Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Mother Tongue

I am not in any way, shape, or form a linguist, and while I care passionately about words and have been known to argue shrilly over matters that others have long since stopped caring about (I am, for example, still upset, albeit mildly, when someone uses "if" where they ought to be using "whether"), I am no expert on the history of language or most of the words in the language. So I don't know why or when or even entirely to what extent American English evolved away from its British counterpart.

I do know, however, that there are at least a few British usages that I'd like to see either introduced or reintroduced into American usage. "Brilliant" is a good example. If you want to say that something is really great, and you're American, you don't have anything nearly as good as "brilliant." If you call something "really great" or "fantastic" or (God forbid) "awesome!" or (God and Cthulhu simultaneously forbid) "fabulous," then you really haven't done that thing justice, unless you happen to be gay and the object in question is a pair of shoes that you're especially enamored of, in which case, have at it. "Brilliant" literally means shining, from the French brillant, the present participle of briller, meaning to shine. If you say that something is brilliant, you're saying that it stands out. Think of the total number of stars (billions, they tell me) and of how many you can actually see in the sky. (The logical conclusion of this line of argument is that it takes a lot more to be brilliant in, say, New York City than it takes to be brilliant in rural Pennsylvania, and who would seriously dispute such a thing?)

So can I count on you to help me restore brilliance to its rightful place in the language? Thanks. I knew I could. And while we're reforming the language, however subtly, can we just stop using "supposed" where the British would use "meant"? You can keep saying that someone is supposed to be doing something if you mean that you suppose that they're doing it. But if you mean that they should be doing that thing that you actually suppose that they're not doing, then let's either say that they should be doing it or that they're meant to be doing it.

I should take a moment here to acknowledge that I'm a sucker for the way that educated Britons speak. I'm not especially an Anglophile per se, since I hear that the food, the teeth, and the plumbing are really pretty bad over there, but the accent simply melts me. (There are any number of accents that melt me, but let's not go there right now.) If I could find a way to graft the accent onto my partner, I'd never let him out of the house.

There is probably nothing all that intrinsically wonderful about "meant," but when people use it (in any accent), I smile. "Brilliant," on the other hand truly is special, and its obvious superiority over its pale American imitators has nothing to do with my interest in men with accents. Really.

"Whinging" is infinitely preferable to "whining." That one is so obvious that I need say no more about it.

There are a number of other examples of British words that I prefer (as well as some cases where we Americans have kicked their collective linguistic ass [just don't dwell on that metaphor, ok?], but citing those examples would weaken my argument, and why on earth would I do that?), but I'm just going to mention one more right now: "tinned." (The clear superiority of certain conventions of British punctuation, such as the one that would have allowed me to put the period outside the quotation marks at the end of that last sentence, is also beyond the scope of the current discussion. Alas.) I am happily no expert on the canning of foodstuffs, and I evidently haven't done the research, so I can't say whether or to what extent cans are made of tin these days, but for the love of all that's holy, wouldn't you rather be eating tinned salmon than canned salmon? Of course you would. Canned food is icky. Tinned food is an acknowledgment that sometimes you can't have the fresh version of what you want and that you're going to make the best of it. And I have to say that if you don't have a fully reliable fishmonger (I don't) that you're going to be better off making salmon mousse with tinned salmon than with fresh salmon that you've poached yourself. (I'll write about the salmon mousse another time. It's really just the Silver Palate salmon mousse anyway, but it makes all the other salmon mousses weep green tears of envy.)

Note, however, that you can't use "tinned" indiscriminately. Canned peas are canned peas because they should be avoided at all costs. Similarly, there are both tinned tomatoes and canned tomatoes, and you should always choose the former. But other foods, even when they aren't as good as their fresh counterparts can be enjoyed in the appropriate circumstances, and those foods are tinned.

Which, of course, brings me to today's topic: grilled cheese sandwiches. I want to state for the record that if you want to make your grilled cheese sandwiches with white bread and American cheese, I am not going to tell you not to. You may even enjoy it, sliced in half diagonally, with a nice bowl of tinned tomato soup, and you will have my full blessing. But for heaven's sake, use a decent white bread. Pepperidge Farm makes a white bread with at least a bit of substance, and it's widely available. You don't want to use that bread that has no substance and is best used for impromptu sculpture on a small scale (I'm not naming names, but you know who you are). And at least consider using butter instead of margarine. Then you'll be making pretty much the same grilled cheese sandwich that I make for the kids.

I made a grilled cheese sandwich for myself Friday. The basis for any good sandwich is good bread, and I had some around. Earlier in the week, L and A (my daughters) were over, and I realized that I didn't have any bread to make a peanut butter sandwich for L's lunch the next day. So I took V's bread machine (V is my partner. I note that the bread machine is his to make it sound like using a bread machine is beneath me, but really, I just got rid of mine when we moved in together because who needs two?) and made my standard bread machine bread. (Add, in order, one cup water, one cup all-purpose flour, two cups whole wheat flour, one teaspoon salt, two teaspoons yeast, two tablespoons oil; set the timer; press "start.") It's a substantial bread with a hard crust and a good crumb, and I hadn't used much of it for L's sandwich and other purposes, so there was still plenty left on Friday. I cut two slices, each about three-quarters of an inch thick, from the loaf.

My cheese of choice for grilled cheese is cheddar. Extra sharp cheddar. On my last trip to Costco, I found a two-pound block of Vermont cheddar that had been aged for two years. V had recently complained about some cheddar that had been marked "extra sharp," but which was not sharp at all, so I thought I would simultaneously get him some good cheese and stop him whinging about my Costco shopping (I mean, really, we're going to use all forty-eight rolls of the toilet paper eventually, aren't we?). Sadly, he left for Sarajevo before he could try the cheddar, but it was still a good idea, and the cheese is everything the extra sharp cheddar should be but often isn't. I like to slice the cheddar not too thinly. Extra sharp cheddar is a bit crumbly, and you can only slice it so (i.e., not very) thin and keep the piece intact, and that's how thin I like to slice it. You will end up with a substantial but not overwhelming layer of cheddary goodness.

The other two ingredients are softened butter and Dijon mustard. The butter helps the outside of the sandwich to brown evenly and adds flavor. The Dijon makes the cheddar even better. Put a layer of butter on one side of each slice of bread. You don't really want to slather the butter on, but you don't want to be miserly either. On the other side of each slice, put a teaspoon or so of Dijon. As always, amounts are to taste. The buttered sides are the outsides; the Dijonèd sides are the insides; the cheddar goes in between.

You cannot get the sandwich together and into the frying pan without getting either some butter or some mustard on yourself, so just accept the fact and move on. You can always wash your hands. I cook my grilled cheese sandwiches in my Calphalon non-stick omelet pan, but you can use whatever pan you use to fry eggs. Put the sandwich in the pan, put the pan on a medium to medium-low flame, and walk away for a few minutes. (If you have some Chardonnay in the fridge, this would be a good time to have a glass of it; Chardonnay is to a properly made one of my grilled cheese sandwiches as tinned tomato soup is to the standard fare.) Almost any time you're frying (or grilling) something, you only want to flip it once, and you don't want to move it around the pan a lot before you flip it. So make sure that your flame isn't high enough to burn the butter before the cheese melts, and when the cheese is nicely melted, flip the sandwich over. The second side will take considerably less time to cook than the first.

If it helps, you can think of the sandwich that I've just discussed as something other than a grilled cheese sandwich. Think of it as a very distant cousin of the croque monsieur, perhaps. It is really an entirely different phenomenon than the standard grilled cheese, and I have no interest in lessening your enjoyment of an American culinary institution.


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