So, here we are in the middle of the year’s most traditional holidays, the ones that include special foods as part of their celebration. Once again this year, after an autumn of apples and pumpkins in several incarnations, we gratefully partook of a meal filled with seasonal and family favorites.
The Christmas part of the season will, as usual, yield yummy treats more snack-line than meal-ready: Chex Mix, ham, cookies of infinite variety, and Swedish Tea Ring from my mother’s recipe. My mouth is already watering in anticipation of the homemade fudge and chocolate-covered cherries I will savor against a background of twinkling lights.
It is, however, fine with me that such culinary abundance and richness come but once a year. In terms of food, I am really just a plain and simple girl. I will almost always choose a casserole over a steak and buttered noodles instead of any gourmet entrée whipped up by an Iron Chef on the Food Channel. In fact, I am more than content with the rustic components of good bread and cheese.
I guess my earliest introduction to these basic foodstuffs came in the form of the toasted cheese sandwiches my mother regularly paired with tomato soup for many a Friday night supper. Faced with a fairly empty pantry on the night before her weekly grocery expedition, Mother lined a cookie sheet with slices of Wonder Bread, added butter and mild Longhorn cheese, then melted the whole concoction under the oven broiler.
The bread-and-cheese theme repeated itself throughout my childhood when I found Cheez Whiz and dried beef sandwiches in my school lunchbox. My father often added a thick slab of Chef’s Delight to his Saturday afternoon fried bologna creations. And my parents occasionally treated us to Swiss cheese on brown bread from the butter cow exhibit at the Ohio State Fair.
My trips to Europe opened an entirely new world of bread-and-cheese combinations. Interestingly enough, I participated in the growing fondue trend in 1972. On a cold and rainy day in Zurich, Switzerland, we sat in a cozy restaurant around a pot of bubbling cheese into which we dunked chunks of crusty bread. Cheese fondue – exquisite in its simplicity – remains well above meat “fondued” in hot oil or strawberries dipped in melted chocolate on my personal fondue preference list.
In France that same year I became acquainted with an array of cheeses whose foreign names confused me but whose flavors did not disappoint. There was nothing more delectable – bordering on decadent, even – than chunks of fromage wrapped in paper tied shut with string and a fresh baguette, both from some Parisian open-air market. Add a bottle of wine or sparkling water, and we enjoyed a leisurely picnic in a city park or out in the French countryside – where we were charmed into believing life could not be better.
But it was all those visits to Germany that had me waiting with whetted appetite each year for an early summer return to all my German Brot and Käse favorites. Ingrid always kept her kitchen stocked with bread and cheeses of various textures and flavors and all culled from local markets, dairy stores, and bakeshops.
Brown breads and gray breads and black breads – with firm texture and real substance – were always my favorite. There were also crusty loaves, fresh rolls, and the occasional loaf of soft, almost sweet white bread. Topped with a generous layer of butter containing no salt to compete for flavor, each slice of German bread provided a worthy platform for its cheese partner.
Over the years in Germany I enjoyed with equal gusto mild and sharp cheeses, yellow and white cheeses, soft and hard cheeses. If I did not order Wienerschnitzel in a restaurant, I was surely selecting a Käseplatte from the menu.
Living with Ingrid’s family as I did for three weeks each summer, I was able to experience bread and cheese on a daily basis. Our breakfasts always included one of several varieties of bread covered with that yummy unsalted butter. I could add jelly or sausage, but more than likely I opted for a slice of two or three cheese choices laid out on the table.
It was always a good day when my lunch sack for our latest field trip held a cheese sandwich or two along with an apple, a yogurt, and a chocolate bar.
And Ingrid could make even the quietest evening at home almost festive with a cutting board of tiny bread slices finished off with a slice of sausage, a piece of herring or sardine, or – always my favorite, of course – a smear of soft cheese.
I must proclaim my all-time favorite German bread-and-cheese “confection.” Every school day for several years I spent one mark – Germany’s currency prior to the Euro – on a Käsebrötchen available only in the snack bar at the Otto-Hahn Gymnasium: the perfect combination of a soft German roll with just the right amount of sweet German butter and slices of a soft, mild German cheese. Lecker!
Over the years I have also satisfied my bread-and-cheese taste buds with bagels and cream cheese and any pizza hankering I might encounter can be sated by a classic four-cheese pie.
For a while now, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches have been trending in the glossy pages of magazines and on any number of cooking shows. Now I am all for a good, buttery grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, and I would like to try a grilled BLT version of the original. But I am not sure my tastes are avant-garde enough to appreciate avocado, figs, or sprouts placed with limburger cheese between slices of rye or pumpernickel.
My love affair with bread and cheese really did begin with those Friday night suppers of tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches, when I was just the plain and simple girl I still am today.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in EnglishandGerman from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001shecoordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.