywords were on my mind when my friend and noted novelist Chad Dundas tweeted despairingly, “Perhaps my biggest disappointment as a father so far is my children’s unwillingness to recognize the splendor of pairing grilled cheese sandwiches & tomato soup. They could take or leave it & I’m considering petitioning for a DNA test.”

The sheer number of comments to this tweet made me contemplate my own general significance, and their nuance made me question my qualifications to be writing about this, including topics like how best to cut the sandwich (corner to corner, duh), and the place of tomato chunks in the soup, or lack thereof (lack). One chap made a case for Goldfish crackers swimming in the soup.

Dundas may not be Aunt Fay up the Burnt Fork, but I knew I needed this man of letters as my guide, like Dante needed Virgil. He’s not here to overthink the thing, or rock the boat by looking for angles to improve upon perfection. The soup is Campbell’s. The bread is white. The cheese is orange.

I brought home those ingredients, and the next thing you know I’m making the combo for my kids, who are wolfing it down like it was their first taste of food. Soon their friends were over, also wanting food. When the dust settled, I had stuffed six little bellies for about $7.

In honor of Aunt Fay’s tomato toast, I figured out how to cook an egg in the middle of the grilled cheese, which I think is pretty tasty, like a cheesy egg-in-a-nest. Then I turned my attention to the soup.

The label suggests mixing the contents with a can of milk or water, which if you do it right also salvages whatever soup clings to the can — an important Depression Era trick. I found milk dulled the tomatoey sharpness, which lessened the dramatic contrast between soup and sandwich. The soup already has bread (wheat flour) mixed in, which adds a certain bisque-like creaminess.

If you have serious soup eaters, that can of water is the way to go, but I kept finding leftover soup after the sandwiches were long gone. Now I leave it thick. With added garlic and black pepper. And hot sauce.

Grilled Cheese and Egg Sandwich Lunch

• 1 14-ounce can Campbell’s Tomato Soup

• 4 tablespoons olive oil

• ½ teaspoon black pepper

• 1 large clove garlic, pressed, mashed or minced

• 2 pieces sliced bread, preferably white

• 2 Kraft Singles’ worth of cheese, preferably cut from a finer, if similarly hued block of cheese (if cooking an egg, cut each slice into long rectangles the width of a chopstick)

Optional: an egg, hot sauce

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil on medium. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and pepper. After about a minute of fragrant stir-frying, add the soup to the sizzling garlic oil, mixing it quickly. After a minute of heat, turn it off and make the sandwich.

To a heavy-bottomed pan pre-heated to medium, add a tablespoon of oil. Swish a piece of bread around the pan like you’re mopping up gravy, and then add the cheese. Make a frame with your thin rectangles of cheese around the edge of the bread, and crack the egg in the middle, if using. Add the second piece of bread. Pour the last tablespoon of olive oil to the top of the upper slice. When you smell the bottom start to burn, flip the sandwich and cook the same amount of time on the other side. Allow it to cool to a safe temperature, and slice corner to corner.