I’m so pleased to welcome you to Reads & Eats, a newsletter about food. This is a teaser, a sample of what you’ll get if you’re signed on to a full subscription. If you’ve paid for a subscription, you’ll get a year’s worth of content from me and our wonderful feature writer plus whatever bonus content is relevant (recipes, tips on writing and/or publishing, or maybe something I’ve read lately that I especially love); if you’re a free subscriber, you’ll get content from our feature writer and bonus content.
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Our featured writer for our teaser issue is Joj the First. They are a writer living in France, and this month they sent us a missive from their wonderful backyard garden and their childhood. But first, some thoughts from me about a big American favorite, Grilled Cheese.
String Cheese is More Q Q
Wendy and I were hanging out one Saturday afternoon in high school when I got the hankering for a grilled cheese sandwich.
I remember being really excited to make a sandwich for Wendy. She was a year older, the big sister I think I always wanted. And she was one of those girls my parents had said I should aspire to be more like: super smart; quiet; respectful of her parents. Wendy wore hair ribbons regularly, and they seemed to never slip off or go immediately askew, like mine did.
“Hey,” I said, “do you want a grilled cheese sandwich?”
Oh, but I was excited. I started assembling the bits: Two slices of creamy Wonder Bread; two shingles of Kraft American Processed Cheese Food, the individually wrapped ones.
I laid a cheese slice on each piece of Wonder Bread and pulled open the lid to the toaster oven. “What’re you doing?” asked Wendy.
“Making grilled cheese!” I said.
“Oh,” said Wendy. “No. You’re making toasted cheese.”
She nudged me out of the way. “Here, let me show you. Where are your pans?”
I still remember Wendy standing there, looking like an expert with a spatula in her hand. “You’re going to love this,” she said, and although I liked it okay, it’d be going a little far to say I loved it.
I know, I know. This is anathema to a great many of you. I mean, how can one not love a grilled cheese sandwich? Well, have you ever had a toasted cheese sandwich? Here is the way it goes:
One slice Wonder Bread (or, okay, fine, bread of your choice, but it has to be square)
One slice processed cheese food
Square cheese neatly to bread. Slide into toaster oven. Set to toast setting of your liking. (I like mine with a good number of browned bubbles atop the cheese.)
From here, you can eat it with a knife and fork and dunked into soup, or you can just wolf it, one-handed, like I used to do, more or less rendering a plate entirely pointless.
I was pretty sure I had learned this preparation from my mom, and I knew for a fact that she didn’t learn it in Taiwan, because when I visiting there sometime in the early 2000s my relatives asked me if I had ever heard of “cheesu.” Processed cheese food had definitely not had time to hit the shores before we left in 1978.
“Ma,” I asked her last weekend, “Where did you learn that?”
“Oh, I can’t remember,” she says, sounding like she’s really wracking her brains over a toasted cheese sandwich. “You know those long white cheese things you kids used to love? They came in plastic?”
I hazard a guess. “String cheese?”
“Yes, that. I just…picked them to pieces and laid them onto bread. I don’t know why I decided to do that.”
Long pause, while I process this. “Wait, where did you even hear of that? Why not just use the orange slices?”
Even as I’m talking, I kind of know the answer already.
“Oh, no, I’d never use the orange slices,” she says. “ The other is more QQ.”
“Q” is a Taiwanese thing, although you obviously won’t find it in the Taiwanese alphabet. “Q” or “QQ” if you’re being colloquial about it (say, if you’re describing it to your daughter over many years of memory), sounds like the word “chewy” in Taiwanese, so you can think of it that way, but it’s not chewy like, um, taffy, or chewing gum or an alarming piece of gristle. It’s more like springy, like, the texture of whatever you’re eating presses back against your teeth. Think grilled squid, maybe. Or, if you’ve eaten Asian food, fish cake or balls. Or, oh oh! The tapioca pearls in bubble tea.
I asked a couple of Taiwanese writer friends how they’d describe it. Food writer Esther Tseng posited that it’s the “chewy, springy texture in a bite,” and writer Grace Hwang Lynch said it was “chewy in a bouncy way, as opposed to a stretchy way.”
(Taiwanese is an oddly specific language. My aunts and uncles aren’t just aunts and uncles. We have specific words for aunts that come from our mother’s side; aunts that married into our father’s side. And we can tell you the birth order of the husbands they married, all with a two-word title. Bicycles are foot-powered cars, and computers are electronic brains. But that’s another post.)
Grilled cheese sandwiches were a thing in America as early as 1918, when it was called “Cheese Dream.” I found a recipe in Good Housekeeping, Volume 67, #4, the October issue, in an article called “Meatless Main Dishes.” The article suggests we serve our Cheese Dream with a green salad and fresh fruit or berries for dessert, making it “an attractive and nutritious luncheon or supper.”
I can’t remember what my mom served it with. And I sure as heck don’t remember what Wendy served it with. My husband, who is literally a grilled cheese sandwich expert, having made thousands of them while he was a line chef at a hoity-toity beach club in Rhode Island, swears by American Cheese (which, he’s quick to point out, is also not “the orange stuff”), buttered bread, and the frying pan. He eats it with chips, or pickles, or tater tots.
