Grilled Cheese Goes to the Tropics (But Hangs Out With a Wintry Salad)

Seventeen years ago, when I set my sights on the United States to attend university, I welcomed all of the brash uncertainty attached to such a choice. I was saying goodbye to my small, twin-island home of Trinidad & Tobago, but I was also parting ways with an exuberantly rich culture comprised of settlers from almost a dozen nationalities. So when I set foot on campus at North Carolina State University, I was unsure of how to marry a bombastic cultural heritage to befit a new, somewhat bland, locale. I found myself in a dorm room in Bragaw Hall with seven sophomores; I was the only freshman, the only minority, the only international student.

Luckily, my seven suite-mates were upbeat but not syrupy, kind but not overextending, curious but not nosy. These girls showed me the ropes, and I showed them my bits of my culture. (“Soca music? Never heard of it.”) Day by day, the memories made themselves, but it was finals week that delivered on an experience so vivid and so visceral that it remains one of my strongest guideposts, both in and out of the kitchen.

My biology final was the next morning, it was almost midnight, and my roommate Carly and I were ravenously hungry. Back then, there was no UberEats, and we figured ordering a pizza would take way too long, and neither of us had the will to brace the stiff-necked December cold in search of a meal. From our mini fridge, Carly resurrected four of the saddest looking slices of white bread, along with two slices of Kraft singles. “Score!” she exclaimed. I looked at her with chaos in my eyes.

I wasn't always so pretty. Photo by Julia Gartland

I was rapt with confusion and questions, dubious about what she intended to make with food that had been buried under Gatorade for months. Then out came the Black & Decker clothes iron. On two sheets of paper towels on the corner of the bottom bunk, she made two cheese sandwiches and then ironed them until bread gained a hint of color and the cheese was warm and viscous. “Here ya’ go!” she said, handing a sandwich to me. “Um, what’s this? Do you really want me to eat this?” She was already half-way done with hers. Next, in perfect pitch, she interjected: “This is your first grilled cheese, isn’t it?!” I shook my head in affirmation. “Just try it, trust me, you’ll come to love it.” And so I did. And she was right.

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That was the magic of that lackluster grilled cheese: What seemed like a product of dorm-room desperation turned out to be a lifelong staple in which I could happily fuse two of my worlds. When I make a grilled cheese now—it’s always most meaningful in winter—I employ seed studded bread, significantly higher caliber cheese, a side salad, and coconut butter—a labor of love, but important because I need the Caribbean to shine though literally everything I eat, even if it’s by the smallest measure. The considerable nuance of the butter, as well as the lifelong memory of the sandwich’s incarnation, remains intact.

What dorm room foods have you updated? Let us know in the comments!

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