The Campfire Grilled Cheese You Can Make Anywhere, At Any Time

August  6, 2018

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Photo by Alex Citrin

Aside from (always) wearing pajama pants and stopping at every scenic overlook, late-night hunts for firewood are a constant on any of the road trips my boyfriend and I take together—which typically involve some camping. The most exciting fire of our most recent road trip was among the towering burnt-siena buttes of Monument Valley, near the Arizona-Utah border.

It was on January 1, after a few below-zero nights when I refused to stay outside long enough to build a fire, no less make dinner. The night before, New Year’s Eve, we car-camped at the foot of a Colorado mountain range—the elevation and -7°F temperatures meant we passed out from a sip of red wine and a few pretzels around 8 p.m. The night before that, it was an Airstream in Abiquiu, New Mexico, that didn’t have heat or water. We had so much fun. This isn’t sarcasm!

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By the time we’d found a general store with firewood near where we wanted to camp in Monument Valley, there wasn’t a chance of stopping at another place for dinner. We’d find food here, at the general store, where all that seemed available was sweeping desert, moody sunsets, and Velveeta. I picked out some dense Ciabatta-looking loaves, squares of Swiss cheese, and some pre-sliced salami (so we wouldn’t have to find or wash the knives in the car).

We could’ve eaten it just like that: A meat and cheese sandwich with a view of the picturesque American West isn’t bad at all. But we had a small victory: a fire. I stuck my sandwich on a stick, like a marshmallow for s’mores, and attempted to grill it. Grilled cheese. Melted cheese leapt from the sandwich into the fire, which meant that holding the stick vertically, with the bottom of the stick perched in the fire, was a necessary contortion. My boyfriend wrapped his in foil and threw it into the flames—my road-trip manifesto in action: Always go with foil, a lighter, instant hot cocoa (which will improve any coffee), and paper towels (for when you can’t find the toilet paper).

Was it the best grilled cheese ever? Hardly. But was it a celebration? In the best way. One I’d gladly enjoy even in the summer, when roadside farm stands are a little more plentiful—or open at all.

Like scrambled eggs, tacos, and hot dogs, grilled cheese can be both an over-the-top delicacy or an in-a-pinch convenience food. They can be eaten any time of year, with extravagant or humble ingredients. Chances are you can fashion this kind of sandwich from most stores along the road, even gas stations. But it’s also a format for relishing the ingredients and flavors of the places you’re traveling through.

It’s hyper-local cuisine at its most immediate: Buy the stuff, build a fire, grill, eat. The bread could be hippie bread in Northern California or Vermont Graham bread in New England; the cheese could be cheese curds in Wisconsin, provoleta in Texas. You could sneak in some local pickles you found at a farmstand, or a salsa or schmear from a pay-what-you-want general store.

Swap out the ingredients to suit what you find; warm them into a grilled cheese on a campfire, in your rental, or in the backyard.

If I wasn’t so distracted by the prospect of warming my toes that night in Monument Valley many road trips ago, I might’ve made something like this: Texas toast, pepper jack cheese, pickled corn, and Hatch chile salsa, a hodgepodge of ingredients we’d picked up on the days prior while traveling through the Southwest. Feel free to swap out the ingredients to suit what you find at shops along the road, and warm them into a grilled cheese on a campfire or in your rental. Or celebrate what’s around your home and have a night by the fire in the backyard. It’ll be your own edible scrapbook.

Remember, though, to only leave cheese unrefrigerated for as many days as you deem wise. Some rules still apply on road trips. Wearing anything but pajama pants is not one of them.

What kind of grilled cheese would you build, on your next road trip? Let us know in the comments!

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Editor/writer/stylist. Author of I Dream of Dinner (so You Don't Have To). Last name rhymes with bagel.