My old roommate and I had just arrived at his parents’ farm in western Iowa one summer afternoon. Felix announced that he was hungry and wanted to prepare one of his specialties. Did I want to have a crispy mister with him? I told Felix that I certainly would enjoy one. His mom wasn’t home from work yet, so, he proceeded to make a pair with farm fresh ingredients.
In his dayjob, Felix worked in the kitchen at the Catholic hospital in Norfolk, Nebraska, so he was quite experienced as a short-order cook, too. Oftentimes, he’d prepare crispy misters for fussy patients. A crispy mister made by Felix was a treat to behold.
What is a crispy mister? Felix used the English translation of “Croque Monsieur” to name his sandwich. A Croque Monsieur is a grilled cheese sandwich. Because Felix had a speech impediment, both Croque Monsieur and grilled cheese sandwich caused him embarrassment. Crispy mister was easier to say.
The crispy misters he served on that Iowa afternoon were prepared with his mom’s freshly baked bread, regular yellow mustard, and slices of colby cheese. Felix fried the sandwiches in a cast iron skillet in butter. He served the crispy misters with a side of garden fresh lettuce salad.
Like most of us, I used to believe that a food as basic as the grilled cheese sandwich must have been around for centuries. There have been some types of cheese with bread combinations since ancient Roman times, but none of them were fried in butter or oil on grills. Actually, the familiar croque monsieur is a relatively modern invention. We only need to go back to France in 1910 when the original croque monsieur was prepared.
One wintery day, Felix consulted one of his cookbooks so he could prepare some original croque monsieurs for lunch. For each sandwich, he used a couple of slices of regular white bread, spread the slices with Dijon mustard, placed a generous amount of gruyere cheese inside, and a thin slice of ham. Mine was prepared minus the ham because I don’t eat meat. Felix fried the sandwiches in butter then he drizzled a fresh, hot white sauce over each sandwich before serving.
With the invention of processed cheese in Thun, Switzerland by Walter Gerber in 1911, the grilled cheese sandwich changed radically. In 1916, James Kraft obtained the American patent for processed cheese. The combination of this new cheese with the successful invention and marketing of pre-sliced bread, in 1928, enabled an extremely convenient dish.
Now, there are many variations of the humble croque monsieur made with different types of bread, various gourmet cheeses, vegetables, and meats. There’s a croque monsieur for any foodie. However, for me, when I really crave a comfort food, the crispy mister, made the way Felix used to prepare it, is the only one I fix.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes fitness trainer, Brett Hoebel. “Food is a lot of people’s therapy. When we say comfort food, we really mean that. It’s releasing dopamine and serotonin in your brain that makes you feel good.”