Here is my husband, Mark. He is the Mac and Cheese Man.
He works in a lovely office, Mark does, where his colleagues are committed to marking special days and celebrating important events. Sometimes they will go out to eat. So Debbie, amazing-administrative-assistant-and-so-much-more, was feted, on that day proclaimed in her honor, with a festive lunch at City Barbecue.
Other times, though, the whole expanded office will pot-luck. (Yes, “pot-luck” is a verb now, I’ve decided.) Today, for example, is a Bring a Dish day to welcome three new members to the team. The efficient organizers requested (well, Mark says they ORDERED, but you know how things can be interpreted in various ways) that he bring the mac and cheese.
So he went out Krogering last night and came home with all the fixings for Lee Brothers Macaroni and Cheese, a recipe which the Lees include in the veggie section of their cookbook. [“In a chapter on vegetable dishes?” they write. “Of course! At public schools throughout the south and in meat-and-threes we frequent (cafeterias built around meals that offer a choice of meats and three side dishes), mac ‘n’ cheese is ALWAYS considered a vegetable. In our house it is, too.”]
That was enough for Mark and Jim, who howl with indignation when I insist on cooking green beans to accompany oven-barbecued ribs and macaroni and cheese on special Sundays. “Didn’t you READ the Lee Brothers cookbook?” they demand. “Mac and cheese, you silly sprout-eater, IS a veggie!”
They will not eat the green beans. I eat them all myself, in spite. (That shows them.)
Although I cannot concede its veggie-ness, I do concede the widespread appeal of macaroni and cheese. The dish has been a minor theme in my life for as long as I can remember.
My father was a self-proclaimed meat and potatoes man; I don’t think he would have minded if potatoes were served at every single meal. And they pretty much almost were: we ate mashed potatoes (a lot), boiled potatoes, and fried potatoes. Once in a while we had baked potatoes.
And once in a very great while–probably on the day before payday, when we had run out of potatoes,–we had mac and cheese. My mother was a follow-the-directions-to-the-letter kind of cook except for a few areas. For instance: she halved the expensive stuff in any recipe, good Depression kid that she was.
So our chocolate chip cookies often only had one or two chips in each; my mother had doubled the recipe but not the chips. I suspect she did the same thing with the cheddar in mac and cheese. I can just picture her deciding, “No one needs THAT much cheese in a casserole,” as she stirred a scant handful of shredded cheddar into a white sauce. She might have looked in the fridge and found a hard old heel of Swiss and a couple of slices of American with curling edges and thrown those in too. “Use ’em up,” she would have said to herself, grimly satisfied at the thrift.
Mom also liked to make sure things were completely cooked through; I can proudly report that neither I nor any of my siblings ever had a single case of trichinosis, growing up. We did eat, however, a lot of very chewy meat, very mushy canned peas, and very dry mac and cheese.
My Aunt Annie, on the other hand, was famous for her wonderful macaroni and cheese. My mother noted that visitors to Annie’s house for supper would ask hopefully whether she might be serving mac and cheese at that particular meal.
“She’s got a secret ingredient,” my mother swore, and she was always after Annie to share her recipe.
But Aunt Annie was NOT a by-the-book cook; she was more of, say, a method actor. “Oh, it just depends on the circumstances,” she’d say. “I just take a little bit of this and a pinch of that…”
“Bit of this; pinch of THAT!” snorted my mother. “She just doesn’t want to SHARE!”
Whether or not that sharing bit was true, as far as I know, my Aunt Annie’s macaroni and cheese method went with her to the grave.
Last night, Mark came home from Kroger and boiled up a pound of elbow mac; this morning he got out the Lee Brothers’ cookbook and started putting the dish together. I came down and helped around the edges, stirring the béchamel, offering helpful hints, which I know he appreciated. We mixed the noodles up with the cheesy sauce in a big aluminum pot, then we poured half into the shiny new crockpot, layered it with crumbled cheddar and slices of Swiss, and repeated the process. It’s a heavy recipe, Lee Brothers macaroni and cheese–none of your wimpy skim milk, or even two per cent. This baby has several pounds of cheese, several cups of whole milk, several pats of butter.
