Grilled Cheese Invitational

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I like grilled cheese as much as the next guy, or so I thought until I took part in the 1st 7th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational this weekend, during a trip to Los Angeles. It turns out that the next guy likes grilled cheese a lot. Thousands of hungry and lactose-tolerant sandwich connoisseurs converged on a park in downtown L.A. to crown a new "Grilled Cheese Champion" Saturday afternoon, some waiting in line for hours for the chance to taste and judge. Before the gates opened, a chant of "Grilled Cheese! Grilled Cheese!" periodically rippled through the line.

Once inside, the event had a Merry Prankster vibe, albeit drug-free. The founder, Timothy Walker, kicked off the competition by saying, "We are here today to separate the curds from the whey," and pronouncing that the Grilled Cheese Champion might be the "next step in human evolution." While hundreds of grillers vied for the title, grilled cheese poetry was recited from the stage. Costumes were de rigeur, ranging from a guy dressed as a giant, surreal nose and lips to a trio of young women in berets and handlebar mustaches.

I later learned from a man in a serape (he was entering his fried spaghetti and mozzarella sandwich, dubbed "the Spaghetti Western"), Chuck Cirino, that the competition had its roots in the Burning Man festival and a challenge among friends over who could make the best grilled cheese. The first contest took place in an artist loft in L.A., and drew about 100 people, Cirino said.

The 2009 competiton drew at least a couple thousand (far more than the 1,700 judging spots allotted, which angered a few would-be cheese-eaters) and was divided into three categories: Missionary, for any combination of bread, cheese and butter; Kama Sutra, any combination of bread and cheese plus anything else; and Honey Pot, a sweet grilled cheese worthy of dessert. There were also plenty of free classic grilled cheese sandwiches handed out, courtesy of the sponsor, Kraft singles.

I had only learned of the competition a week earlier, while looking for something to do on my California trip. My friend's husband, Doug, who earned the nickname Captain Gouda during their courtship for his willingness to plumb the depths of cheesy romance, decided to enter. I volunteered to be his "runner," which entailed passing out samples to judges, and gave me a place in the middle of the action.

Doug experimented for a few days before deciding on a combination of Havarti and cheddar on sourdough with Dijon mustard. It was quite tasty, but once we got to the competition we soon discovered we were out of our league in terms of creativity (or, in some cases, grossness). While waiting for our heat to begin, we met a young couple who said they had won the dessert category the previous year. Their concoction included two kinds of donuts, Peeps, and Swiss cheese.

In the Kama Sutra category our competition included a team that served their mushroom and onion sandwiches with a Dixie cup of homemade roasted tomato soup on the side. Another couple served up sauteed asparagus and pear with gruyere. A few stations down, someone was making Parmesan-crusted quesadillas with a gastrique.

Doug's newborn was cranky and his wife was hungry for something that wasn't cheese, so we didn't stick around to see who won. I doubt it was us, but Doug and I have already started plotting for next year.

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