I woke up on the day of my perfect meal confident that the next ten hours would be leisurely and pleasant. It felt like senior prom; I planned to wake up and go to the gym, eat a fresh almond pastry for breakfast, and wear something soft to make me feel warm all day. I wouldn't worry about money or pimples and I would smile at everyone.
Unlike prom day, dinner preparation took me to the People's Food Co-Op instead of the manicurist and left me grilling local, organic, whole-grain bread in a college dormitory kitchen. Less glamorous? Maybe, but I couldn't have been happier to find myself and my two best friends in our pajamas and eating some decadent grilled cheese instead of being dressed in sparkling dresses and pressed up against other bodies in a steamy banquet hall.
I planned the dinner menu first. I set rules for myself, but proceeded to break almost all of them. When I started arranging my menu and considered the required shopping, I thought a perfect meal could only include completely locally grown, humanely raised, organic, and fairly traded food from small farms that rotate their crops. If the ingredients were perfect, the meal would be too, right?
This was a lot of pressure. For example, I wanted to serve fruit with heavy cream for dessert because it’s one of my most favorite treats, but strawberries, cherries, and blueberries weren't in season. If I followed my local, in-season, small farm rules, I couldn’t serve the dessert my friends and I loved so much. All of a sudden, I was faced with a choice: go for cravings and cream or go green and guiltless. I panicked and immediately wanted some comfort food and suddenly knew what to make.
I started searching for new recipes for the ultimate comforting combination: grilled cheese and tomato basil. This would be a simple and delicious meal, one where I could work with local and organic ingredients and still maintain the flavor I so craved.
Next came the shopping. I was worried about not making a sustainable enough, local enough, and organic enough meal. I feared that if I shopped for ingredients from Meijer, I would feel ashamed of the conditions my food was raised in and the harm it had done to the earth before reaching my plate. This didn’t seem fair. To me, comfort doesn’t ever involve guilt. I decided that a perfect meal couldn’t be stressful and couldn’t leave me feeling shameful, but I also couldn’t possibly cook the dishes I wanted to by purchasing ingredients from Michigan farms in November. Price, transportation, and availability limited me.
I had to compromise. Maybe if I shopped at the People’s Food Co-Op, I could find ingredients I would feel good about. I wouldn’t limit my budget: this meal would count as one of my textbooks for my class. I decided that I would only shop for my ingredients at the Co-Op and make the whole meal from scratch. I pushed the yucky feelings out of my head and focused on making the most positive and comforting meal I could. I had to prove to myself that I could cook something and feel good about it, proud of it, without feeling even the least bit shameful. I reduced my wordy list of restrictions to one that fit my comforting theme: guilt-free.
Before I shopped, Pinterest helped me find two recipes for my soup and sandwich: grilled cheese with avocado, basil pesto, spinach, goat cheese, and mozzarella and chunky roasted tomato soup. I was determined to find these ingredients at the Co-Op.
Though I couldn’t locally source every item on my list, I did find freshly baked bread and goat cheese from the local Mattawan Creamery. I then purchased Earthbound Farm’s prewashed baby spinach from California and accepted the distance my leafy greens had traveled from their farm to my plate. After I picked up an extra bar of Ghirardelli’s 60 percent dark chocolate to munch on throughout my day of preparations, I was ready to make my perfect meal.
Grilled cheese and tomato basil sounded best to me because it’s what I’ve eaten to feel better for years. When I feel sad or lonely, if it’s raining outside or if I just want to feel cozy I go to my favorite restaurant, Butch’s Dry Dock, and order, “a Mackenzie’s Mousetrap with a cup of tomato basil, please.” The grilled cheese at Butch’s is simple: cheddar, Muenster, and provolone grilled on country French bread. I dip the Mousetrap into my tomato basil soup before every bite. The combination of chunky soup mixed with cheese and bread feels like home. It represents simplicity at its finest.
Memories of this meal inspired me to cook something similar for my best friends, Olivia and Caroline: it was the simple combination I needed to carry me away from my studies and stresses. A childhood delight, grilled cheese and tomato soup evokes calm and replaces anxiety with gooey dairy. What could be more perfect?
Though our roasted tomato soup was free from a cream base, we swirled it with heavy whipping cream before letting our spoons dive in. A sweet sauce surrounded the chunks of tomato meat. I think we doubled the directed amount of sugar in the recipe by accident, but that only made the soup more scrumptious. We roasted the whole tomatoes in the oven until they burst and caramelized, and then we poured them in a pot to simmer with diced onions, garlic, and olive oil. The second floor lounge where we did our cooking swelled with heat and sweet tomato scent.
My perfect meal took hours. We started cooking—and slowly munching on our ingredients—at 5 p.m. and finished eating and cleaning at 8 p.m. I maintained my guilt-free theme and we ate what we wanted, when we wanted it. It was far too difficult to resist the sugary tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and grainy bread until dinner was served. Halfway through a deconstructed sandwich and teacup serving of roasted tomato soup, Olivia fell back on my futon. Snacking filled our stomachs and only allowed so much more rich cheese and avocado to enter.
When it finally came time to eat the meal in its entirety, my friends and I giggled as we spread ourselves out on my floor and looked at our feast. I held my nearly fried sandwich and let a dollop of goat cheese fall into my roasted tomato soup. I realized this meal wasn’t the same kind of comfort food I’m used to eating at home. My perfect meal sandwich and soup were anything but simple. My friends and I piled pesto, cheese, avocado, and spinach on thickly cut slices of whole wheat bread and pressed the two sides together with both hands. We plopped each sandwich on a skillet with olive oil and butter and listened to the bread crinkle and fry. If Tom, the deli chef at Butch’s, cooked his Mackenzie’s Mousetraps this way, his customers wouldn’t tolerate the overstimulation.
My hands were soaked with oil and butter when I brought the mess up to my lips. Olivia pried her sandwich open and picked it apart to eat it. Caroline held her grilled cheese with two hands and ate it in measured bites while I tore it into pieces, dunked it in tomato soup, and scooped it into my mouth with a spoon. We sat on my carpet in a circle and listened to the Avett Brothers singing from my MacBook in the corner. We watched each other eat, unsure of what to do with the richness in our mouths.
We broke the eating session to wash dishes and gossip. After a few minutes, my mouth was ready for fruit, honey, more cream, and some chocolate: dessert. We laid the raw ingredients in front of us and ate them in pairs. Apples and honey first and then blueberries and heavy whipping cream. I had finally found simplicity in these sweet treats.
Though we had already declared ourselves stuffed, bursting with cheese, bread, and tomatoes, we could not stop eating dessert. The light apples and honey and the dreamy blueberries and cream helped take some weight from our stomachs. We ate the chocolate plain. It was simply too rich to be mixed with anything else.
For the first time in our eating process, our mouths opened not to be filled with food, but to speak. I asked the girls what they thought of my meal. Rate it on a scale from one to ten, perhaps? “I give it a five,” Olivia said. Harsh. “An eight,” said Caroline. Better. “But no offense,” they both added. We realized perfection had different definitions for each of us. I gave my meal a nine and a half. I only wished I’d had more room for the frozen bar of Ghirardelli’s we were demolishing one square at a time.
While Olivia would have been sitting on huge pillows for her meal and Caroline would have eaten at a table, I was happiest in a picnic circle on my floor. Like tired girls after a high school prom, my two friends and I flopped onto my bedroom floor and reviewed the evening’s events. The meal was just perfect for me, we decided.