I have only just realized that I had my brother write an entire post about waffles, and then chose to personally forge headlong into a post about France and French things, when I don’t speak French, HE DOES. Sometimes, I can be real dumb. Anywho, welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, and apparently Poor Planning Central. I’m the Gros Fromage, Jon O’Guin.
And just double-checking that I wrote “Big Cheese” correctly taught me fascinating things about French syntax: While standard adjectives are placed behind the vowels they modify, 4 specific qualities, (beauty, age, goodness, and size) go in front, UNLESS the adjective in question is the “bad” form of that quality (ugly, old, mean). So, in French, you say “a beautiful woman” but “a woman ugly”. That creates an interesting implicit valuation, literally raising the qualities of youth, beauty, and morality above other descriptors. Unfortunately, or perhaps exactly the opposite of that, today we’re not here to talk about French grammar. Today we’re going to talk about French Sandwiches! And their relationship to French novels, national emotional connections, and American bars. That’s a lotta merde to slog through, so without further…”adieu”, allons-y!
I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
Mister Crunchy’s Many Mistakes
First things first, the sandwich we’re here to discuss is the Croque Monsieur, a ham and cheese sandwich popular in French cafes. Its name translates to, well, “Mr. Crunchy”, which is, quite frankly, the most goddamn adorable sandwich fact I think I’ve ever learned. The origin of it is relatively unknown, it just sort of…showed up around 1905-1910. Supposedly, it was made by construction workers leaving their packed sandwiches too close to a radiator heater while they worked, but still, it's weird how it just BECAME a thing.
In any case, before we get to the many pictures of the croque monsieurs I made, I want to be clear about something: croque monsieurs have a relatively diverse array of construction options. So while NEITHER version I made of this sandwich is ‘typical’, I refuse to admit to any form of mockery or abuse from the French.
They however, will have to sustain abuse from me.
The reason I bring this up is because, for some time, I was under the (mistaken) impression that a croque monsieur was open-faced by default. This is because a “proper” croque monsieur has cheese melted inside the sandwich AND on top of it, in a quiet display of French decadence. So I mistook the cheese topping for just covering the ham, and the bread as being particularly thick. Turns out, nope, there’s a whole sandwich there!
In order to distract from my many failings, let’s talk about French novels and temporal paradoxes! See, while the exact origin of the croque monsieur is in doubt, the time of its ascendancy is well-recorded. EVERY site I checked agreed: it appeared on café menus starting in 1910, and it appeared in Marcel Proust’s novel in seven parts “In Search of Lost Time” in 1918. And I initially wanted to really dive deep, and talk about Proust as an author, and the profound effects he had on 20th century literature, and his philosophies, until I remembered I never actually studied Proust, and know next to nothing about him. Luckily, in this day and age, such a failure can be remedied in mere minutes, research conducted at a speed that would have blown the minds of Enlightenment scholars.
And so, trying to quickly brush up on Proust, I noticed something interesting: “In Search of Lost Time” (also known as “Remembrance of Things Past”) didn’t have a release in 1918. The second part was supposed to be released in 1914, and then, well, World War 1 happened, so it didn’t go out until 1919. And it’s fascinating, because, again, EVERY source connected to croque monsieurs uses the 1918 date, but everything connected to the book says 1919. Looks like it’s not just…The Narrator...who’s missing some time! Damn it, that joke would have worked much better if the main character of the novel had a goddamn name.
Why you gotta do me like that, MARCEL?
In any case, that seemed an interesting enough little tidbit to let me ignore the depths of Proust’s great work, and move on to other, more personally interesting things. Specifically, the after-effects of World War 1, and why America keeps insulting France! So, GOODBYE MARCEL.
Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys
So let’s start from the chronological beginning: the relationship between America and France has always been fairly complicated. As Hamilton recently reminded us, the American revolution would have been rather short if not for French assistance, especially that of the Marquis de Lafayette. “Freedom for America, Freedom for France!” The exultant Marquis proclaimed, and held a rock-star tour of the states in the mid 1780’s. And then he went home and took part in a very messy, bloody, drawn out revolution, and immediately half of America (notably INCLUDING Hamilton himself) said “Maybe France needs to sort its own shit out before we really think of them as our ‘bros’.”
This high-five feels disengenuous now.
Things got more complicated when the new French government picked a fight with us,and we fought a series of engagements literally called the “Quasi-War”. Then they sold us half the damn continent, and we said “You know what? I always liked you guys!” By the time WW 1 rolled around, we were trying our damnedest to imitate all the cool shit France was doing.
And then World War 2 happened.
A notoriously prosperous time for the nation.
The major thing people tend to forget about World War 2 is just how CLOSE it was to World War 1. Just over 20 years passed between them. And the reason that’s important is that World War 1 beat the SHIT out of France. Their country was LITERALLY DECIMATED, (which, if you didn’t know, means that 1 of every 10 people died). To really put that in perspective for a modern American reader: imagine if the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 resulted in the entire state of California dying. Yeah, that would kind of put the damper on our feelings about this whole Syria thing. “Sure, definitely a problem, but is it OUR problem?”
