The Best Grilled Cheese Money Can't Buy

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 3:35 PM PST

The problem with food festivals is that it is always little unclear if the judges are there because they are interested in truly rendering an objective decision or because they're just, well, hungry.  

This becomes particularly obvious if the food in question is a grilled cheese sandwich. Um yeah I'm a "judge," feed me lunch.

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On February 21 San Francisco's Dolores Park hosted the 2nd Annual NorCal Regional Grilled Cheese Invitational, a contest in which teams spend a winter afternoon trying to fry up the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the Bay Area. While actual chefs might scoff at the event, food enthusiasts turned up in droves on Saturday.

Food enthusiasts...or, well, hungry people desperate for free food. While visitors were encouraged to show up at the event and told they could taste the food for a $2 suggested donation, by the time most of the viewers actually got to the park all of the admission bracelets were gone.

Well, unless you got lucky. A young man in a green T-shirt finished cooking one of his sandwiches and looked out to the waiting crowd. "Um, does anyone here have a cigarette?" he asked. A red-haired woman in a green sweater handed him a Camel Light and was rewarded with a sandwich hot of the griddle. The exchange complete, the woman ate the tiny sandwich triangle quickly and pronounced it satisfying.

"Sammiche" is the Annual NorCal Regional Grilled Cheese Invitational's word for the treat, which was judged in one three categories of competition:

The Missionary Position: Standard bread, standard butter and standard cheese. No additional ingredients or flavorings allowed.

The Kama Sutra: Any kind of bread, any kind of butter, and any kind of cheese plus additional ingredients.

The Honey Pot: Any kind of bread, any kind of butter, any kind of cheese, and any additional ingredients, but a sandwich that would best be served as dessert.

Quinn Sweeny, A competitor in the Kama Sutra category, took a break from the contest to talk about his sammiche. Sweeny, who keeps a blog about food at Nermo.com, explained that his creation was called Garden of Edam, and consisted of gouda, cream cheese, roasted red peppers, watercress white bread, and pear and shallot jam. A friend standing next to him wondered whether something that fancy could really be called grilled cheese. "At what point does it stop being a grilled chesses and start being a Panini?" Sweeny explained that had to do with whether the food was cooked in a sandwich iron, though he admitted that he made his sammiche with the help of a dinner plate, which he used to press the bread down.

There is no overall winner at the regional level, only winners in each category.

One team, however, managed to pick up more than one award this year. The Golden State Cheese Warriors, composed of Katherine Scherbel and Laura Wiles, two twentysomethings participating in the contest for a second year, won prizes in both the Honey Pot category and in the random "spaz" category for a sammiche that was of overall interest for its general weirdness (there are no guidelines for the spaz category; it's not a sandwich-type, just a prize for something judges thought was funny). The Scherbel-Wiles sandwich, a Ricotta/ Mozzarella blend made with an Orange zest coconut oil and drizzled with chocolate, was called In Cheese We Trust.

Scherbel, a marketing manager at the Downtown Berkeley Association, a community development nonprofit, said that the win was a big help to her emotional health. She had been moving last week and found that winning in both the honey pot and spaz categories helped alleviate her stress, sort of. "I think my roommates will probably be sad I'm taking my trophies with me," she said.

The national contest will be held this year in Los Angeles on April 25. The winner of last year's national Grilled Cheese Invitational was the "Cake and Mivens" a dessert sandwich featuring peeps, the stale marshmallow candy. Lowbrow? Absolutely. Delicious? For sure.

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