On a Saturday night in 2008 I made and sold over 150 grilled cheese sandwiches. I had just been accepted to a study abroad program in India and I was raising money to go.
The cost of this program was waaay more than I could afford, but I wasn’t willing to miss out. This was a chance to work with Mobile Creches, a non-profit dedicated to children of migrant families who live and work on active construction sites. Together with the builders on any given project, Mobile Creches provides learning and daycare centers where the children can be safe, fed, and given an education.
Mobile Creches was looking for design ideas for their centers, and my college’s one-time study abroad program was built around making that happen. I knew I would never again have the chance to live and go to school so far away, so I reached out to my family, applied for scholarships, and got a work-study job that paid a whopping $7.50/hour.
Then I threw a $1 grilled cheese party.
My roommates and I had a house in North Philly with an empty basement coated top-to-bottom with gray all-weather paint. It was perfect for a beer pong table and a keg.
We sent out a Facebook invitation to as many of our friends as possible—which reminds me—never put something on the internet that might embarrass you 8 years down the road. Entry was $5 (the going rate for a keg party), grilled cheese sandwiches were $1 each, and because we were classy college kids—so were Jell-O shots.
By 9 pm the keg was on ice, the Jell-O shots were set, and the house was decorated with “Help Des Get to India” signage, made exclusively by my best friend and her buddies from school. They came early and freestyled their way through about 20 linear feet of paper.
My roommate, James, had a Costco membership and procured a giant tub of butter-flavored Crisco, a few rectangular blocks of Velveeta cheese, and a heap of squishy sliced white bread. I stacked them on the counter and arranged our frying pan collection so every burner was in use. Then I made a few practice sandwiches for the people who helped set up.
Within an hour I was surrounded by a hungry crowd. It all happened so fast that I can’t remember much apart from the red-hot rush of Crisco burning on my fingers.
I had so many orders at one point that my future roommate, Sarah, helped me command the stove. The second we plopped a greasy, hot sandwich on a paper plate, it was carried away and devoured. Dollar bills flew as my stockpile of cheese and bread grew smaller and smaller. I was a sweaty grilled-cheese-flipping machine and I loved it.
We profited about $150 in crumbly, soggy bills that night. My roommates let me keep every penny so I could cover the cost of a mandatory typhoid vaccine. When I went to the doctor to get my shot—which I (surprise!) paid for in cash—I was proud and excited. That shot (a really painful son-of-a-gun) was the product of pure elbow grease, a couple hundred grilled cheese sandwiches and a lot of hungry, generous friends.
It’s true that I raised money for a wholesome cause with beer, Jell-O shots, $1 grilled cheese sandwiches, and a Facebook invitation that looked like it was written by a group of teenage boys. But I couldn’t face the possible regret of missing out on this experience.
I got really lucky and was able to pull together—and tap out—the funds for this trip. I had to be super thrifty, but it was a worthy sacrifice for one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.
So if you know a young person trying to see the world, help them out if you can, even if it means hiring them for chores or projects—or scarfing down a couple of $1 grilled cheese sandwiches. I could never have predicted that my trip to India would change my life. But it did.
I’ll tell you all about it this spring and summer in my upcoming Remembering India series. But in the meantime, let’s feast on some grilled cheese sandwiches. Cheap beer and Jell-O shots are optional.
My secret to the best grilled cheese sandwich is to toast the bread in butter* before adding the cheese. This adds flavor, crunch, and extra warmth to melt the cheese more quickly. Keep the pan over medium-low (or even low) heat to avoid scorching the bread before the cheese has a chance to melt.
Des’s “Help Me Get to India” Grilled Cheese
2 slices spongy white or potato bread
2 slices American cheese singles
1/2 tbsp unsalted butter
Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a large nonstick pan. Use the basting brush to spread it around evenly.
Place the bread slices side-by-side in the pan, and allow them to toast for 2-3 minutes, or until crisp and lightly golden.
Flip one slice of bread and cover the warm and toasty side with the cheese slices. Place the second slice of bread over the cheese slices, toasted side down.
Use the brush to redistribute the melted butter and allow the sandwich to toast for 1-2 minutes, or until the cheese begins to wilt.
Flip the sandwich and allow it to toast for 1 more minute. Serve and devour immediately.
*Though I have a special place in my heart for these grilled cheese sandwiches and the night I spent making them, I couldn’t bring myself to call for Crisco in this recipe.