I guess it doesn’t matter what you serve it with. I just like that it seems to be a dish that you can put your own spin on, even from as far away as Taiwan.
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Taco Salad is French
I met joj via a mutual friend back in The Before. It was years ago, and we’ve literally only been able to see each other once since then for, no lie, a three-second shoulder squeeze at another conference, but we’ve stayed in touch. Their social media is filled with beautiful photos of their garden at home, and I wanted to know more. This is the result.
I live in Provence, in France. This is the France Most Likely to Make A Guidebook Cover. A sensory paradise. Think lavender fields, olive groves, and rosé vineyards. Rocky hillsides brushed with wild rosemary and thyme, cypress-lined roads and the deafening song of summer cicadas—the destination of many French vacationers. Every snapshot here is a post card. The food I eat is farmed locally, rich with the flavor of the soil I tread, the near-constant sunshine—a culinary world so varied I could choose to never eat the same meal twice, recipes of both ancient expertise and cutting-edge experimentation.
But I didn’t grow up here. I lived a large chunk of my childhood with my mother and sister in a camper perched atop our pick-up. Simplicity and frugality were key, so we subsisted on a rotation of quick meals: corn-chip pie, chili-mac, canned chicken and rice, and the like. These were the meals I learned to make, what I called “cooking.” I was in college when I ate my first bagel, a student in France when I peeled my first garlic clove, a newlywed when I rolled my first maki.
By the time my second child started preschool, though, we’d backslid into the familiarity and comfort of those road-food recipes from my childhood. My French partner went gamely along. But then I read Barbara Kingsolver’s homesteading memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which her family spends a year eating only what they can grow and raise themselves.
Our little family gave up processed “foods.” No more frozen chicken nuggets or canned chili. No more high-fructose corn syrup or food dyes. I even talked my partner into starting a hippie homestead in Virginia where, among other things, our 10 varieties of lettuce and half a dozen kinds of heirloom tomatoes nourished our children’s bodies. We made our own pasta; our own pesto from the basil we grew. Ketchup from our tomatoes.
But, no matter how clean and granola our diet became, there was one dish I just couldn’t purge.
On the rare occasions my mom’s family got together, we’d eat Taco Salad. The recipe was simple and always the same: off-brand tortilla chips, ground beef (seasoned with a packet of taco seasoning,) government commodity cheese, shredded by my young blistered fingers, rough-chopped tomatoes and iceberg. We mixed it in a green, plastic, five-gallon bucket. We dressed it all with sour cream and salsa, and spooned it onto floppy paper plates balanced on our knees. It was an irresistible marriage of nuttiness, tang, cream, and crunch. It still is.
I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love Taco Salad, friends and colleagues of all social classes, from all over the world. When we moved to France, it came with us. My French partner eventually took it to his traditional family potluck—mixed in a giant Ikea stainless steel bowl instead of the five-gallon bucket—and it was the only dish without leftovers. Someone wiped the bowl clean with their baguette. They’ve requested it for other events!
My kids still love sushi night—everyone lined up at the kitchen island, rolling their own maki. They cheer for my magret de canard à l’orange. They love my homemade tom kha gai, tortilla de patatas, rare chevalsteaks au poivre and pommes duchesses, and any number of other dishes I’ve worked to master. But in the face of all that fancy food, Taco Salad is still their favorite.
I healthy it up, sometimes: Multi-grain chips, ground turkey, artisan cheeses, home-grown vegetables, Greek yogurt in place of sour cream. The only thing I never compromise is the secret seasoning for the meat. I load up my suitcase during visits or have loyal friends mail packets of it to me from back home to avoid the risk of running out.
I crossed an ocean to cleanse myself of a sparse, hillbilly childhood, to flush out the residue of generic Hamburger Helper. I may be a stealthy cultural and linguistic chameleon, blending in with the French middle class, sipping Provençal rosé poolside, but I’m still me. Taco Salad persists. It’s my children’s inheritance. The ingredients are leveled-up now with fancy tomatoes, obscure greens and gruyere cheese, a drizzling of crème fraîche.
But, like me, the seasoning is still the same.
joj is a memoirist, essayist, and collector of unused graduate degrees. They live with their partner and four children in the Luberon area of Provence, France.
Recipe: joj’s Taco Salad
Tortilla chips (I like Tostitos white corn restaurant style. The amount depends on the person)
1 lb ground meat (beef, turkey, chicken, venison—when I was vegetarian, I used black beans)
1 pkg taco seasoning (my brand is the same as a major “Mexican” fast-food chain)
8 oz (give or take) shredded cheese
8-10 medium tomatoes, chopped (Romas work GREAT)
1-3 heads iceberg (depending on how salad-y you want it), washed and rough chopped
Equipment: HUGE BOWL (and maybe cheese shredder, sharp knife, big mixing/serving spoon).
Optional: Salsa, black beans, black olives, guacamole or chopped avocado. Sea salt.
1. Brown, drain, and season meat according to packet.
2. Wash/chop the veggies and shred the cheese.
a. Lightly smash chips.
b. Add meat and toss with the chips to coat with seasoning.
c. Add tomatoes, lettuce and cheese.
d. Sprinkle lightly with salt (optional).
e. Fold or toss so that the taco seasoning coats everything lightly but evenly.
f. Dress with sour cream (et al, depending).
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