Grilled Cheese: History Of The Classic Quick Dinner With Infinite Variations

By Spencer Reynolds

Grilled cheese is a classic comfort food, and probably one of the very first things you learned to make at home. It’s a nostalgic dish, it reminds us of being kids and having nothing else to worry about. But despite its simplicity, grilled cheese has an interesting origin story and has evolved into different unique forms around the world. It’s still a North American staple, and one chefs love to riff on, creating endless satisfying versions of a speedy sandwich classic. 

The history of grilled cheese can be traced back to the Great Depression era in the United States. It was affordable and convenient, it could be made on the fly by vendors and families alike, and it was quite filling. During this time, people were looking for ways to stretch their food budgets, and grilled cheese literally fit the bill. But it wasn’t exactly the grilled cheese we know and love today. Back then it was known as the “Cheese Dream” – what could be more American? 

The Cheese Dream was more often an open-faced sandwich made from one slice of bread and one slice of cheese which was fried, or often broiled, until the cheese was browned and puffy. Despite its popularity, the Cheese Dream has largely fallen out of favor in the United States, but it remains a nostalgic reminder of a difficult time in American history. 

Grilled cheese has been emulated around the world. In France, it’s known as a “croque-monsieur,” which is made with ham and Gruyere cheese and is often topped with a béchamel sauce. In India, a “paneer sandwich” is made with paneer cheese and is typically served with chutney or other spices. In Spain, a “bocadillo de queso,” which is made with manchego cheese, is served on a crusty baguette. 

There are a million ways to make grilled cheese. In fact, it’s become a badge of honour for chefs to add their own twist to it. Some chefs even make sweet grilled cheese with ingredients like Nutella or fruit preserves. This versatility makes grilled cheese a popular choice for takeout and delivery, as it can be tailored to different tastes and never loses its charm. Many specialty grilled cheese restaurants have cropped up over the last twenty years.  

Though the original recipe is simple enough, recipes have been included in some of the greatest cookbooks ever written. For instance, Irma S. Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking” (1953) includes a simple recipe for grilled bread and cheese using a waffle iron – for the “maidless host”. U.S. Navy cookbooks have featured some kind of grilled cheese recipe since world war two, although these were more reminiscent of the Cheese Dream and did not include a top slide of bread.  

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the popular sandwich became known as the “grilled cheese”, having previously been called simply a melted cheese, or toasted cheese. Coincidentally, it was in the 1960s that Kraft Processed Cheese slices started to take off, and bagged sliced bread become more uniform and readily available in grocery stores.  

This iconic snack has become a cultural phenomenon and has led to some surprising grilled cheese stories. In 2004, a woman named Diana Duyser sold a grilled cheese sandwich on eBay for $24,000 because it had the image of the virgin mary seared into its grill marks. In 2007, a competitive eater named Joey Chestnut ate 47 grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes, setting a new world record. We don’t recommend you try that at home. We also discourage making grilled cheese sandwiches using a clothing iron, like Johnny Depp’s character did in Benny and Joon. Not only will you burn your fingers, but you’ll also never use that iron again!  

The perfect grilled cheese is best left to the professionals. In fact, the exact things that make grilled cheese a perfect at-home snack lend themselves to takeout and delivery. It’s fast, it travels well, it’s hand-held, and it can be as simple or customized as you like! So next time, before you bust out the frying pan to make yourself a late-night grilled cheese, consider ordering one in!