Full Circle

By Stephen J. Lyons    
Illustration by Matt Lynaugh

When my grandfather passed away, I told my mother I wanted just one treasure from my grandparents’ estate: the Toas-Tite sandwich maker. I’m sure I was the only grandchild to make this request, and out of the chaos of sorting through half a century of my grandparents’ belongings, my mother eventually unearthed my inheritance. On that day I became a rich man.

At almost 16 inches long, with a round 4 ¾-inch sandwich holder at the end, this kitchen collectible was the wellspring of hundreds of perfectly circular grilled cheese sandwiches made by my grandmother in her Cedar Rapids, Iowa home. Manufactured circa 1940 by Bar-B-Bun, Inc., the Toas-Tite has two black wooden handles held together with a metal loop on the end to keep the handles closed and, well, tight. The face of an almost hysterically smiling woman adorned the cover of the manufacturer’s original box. Next to the happy chef was the sales pitch: “Make a luscious, sealed in, hot drip prof [sic] toasted sandwich!” “Prof” stood for “proof,” I imagine, and the hot drips surely meant lots of saturated fat.

The beauty behind Toas-Tite’s unique design was the ability to make grilled cheese sandwiches, toast and hamburgers over an outdoor campfire or, in my case, over a gas flame in Grandmother’s kitchen. You buttered each slice of bread, fitted them into the Toas-Tite, placed thick wedges of Velveeta cheese inside, closed it, looped the ring around and then cut off the excess edges of bread. As the sandwich cooked, circular rings from the metal sides toasted into the bread slices and gave them the look of a flying saucer.

Spiral designs on food were magical for a young kid from the south side of Chicago with his head in the clouds. Each summer, my mother—exhausted from the rigors of single parenting in third-story walk-ups—would ship me and my brother off to Iowa on the Empire Builder, a train with exotic destinations like Seattle, Portland and the Rocky Mountains. We only got as far as the pastoral hills of eastern Iowa, where my grandfather would be waiting—a tall, gruff man with a flat-top and a half-lit cigar rolling around his lips. He was a man of few words and could neither read nor write, save the penning of his name on the back of paychecks at the city bus garage where he toiled for 30 years. Still, like so many men and women of his generation, he was bilingual—able to converse in English and in Czech, the latter for speaking on subjects not fit for our tender monolingual ears.

When I think back 30 years or so to those endless summers, I realize the gulf between our worlds was immense. We must have appeared so soft to him—two fatherless boys with crisp city clothes and untested muscles. We could negotiate Chicago’s public transit system, but we couldn’t change a tire or plant a vegetable garden. That made us useless to him for chores. When he chopped off the heads of chickens in the backyard, we ran like frightened hens while he watched us, a dripping cleaver in his strong hand.

Still, for all the differences, we worshipped him as the patriarch of the family and marveled at his many skills. In turn, he adored us, but not in a way to build up our self-esteem. Grandpa was more likely to teach us important things, like how to win at poker. At the end of a long evening of cards, he would push his winnings of quarters and dimes in our direction where we would greedily divide up the loot. This was one way he would show his love. Years later, I would learn that my grandfather would sit in the garage—amidst homemade wine and fermenting sauerkraut—and sob when we went back to Chicago.

Grandmother Georgia was the perfect counterweight to Grandfather Chuck. She never stopped telling stories, like the afternoon she caught one of her breasts in the wringer washer, or the time a tornado came during the night and rearranged the backyard sheds while she slept undisturbed on the screened-in porch. The day we arrived from the train station, she welcomed us with a long hug in her flour-coated apron. At that moment I felt as safe as I’ve ever felt—safe from the pain of divorce, the absence of a guiding male hand and all other dangers the world might throw my way.

She clucked over us then sent us out into the unfamiliar natural world to swim, to catch snakes and catfish, to wander the forest edges and river banks, and generally to do what boys are supposed to do in the summer. When we returned to our indoor urban life, we had been shaped up ever so slightly. Far from the chiseled farm kids bucking hay in small Iowa towns, we nonetheless had tanned skin, sun-bleached hair and just the faint outlines of something that could be called biceps.

Grandmother also would feed us—so heartily, in fact, that I came home at least 10 pounds heavier at the end of summer. Certainly I blame the Toas-Tite, with its calorie-rich butter and cheese combinations on pliable Wonder bread (Toas-Tite was also used to make “apple pies” which consisted of a dab of applesauce topped with a generous heaping of white sugar, cinnamon and, of course, butter), but equal blame can go to daily doses of bacon, sausage and eggs, and to endless columns of cookies called “butterballs,” homemade poppy-seed coffee cakes, jellied Czechoslovakian kolache and routine suppers of pork chops and those headless chickens we once ran from.

“Estate” is the wrong term for what my grandparents left. These were working-class people who lived well within their blue-collar dreams. When my grandfather died, he left sheds of junk and a house that was virtually worthless on today’s real estate market. Even the Toas-Tite itself sells for less than 20 dollars on auction websites.

No, the treasures my grandparents passed on to me are more valuable than shares of stock and acres of land. How do you inventory gardens, food, family and the love of simple pleasures? Inheriting these qualities will take the rest of my life and there is no guarantee that I will succeed. No wonder the first time I used the Toas-Tite I burned the grilled cheese sandwich. As many things in life, it’s not as easy as it looks.