View more photos in LA Weekly's Grilled Cheese Invitational slideshow.
The beauty of the Grilled Cheese Invitational is that it gives the power of judging and ultimately naming the Grilled Cheese Champion to the people. But this is a problem too.
Up to 1700 tasters pre-register for the honor of evaluating the sandwiches (or sammiches, as the Invitational prefers) in four areas: Presentation, Taste, Wessonality (style points) and SPAZ (the wackiness factor).
[Editor's Digression: Judging from the following clips, we believe Wessonality and SPAZ may be one and the same.]
With so many evaluators and many more attendees at Los Angeles State Historic Park crowding around the 240 competitors on Saturday [read Squid Ink's pre-contest post in which Margy Rochlin grilled Invitational founder Tim Walker aka Captian Shady about last year's crowds], the biggest challenge for this prospective judge was actually getting my hands on a sandwich I wanted to taste.
Thus, the battle at the 1st 7th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational was fought on two very different social fronts: one behind the grill, the other in front of it. Behind the grill, the competitors wore warm, proud smiles; out front, smiles were only worn by those few in the crowd who had been bestowed with sammiches, which numbered about 20 per round per grill.
The signal to start each round of grilling simultaneously signaled the start of the bidding war. Shouts erupted from the wall of eaters who surrounded the competitors' tables and continued for the duration of the 45 minutes allotted to each round.
While some eager eaters obtained sammiches with relative ease, others, like the tall spectacled guy behind me who repeatedly hollered, "Hey Avocado Guy!" to no avail, were not so successful. Differentiating yourself enough to win a taste of a sammich, I learned, required almost as much strategy as making the sammich.
"Maybe he'll give us a sandwich if we flash him," the sorority girls next to me giggled. They didn't flash, but they did flirt, and successfully snagged a sammich.
Then there were the casualties. When a sammich happened to fall en route to the judging table, the combative faces of those of us in the crowd shifted to something akin to a deep sorrow, and we observed an impromptu moment of silence for the fallen before another batch of sammiches reignited morale.
Beyond the competition, the grillers were eager to feed and seemed to feel the pain of the crowd when their special ingredients ran out. So when the masala-naan maven Marc Adenwala used up the last of the naan for his entry "To Naan and Beyond," and his neighbor ran out of cheese for her entry, they pulled together and made some sammiches just for fun.
In the end, everyone seemed to get at least one sammich, though maybe not the one they were pining for. And until they ran out around 5 p.m., the Kraft Singles tent made sure that nobody starved. Even the tall guy behind me finally changed his tactics: He pleaded, "Hey, Avocado Guy, look to the right next time, eh?" Avocado Guy looked over and rewarded him with a thumbs up, and then handed him the first sammich from his next batch. The struggle to obtain the cheesy morsel made every bite of every sammich quarter taste like a deserved victory. I actually got to taste three.
Satisfied with my performance, but still hungry, I marched the few blocks to Phillipe's where my now-familiar grilled-cheese cohorts were already waiting in yet another line for the French Dip sandwiches that were sure to finally fill our bellies.
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The Grilled Cheese Invitational had trophies for its victors, but for me the unsung champions were those in the crowd, wielders not of cheese and bread, but of patience and gusto. The ones for whom the sammich itself was a trophy.
See full slideshow of photos from Saturday's Grilled Cheese Invitational.