April is a time to fete one of the most popular of dishes, the inimitable grilled cheese sandwich. Last year in our commemoration we explored the very ancient history of cheese and how a mutant gene 7,500 years ago bestowed upon us “lactase persistence,” enabling our species to digest dairy. This year we want to include in our culinary honors the pear, a fruit whose delectability has been enjoyed through the ages and whose pairing with cheese makes this grilled sandwich close to perfection. But first, let’s look at some interesting (or outlandish) anecdotes about the pear.
- There are two origins attributed to the pear. Dried pear slices have been found in Swiss cave dwellings from the Ice Age, and the fruit was described in Chinese writings (Shi Jing) from at least 1,200 years ago. Indeed, the pear is one of the world’s oldest cultivated fruits whose allure is obviously hard to ignore for some. It’s recorded that a Chinese diplomat named Feng Li in 5,000 BCE became so obsessed with his grafting of trees, including those of the pear, that he foreswore his official duties.
- In his Confessions, St. Augustine (354-430 CE), an early Christian theologian, relates an episode that depicts what today we would call deindividuation—“Immersion in a group to the point that one loses a sense of self-awareness and feels lessened responsibility for one’s actions.” The trigger? The nefarious pear. As an adolescent he and his friends stole some pears, an act that was reprehensible to him as an adult but which he attributed to the effects of his youthful need for acceptance by his compatriots. In the group he contended he had lost the ability to control his own actions. This early psychological analysis was certainly insightful and prescient of what was to come in the study of human behavior.
- William Shakespeare’s turn of phrase did not treat the pear very kindly. In a verbal sparring in All’s Well That Ends Well (Act I, scene i), Parolles, a friend of Bertram, the count of Rossillion, opines on the merits of virginity with the virtuous Helen, who is in love with Bertram: “Your date is better in your pie and your porridge than in your cheek. Your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears, it looks ill, it eats drily; marry, ‘tis a withered pear; it was formerly better; marry yet ‘tis a withered pear.” For a translation of one of Shakespeare’s more bawdy insults, click here.
- During the Edo Period in Japan (1603–1867), pears were planted on the corners of a property as a talisman to prevent misfortune. The northeastern corner was considered the Devil’s quarter since that was where it was believed a demon would enter. Gates were typically not erected there. If a gate out of necessity was installed, a pear tree would be planted there as a safeguard.
- The pear has deep symbolism across cultures. In ancient Egypt the pear was sacred to Isis. In Christian symbolism the pear frequently embodies Christ’s love. In Korea, the pear indicates grace, nobility and purity, while the tree itself suggests comfort. In China, the pear represents justice, purity, longevity and wisdom.
- And to wrap up our pear lore, remember Lizzie Borden? She was accused of killing her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Although Borden was acquitted in 1893, the case continues to mystify as to what really happened. Read the transcript and see what you think. And discover how three pears were part of her alibi that fateful day.
As you can see, the delicate pear has a colorful history to celebrate during our National Grilled Cheese Month. So bring out the bread, slice up some pears, stack that cheese and grill all into a gooey, piquant delight. Enjoy!
Asian Pear and Gouda Grilled Cheese
Recipe courtesy of Chowhound.
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
- 2 (1/2-inch-thick, 7-1/2-by-3-1/2-inch-long) slices light rye bread
- 2 ounces thinly sliced young Gouda cheese (aged 1 to 6 months)
- 5 (1/8-inch-thick) slices Asian pear
Asian pears are crunchier and often sweeter than their American counterparts. They can be found at high-end grocery stores and in Asian markets. If you can’t find them, substitute Bosc pears (though they won’t provide the same crunch).
Gouda is a widely available Dutch cheese made from cow’s milk. Use a young Gouda in this recipe so you don’t overwhelm the flavor of the pear. If you’re having a hard time finding Gouda, a young Edam or Jack can be substituted.
- Heat a large frying pan over medium-low heat. Meanwhile, spread half of the butter on one side of each slice of bread.
- Once the pan is warm, add 1 slice of bread, buttered side down, then top with half of the cheese, all of the pear slices, and finally the remaining cheese. Close with the second slice of bread, buttered side up.
- Cook until the bread is toasted and the cheese is melted, about 6 minutes per side.