My favorite cooking tool in the entire world is also, arguably, the most useless. I call it the Bombay cheese toast maker because that's the only thing it can make: a single-serving Indianized grilled cheese, which I aggressively dip in cilantro chutney. (Sometimes I'll also put the chutney in between the slices of bread, like Food52 contrib Annada Rathi does in her Mumbai Vegetable Sandwich, because I can't get enough of the stuff.)
The tool is essentially a portable panini press, except tiny and not electric. At one end is a square cast iron pocket in which you place the prepared sandwich, and the rest of it is a long handle that opens and closes like an alligator's mouth. The closest comparison I can find to my Bombay cheese toast maker is a jaffle iron (see below), except mine is not meant to be used over a campfire; it's too short, and the plastic handles would melt. Only a stovetop fire will do.
The cast iron is ridged, so that the sandwich emerges from its fire bath juuuuuust barely cut into four neat triangles. Give a triangle a little tug and it releases itself from the rest of the sandwich, cheese oozing out as though it is crying from separation anxiety (delicious, though!). The Bombay cheese toast maker seals in the edges of the sandwich, which means there will be minimal dripping.
Could I make other, possibly non-cheesy sandwiches in this tool? Sure. (In fact, our Test Kitchen used it to make fellow editor Brinda Ayer's potato curry sandwich.) But I don't want to. That would, somehow, make this tool less special to me.
My Bombay cheese toast maker, like me, was born in India. I don't know if it moved out of India to New Jersey with me in the year 2000, or if I collected it on a later trip, but it's with me now. Both my parents worked full-time, six days a week, so our family cook, Meenamma, prepared most of our meals. She would let me stand on my tiptoes and flail this very same toast maker above my head. She gently scolded me not to eat all the Amul cheese slices, or there wouldn't be any left for the sandwich.
I use the colonial name Bombay instead of the modern Mumbai because that's just what my family was used to saying. For us, it was always Madras, not Chennai; Calcutta, not Kolkata. That's no longer the case now, since we are just calling these places what Google Maps and Zomato (a.k.a. Indian Yelp) and the news call them, and I'm okay with it. But I hold on to the word Bombay in the way I hold on to those memories of making my favorite after-school snack and dipping the finished project in ketchup rather than cilantro chutney, because ketchup was the novelty back then.
I don't make Bombay cheese toast often, because this tool is hidden away in my top cabinet. I only whip it out in the times I feel like I need it most desperately—when I'm feeling far off-center, longing for something familiar to quiet all the questions running through my mind about "what my next step is"—you know, in life. Because I don't think I've lived a day of my life without thinking about my next step. Usually these thoughts are de rigueur, and they keep me motivated—until they make me panic because I don't have an answer.
That's when I look to my Bombay cheese toast maker. Making this sandwich takes some planning: I have to go to the Indian store to buy chutney, Amul cheese, and green chiles, as well as square white Wonder bread, which I don't usually have around because I prefer boules. Pain de mie or brioche will not work here; only soft white Wonder bread. This feels like a lot of work for a snack that takes 5 minutes to make, but then again, I only make this sandwich when I need the distraction. It's funny how much this snack from my past, made using a tool from my past, helps me live in the moment. Maybe it makes me feel like I can make a home wherever I go, even if I don't know where that will be.
In one month, I'll be moving continents once again, to the United Kingdom this time. I plan on taking my Bombay cheese toast maker with me. I have a hunch that once I'm there, I'll use it to expand my repertoire-of-one and make something more American, like the grilled cheese from Jane the Virgin I won't stop talking about (1/3 white cheddar, 1/3 yellow cheddar, 1/3 grated American), or the one editor Lindsay-Jean Hard's husband learned about at a Grateful Dead concert.
The idea that I might have to search for these ingredients is both absurd and exciting, and absolutely necessary: I have to use this magical, if rickety, kitchen tool to celebrate those humble, perfect moments in my Brooklyn kitchen, watching TV and relaxing after a week at work, to remind me of my roots, new and old. It's not homesick food; it's grateful-for-my-homes food. It's my talisman.
What's your cooking tool talisman? Let us know in the comments!