The fact of the matter is that you are receiving an education in a city whose municipal government green-lights plans to cordon off nearly three blocks of downtown for a street festival celebrating grilled cheese sandwiches. And whether you’re proud or ashamed, you’re probably not surprised.
For more than six hours Saturday — not including the significant set-up and clean-up time that was surely necessary before and after the event — The 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational monopolized the stretch of Beaudry Avenue between Fourth and Sixth streets. The open-air festival boasted cooking competitions, highly sought-after bite-sized samples of basic grilled cheese sandwiches, multiple food vendors purveying their gourmet interpretations of the staple from trucks and tents and various kitschy, cheese-themed diversions (e.g., “curd verse,” the event’s unique brand of cheese poetry).
Guests could save $5 off the $15 day-of entry fee if they paid for admission in advance, but the apparent consensus among newcomers to the festival — whether they planned ahead or waited to pay until arriving — was that they expected more for their money. The price of admission guaranteed the payer little more than access to streets and sidewalks that were made off-limits to non-paying citizens for the afternoon.
Tillamook, the event’s main corporate sponsor, was out promoting in full force: Cubes of cheddar of variant sharpness, sample-sized grilled cheese finger sandwiches (disappointingly, the only free grilled cheese sandwiches available within the Invitational’s confines) and all manner of promotional buttons and pins were distributed freely by the Tillamook staffers working the event.
Curiously, a select handful of Tillamook employees have apparently embarked on a nationwide crusade to introduce America to the company’s Tillamook Cheese Baby Loaf. They’re crossing the country as a part of something called the “Loaf Love Tour,” making appearances at grocery stores, farmers markets and the occasional Air Force Base commissary, guided only by the vaguely plausible mission statement on the Tilamook website “to get shreds, slices and loaves of tasty Tillamook Cheese into people’s mouths.”
Lines were comparably long for free samples provided by event sponsors like Izze sparkling juice and for food available for purchase, such as the now-famous Grilled Cheese Truck that has cultivated a sizeable 15,000 followers on Twitter.
Campanile, a posh restaurant on South La Brea, turned out to the event to offer $2 servings of grilled cheese sandwiches that cost $15 or more when ordered in-house. The restaurant’s unique preparation of the classic comfort food involved homemade mustard, caramelized onions and gruyere cheese sandwiched between perfectly buttered and crunchy panini bread. Especially when judged against Tillamook’s mass-produced nibbles of inadequately melted pepper jack and bland slices of wheat, Campanile’s approach was probably the best taste and the best value available at the invitational.
To compound the disappointment of entering the premises not to find a no-holds-barred, all-you-can eat smorgasbord, spectatorship at the actual cooking competition was restricted to a select handful of judges.
Regular guests were inexplicably prohibited from getting too close to the cooking showdown, where professional and amateur cooks alike prepared grilled cheese sandwiches in competitions ranging from “Missionary Position,” a category which limited participants to the use of standard
bread, standard butter and standard cheese, to “Kama Sutra,” where competitors were permitted more imaginative varieties of the same basic ingredients plus additional components — so long as the interior of the sandwich is at least 60 pecent cheese.
For many people who conceded to spending their Saturday afternoon at a grilled cheese festival, a big part of the allure was the prospect of watching the cooking competition. Keeping regular grilled cheese enthusiasts from even watching the highly touted competition seemed directly contrary to the event’s apparent egalitarian leanings, especially as suggested by the Invitational’s brochures featuring vaguely communist imagery of a hand rising up from the
L.A. skyline to hoist up a grilled cheese sandwich, and a tagline of “Bread — Butter — Cheese — Victory!” that’s more than slightly reminiscent of the Bolshevik cry of “Peace, Land, Bread!”
By hosting the Grilled Cheese Invitational for eight consecutive years, Los Angeles is making a very conspicuous effort to continue promoting an image of a Downtown that is at once quirky, eccentric and — if not alive — at least not dead.
Construction-heavy redevelopment projects are advancing in time with similarly heavy-handed rebranding efforts that seek to infuse Downtown with character.
It’s telling that Los Angeles’ company in hosting this sort of event includes our colorful neighbors to the north and the city widely acknowledged to be the most eccentric in the nation. Northern California regional competitions have been hosted in both Oakland and San Francisco, and Austin, Tex. — a city whose cultural eclecticism and independent spirit somehow prevent its trademarked slogan of “Keep Austin Weird” from becoming ironic — has welcomed the Grilled Cheese Invitational within its city limits for two years running.
With new buildings springing up on the Downtown skyline seemingly every few weeks, it’s beyond question that Los Angeles is properly investing in the physical aspects of community revitalization. But to more fully breathe life into the area’s cultural scene, fresh attractions are necessary to draw people into the heart of the city — after all, culture is just as vital to revitalization as concrete, and no one will come to admire new architecture without the allure of new adventure.
Although Los Angeles is seeking to infuse character and life into an area that many feel is sorely lacking in both, an overly commercialized event like the highly self-conscious and corporate-dominated Grilled Cheese Invitational isn’t the way to do it. If you have money to burn and aren’t in the mood to melt your own cheese and toast your own bread, however, keep your eyes peeled for next year’s Grilled Cheese Invitational — in keeping with the event’s purposeful cutesiness, it will almost certainly be called The 1st 9th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational.