It would be hard to concoct a better way to draw a crowd for a good cause on a cool, gray Sunday afternoon than grilled cheese sandwiches.
The Mount Washington Tavern had to turn away more than 100 people after its Grilled Cheese Cook-Off sold out Sunday. The $10-a-ticket event raised $1,000 for Moveable Feast, a charity that delivers free, nutritious meals for people living with HIV/AIDS and breast cancer.
Think crispy, buttery sourdough bread, smoked applewood bacon. You could throw in some chipotle sauce, or marinated smoked eggplant or some such. But for sure you're looking for warm, rich, Vermont cheddar, or Muenster, Jarlsberg or aged Gouda.
"It's the cheese, the gooeyness, the bread and butter," said Lisa Harbin, 42, of Baltimore, when asked to explain the enduring appeal of the grilled cheese sandwich.
"It's a tasty but neutral base for anything, and you can see all the different things the chefs have added," said Harbin, a longtime Moveable Feast supporter who turned out with her husband, some friends and their 5-year-old twins.
The variations on the bread, butter and cheese theme that attracted the crowd of 100 adults and kids were mouth-watering.
Kevin Miller, 43, chef at Widespread Concierge Services in Federal Hill, was one of five professional chefs and three "home cooks" in the competition. A one-time executive chef on a seagoing yacht, Miller's entry was the judges' choice in the professional category, taking away a trophy and $700 in cash.
"I made my own brioche, a white bread enriched with egg and butter," he said. "I used an aged Gouda, Jarlsberg cheese, an herbed goat cheese." But the secret to a good grilled cheese sandwich, he confided, is real, sweet butter. "Butter is definitely the key."
Michelle Howell, 30, of Parkville, a clinical scientist at the National Institute of Drug Abuse, will have to feed her co-workers after winning $200 in the "home cook" category.
"Everybody at work said, 'If you win, you have to make us your grilled cheese sandwiches,' " she said. They're in for a vegetarian treat: roasted portobello mushrooms, red peppers and garlic butter, with herbed goat cheese, mozzarella, sauteed onions and pomegranate molasses on Italian bread.
The humble grilled cheese sandwich is enjoying something of a revival these days, turning up in many new incarnations and venues far from the cheap end of diner menus.
Mount Washington Tavern owner Rob Frisch said he's added several different grilled cheese offerings to his new menu. And his marketing adviser, Mikey Monaghan, urged him to "take it one step further and tie it into Moveable Feast, which is a terrific charity."
The event was timed for April, which is National Grilled Cheese Month, and promoted on the tavern's website and those of several "partners," including aMuse Toys and the CoolProgeny.com parenting blog. The online-only tickets sold out in three weeks.
"It's a creative way to draw attention and traffic for the tavern," Monaghan said. And it works for Moveable Feast, too.
Founded in Baltimore 22 years ago, the nonprofit engages 4,000 volunteers and raises $2 million a year to deliver meals and human contact to 2,000 clients. Most are poor and many are socially isolated as they struggle with their illness, said Ted Blankenship, the organization's development director.
A Moveable Feast driver, he said, "oftentimes is the one person they have a connection with in their lives. They definitely feel that bond." Clients also receive nutritional counseling and in-home visits.
The Mount Washington Tavern event is a small one, Blankenship said. But $1,000 is nearly enough to care for one client for a year. "And it also helps just to get in front of people to let them learn about our services."
But in the tavern's Palm Room, it was easy to be distracted by the sandwiches browning up all around on the chefs' electric and butane griddles.
"It's the perfect comfort food," explained Bob Atkinson, 41, Harbin's husband. "Have you ever met anyone who didn't like grilled cheese?"