The 1984 movie “Country” tells the story of an Iowa farm family struggling to make a go of it against all odds – which in their case means bad weather and heartless banks. Jessica Lange and her real-life partner (until 2010) Sam Shepard play the parents, and they’re terrific. There’s much to remember from this movie – a humdinger of a tornado, teenage kids (who cause slightly less damage than the tornado), and some wrenching emotional moments, but there’s only one little scene that still sticks in my mind:
It’s right at the beginning, and it’s a close up of Jessica Lange frying grilled cheese sandwiches in a pan. Awe-inspiring beauty – and I’m talking about the sandwiches. I was drooling.
And these are Iowa grilled cheese sandwiches, which means Wonder Bread, slices of Pasteurized Cheese Food Product, and lots of butter. It’s been shown, in tests, that highly processed white bread is organically not far off from bad city air, and those “cheese” slices are chemically akin to three-tab shingles, but they looked delicious, and when the movie was over I went home and made grilled cheese sandwiches, but with good cheddar and a sturdy bread.
Some call this kind of cooking “trailer food.” Velveeta, Spam (original full-on fat and salt), Vienna sausages, potted meat, Little Smokies, corned beef hash in a can. Trailer food, hobo food, whatever, I like to think of it as all-American-flyover-state Soul Food. I’ve had all of them more than once, and – get this – by conscious choice. They’ve been around for decades on supermarket shelves for two reasons: they’re cheap (relatively), and they taste pretty good. No, you don’t want to make a habit of these things – they’ll trash your electrolytes for sure, like a nonstop diet of BigMacs – but every once in awhile they’ll hit the spot.
I’ve seen a lot of Iowa, solo and with my wife, and there’s not an acre of it that it isn’t beautiful. My son went to school there. We have good friends in Iowa City. Donna Reed, a favorite TV mom for every Boomer I know, was born and raised in Denison. What a state! “Field of Dreams.” Corn. Pigs (ribs, pulled pork!). Soybeans. Rolling green hills. “A Thousand Acres.” It’s all Iowa – green, fecund, hard-working, honest, delicious.
My wife and I stayed in Denison one night, in far western Iowa, on our way from South Dakota headed east. Sure enough, a sign said, “Denison – Birthplace of Donna Reed.” They have the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center there, and a small museum. The motel was large and mostly ours for the night. It featured a large fitness room – treadmills, weight machines, a hot tub – with ashtrays on tables. Six, seven ashtrays in the fitness center! Run a mile, “Hey, weary? Take a smoke break!”, lift some weights, “Wanna cig?”, hop in the tub. The guy who ran the motel – a father of two, as I recall, whose family lived right there – wanted to do anything to make our stay more pleasant. Struggling to keep the place going. Nobody goes to Denison – it’s not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. Good man, nice family, empty motel. Some of Iowa is sad like this.
If you’ve read much of this blog, you know my food tastes are all over the map, and the recipes are usually pretty simple (gumbo excepted!) because I don’t want to exhaust myself or anyone else over a hot stove. You’ve also probably figured out that the food part often takes a back seat to stories and anecdotes and ruminations on physics and strange contrails and various language abuses and whatever else I hope readers will find interesting or mildly amusing. With so much territory to cover, who wants to be distracted by excessive labors in the kitchen? Not me. And so, this gets us to a simple, quick, “What-am-I-going-to-make-for-supper?” dish very much in the genealogy of Jessica Lange’s gorgeous grilled cheese sandwiches:
Quick Cheese Casserole
This is adapted from the Joy of Cooking. I call it a Poor Man’s Soufflé… it’s fast, fun, delicious, and not very good for you, but when you just can’t think what to make for supper, this could be your hero. It comes out fluffy like a soufflé and cheesy-rich. You’ll need:
- About six slices of good, hearty bread or chunks of French bread
- 1 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar
- 3 beaten eggs
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 1 tsp. dry mustard
- 1/2 tsp. paprika
- cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 and rub a casserole with butter (or use canola oil).
Break up the bread into chunks and put in the bottom of the dish. Combine beaten eggs, milk, mustard and spices with a whisk, and pour the mixture over the bread. Spread the grated cheese on top. Bake for about 30 minutes uncovered or until everything’s bubbling and the cheese is turning golden. Serve right away with a white wine and salad.
☞ You can add to this bits of sausage, chopped ham, pepperoni slices, or even chopped hot dogs
There you have it, till next time.