Wednesday, September 12, 2012

lesson learned

One lesson I've learned from engaging in the silly, pointless debate over the nomenclature of grilled cheese is that naming is important-- even though, by all rights, it shouldn't be. We can get into long, drawn-out fights over appellations, as has happened with gay marriage: some benighted, knuckle-dragging conservatives contend that gay marriage isn't "real marriage." Or female Korean restaurant workers can declare that they'll no longer answer to calls of "Ajumma!" (very roughly, "Auntie!"). Designations matter. But of course, as soon as you make a designation, you draw a boundary, and the moment someone tries to cross this boundary, there's an uproar. The fact of the matter is that the uproar is silly: reality is constantly oozing out from under the labels we apply to it. Whether we're talking about grilled cheese or gay marriage or names for female servers and cooks, we need to be flexible in our concepts. Flexibility leads to far less suffering than does inflexibility.



Charles said...

"Flexibility leads to far less suffering than does inflexibility."

I can say that this is undoubtedly true, based on my experience with women.

(And yes, I mean that on multiple levels.)

Elisson said...

Aww, you're just PO'ed because the Maximum Leader insists that a grilled cheese sandwich contain no meat.

A certain amount of flexibility is fine - after all, this is not an earth-shaking matter, this business of grilled cheese - and yet one must beware lest it lead to lack of clarity.

If I ask for a grilled cheese sammitch, I expect bread and cheese: no more, no less. Expanding the definition Benefits nobody but the bacon makers. ;-)

Kevin Kim said...


Well, the point is that it's a fait accompli: people-- people in the industry, no less-- already refer to non-standard grilled cheeses as "grilled cheeses." Esse entails posse: if it's been done, then it must have been possible to do. This is what I mean by reality oozing out from under our labels. Absolute, permanent clarity is impossible.

The Maximum Leader said...

As the arse who started this whole thing... I would refer on to your brother's comments to the other posts. I believe it is important to recognize that the common understanding of a grilled cheese sandwich in these United States is bread and cheese without anything else. No bemeating. No veggies.

I believe an important point has been missed in this discussion. Cheese is normally an "extra" that is added to a sandwich after some primary fleshy protein has been declared the primary ingredient. I was at lunch the other day in my favorite local French restaurant and asked the chef (French-born by the way) if a grilled cheese sandwich contained meat. (I know I am risking an appeal to authority here.) He laughed and said no. A grilled cheese sandwich was bread and cheese (or a variety of cheeses). He felt it was still a grilled cheese if you added veggies. But once some meat was added, the meat superseded the cheese. The meat was the primary ingredient. You wouldn't want just any cheese thrown onto a sandwich with any meat. For example a grilled sandwich with sliced veal and bleu cheese is not appetizing. Also, it would be a veal sandwich with cheese that was grilled.

Where he was going, and where I am in this is that in order for a sandwich to be a grilled cheese, the cheese must obviously and clearly be the primary ingredient in the space between the bread. Once you go adding meat, you move the cheese to a supporting role (an important one, but still supporting). Once the cheese is in a supporting role, it shouldn't be called a grilled cheese sandwich.

John said...

Speaking of designations, assigning the term "knuckle-dragging conservative" to those who oppose gay marriage strikes me as rather, well, inflexible. After all, scores of liberal black churches are on record as believing that marriage is exclusively a male/female undertaking.

The only opposition to gay marriage I've heard is based on religious beliefs. While I personally disagree with those (and generally all religious beliefs) I reckon those folks are as much entitled to believe as they choose as I am.

Anyway, if a cheese-only grilled cheese is an outdated stereotype, I'd submit assigning political labels to religious thinking is past the "sell by" date as well.

And the State Department has criticized the "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." Gay marriage is not an issue in Islamic countries. Gay folks usually don't live long enough to worry about marriage.

How flexible do you really want to be?

Kevin Kim said...


I think you've inverted the issue. Those religious (not political) conservatives are knuckle-draggers precisely because they lack the flexibility to expand their concept of marriage to include homosexuals. They refuse to acknowledge that terms can and do evolve. This is perfectly consistent with my belief that there's knuckle-draggery in not allowing a "bemeated" grilled cheese to be called a grilled cheese. In both cases, gay marriage and sandwiches, I'm for an expansion of categorical inclusiveness. So I plead "not guilty" to all charges of inconsistency.

This leads me to Mike's comment, above:

Mike, I see this terminological debate as coming down to two fundamental issues: (1) possibility, and (2) permissibility. I think I've addressed both issues satisfactorily.

(1) On possibility: this is a simple yes/no question. Is it possible to call a non-standard grilled-cheese sandwich a "grilled cheese"? The obvious answer is yes: both The Grilled Cheese Academy and Chef Nate Pollak do so. If they've done so, then that means it's ontologically possible. Esse entails posse. No invisible force is stopping me from using my preferred designation.

(2) On permissibility: this is the question of accepted usage, definition, referential clarity, etc. As to the accusation that my usage might be non-standard, I'd say "Who cares?" Non-standard doesn't equate to impermissible. And regarding clarity: if I stand accused of being unclear, then so do GCA and Nate Pollak. I'm not alone on this. If one were to visit the GCA website for the first time, one might not know exactly what to expect: are GCA's grilled cheeses the "classic" grilled cheese? In that first glimpse of the website, then, there's a possible lack of clarity on GCA's site, and it's the same supposed lack of clarity of which I'm being accused. If I'm in error, then GCA (and Chef Pollak) has erred the same way.

What we have, then, is rhetorical parity: you've marshaled your evidence in the form of an informal family poll and an informal question to Monsieur le Chef at La Petite Auberge. I've marshaled my evidence in the form of a pro website and a pro-chef's article-- both of which use "grilled cheese" to refer to non-standard grilled cheeses. Whose evidence is the stronger? As far as I can tell, neither, but I've at least succeeded in establishing that I'm not alone in my usage of the term: I stand in good company. Here, then, is objective empirical evidence that my usage is both possible and permissible.

So much for possibility and permissibility. There's no Académie Française of grilled cheese to arbitrate this dispute, and thank heaven for that!

CODA: I was too hasty in poo-pooing appeals to authority. Quoting authoritative sources to bolster one's argument isn't an inherently bad thing (academics do it all the time), though I suppose it can be a suspicious tactic in an "I'm telling Mommy!" kind of way. I respect the authoritative opinion of Monsieur le Chef, even if I disagree with it.

John said...

I think I tripped up on assuming you were applying the political meaning versus religious, so with my corrected understanding I withdraw all objections.

As it relates to cheese sandwiches, whatever their form or contents, can't we all just agree to call them "good"?

Kevin Kim said...

They are good, indeed!