THAT’S where France was sitting in 1938, and you know what? They were STILL really aggressive about it. Yeah, they signed off on the appeasement deals of England, but they held no illusions this wasn’t going to end in a fucking fight. They were tired, angry, worried (Germany had literally 3 guys for every 2 France had.) and, well, it turned out they had every right to be. Germany knocked them out in 6 weeks, and held Paris for 4 years. Eventually, with the help of the United States, they were liberated. And…well, it turns out being militarily occupied for 4 years by assholes committing genocide tends to really wear on a country’s resources, and that ended up with Americans stationed in France getting a big “These guys really don’t like us” vibe. “I feel like I deserve a couple more free drinks for saving their Nation!”
Things got so bad, the army put out a 100+ page booklet called “112 Gripes about the French” to remind soldiers: “Maybe he’s not offering you free drinks because his family is literally starving.” I actually recommend reading the pamphlet, because it’s kind of neat to read the US army pointing out “First off, let’s be clear, we didn’t come to Europe to save France. We came here to save AMERICA, and that HAPPENED to save France.” And “Man, the French bitch about everything. At least the Germans listen when we give orders.” Got met with the response “Yeah, it’s almost like friends have more honest conversations than prisoners and wardens do.” It’s like, the most polite, reasoned “Shut the fuck up” messages I’ve ever read.
What was I talking about?
Something to do with ovens, I think...
Actual Food Stuffs
Sorry for spending so much time on French History, but there’s a reason for that: the recipe I have is really goddamn simple. Half of the directions are for making a topping for the sandwich, and then it’s just “Yeah, now put the sandwich together and put it in the oven.” Turns out people like it because it’s a really simple thing to make. (Also, and I'm going to be brutally honest here: My pictures of the process sucked. I took too many of unimportant parts, none of an actual finished product, I don't know. I made this TWICE and didn't get the pics right. Mea culpa.)
Legitimately one of the better pictures.
The key then, as with many French things, and especially SIMPLE French things, is to get the best ingredients you can. This isn’t just a Ham sandwich, oh no. You get the swanky ham for this. Typically in France they’ll use a Gruyere, or a Fontina, or a…Comte…wait a minute, those are the EXACT cheeses recommended to top French Onion Soup! France, are you just cribbing notes? What the shit?
This isn't even your Ham, France! Pig-based plagiarism will not stand!
In any case, I actually ended up using Gouda for the cheese, because the deli woman misheard me, and I didn’t care enough to correct her. Now, with a thick hearty bread, a rich melty cheese, and meaty salty ham, it’s clear this is a sandwich of decadence. But I could stand to be cut a little. In France, it gets paired with a sharp salad tossed in tart vinaigrette. And I’m sure that’s fine, but I can’t be seen in public eating actual vegetables, so I took a different tactic, and used a recipe from my American Craft Beer Cookbook to make a Blackberry Onion toppings. Sweet, sharp, it balanced the whole thing real nicely.
Could have been a bit prettier, though.
At the end of the day, it was a sandwich I quite enjoyed, and plan to make again in time. Maybe I’ll add béchamel to enrichen it even further. Maybe I’ll remember to put cheese on top of the top slice of bread. That’s the beauty of something this simple, you get to play around and make it your own.
Anyway, if you liked this post, or really any of our posts, please feel free to share them on your preferred social media site, as well as try the recipes yourself and let us know how great/terrible they turned out. You can Like us on Facebook to get small insights into what’s happening backstage, and for an even more intimate peek inside, support us on Patreon: We’re nearing a goal that would mean maintaining the site no longer actively lose Alan or me money!
NEXT TIME: JON BECOMES A COKE PUSHER. WHAT’S THAT? COKE REFUSED TO SPONSOR US? “IS PEPSI OKAY?” SURE, FINE, I GUESS. DO-OVER: “NEXT TIME: JON AND NATE PUT SOME PEP IN THEIR STEP!”
Croque Monsieur with Blackberry Onions
2 tbsps blackberry jam
1/2 a medium onion, thinly sliced
2 - 4 slices hearty bread. (I used Sourdough, but a Pullman loaf, Brioche, anything like that would work.)
2 oz high quality ham. (Prosciutto, Serrano, or Iberico ham would all work, as would a thinly sliced Country Ham.)
2-4 slices good white cheese. (Fontina, Gruyere, Gouda, etc.)
1. First make the blackberry onions by cooking the onions over medium heat until softened but not browned, roughly five minutes. Add the jam and mix together. Continue cooking on medium-low until a consistency you like, roughly 5-10 minutes.
2. Preheat your oven to 200. Meanwhile, assemble the sandwiches. Put 2 slices of bread on baking sheet, and top in the following order: a thin spread of mustard, a layer of ham, top with cheese, and then the Blackberry onions. If you wish you sandwiches to be open-faced, just put directly into the oven for roughly 8 minutes. If You prefer to top them, place the second slice of bread on each sandwich, and cook 10 minutes, turning once.