(Here’s the recipe, by the way: http://www.tasteandtellblog.com/cookbook-of-the-month-recipe-macaroni-and-cheese/)
After bundling Mark out the door with his heavy load–Oh, what would he do without me??–I started thinking about my history with mac and cheese.
Boxed mac and cheese, honestly, never crossed my culinary radar until I started working at a college, and discovered there that Kraft Mac and Cheese was required eating in dorm rooms and off-campus apartments. I remember talking to one of my all-time favorite students, whom I’ll call Katie D, about our favorite foods.
Katie said she LOVED macaroni and cheese, and I agreed with her enthusiastically.
“THE best comfort food,” I said. “I have a great recipe.”
Katie looked at me with brows knotted. “Recipe?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” I replied, “You know. For homemade macaroni and cheese?”
“Homemade????” gasped Katie. “How would THAT work?”
For Katie, I think, macaroni and cheese history began when manufacturers developed freeze-dried cheese powder and put it in little packets, which they added to boxes filled with quick boil noodles. For me, macaroni and cheese history went back to the 1950’s, when casseroles were de rigeur. But now, I started to wonder–how long HAS mac and cheese been around?
I grabbed my IPad and did a little Internet search. Wikipedia (Kids–don’t use this for homework!) tells me that the first written record of a recipe for macaroni and cheese surfaces in the 1300’s England; it describes the dish as “…hand-cut pasta…sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese.”
The ‘modern’ method of baked macaroni and cheese–making a white sauce and melting cheese in it, stirring that sauce into cooked pasta and baking it, has been around since at least 1769, when it was included in Elizabeth Raffald’s book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. The famous Mrs. Beeton offered TWO recipes for macaroni and cheese in her essential tome, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
Wikipedia notes that Thomas Jefferson fell head over heels in love with macaroni when he tasted it on a European tour–he ate pasta in both France and Italy and determined to bring its usage home to the States. In 1802, Jefferson served ‘a pie called macaroni’ at a state dinner. The pie does not seem to have endeared him to all the diners.
Since that time, though, recipes for baked macaroni and cheese have appeared in all of the most popular, most well-used, United States cookbooks.
Variations abound. Some are good, and some are sacrilege. Actor Joseph C. Phillips has a paean to macaroni and cheese on NPR (www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyld+6455615) In it, he talks about the wonder that was his mother’s macaroni and cheese, and he talks about a woman who brought her version to a dish-to-pass event at Phillips’ church. The church dish was made with CREAM OF CHICKEN SOUP.
Cream of chicken soup!!!! says Phillips. They all made a fuss over the woman’s dish, and as soon as her attention was diverted, they dumped it into the trash.
Cream of chicken soup, indeed. Some things are just wrong.
But not Lee Brothers’ mac and cheese. Rich and thick and lush and fattening, it truly is a perfect accompaniment to a tangy dish like barbecued ribs. It’s a fussy, many-stage, messy recipe, though. I was intrigued to find a recipe for something called ‘no-boil macaroni and cheese’ in the Columbus Dispatch many years back. I clipped it, pasted it into my ‘gotta try’ book, and then forgot about it.
Something happened a year or so ago that popped that recipe to the surface, and we cooked it up one day and loved it. Easy, cheesy good. (Recipe follows.)
So. Mark is home; the crockpot, which was returned empty, even traces of cheese sauce ruthlessly scraped from its surface, is cleaned, and it is time for me to join the boyos and watched some Triple D. Maybe we’ll see Guy Fieri chow down on some diner macaroni cheese tonight.
Maybe we’ll make some this weekend.
Or maybe not. Maybe, in these gluten-enlightened days, we’ll save the big, savory pot of macaroni and cheese for a day when we really need it, when the melting, bulky warmth is the one right thing to sustain us. It’s a food for sharing, macaroni and cheese, a food for comfort. I find comfort in its long history, in the thought of all of us who have sat with a steaming plate of pasta and oozy cheddar, tucked into it with a fork or spoon, savored the simple, wholesome taste, and felt, somehow, cared for. It’s good to know that, whatever comes, I have a couple of trusty recipes. Whatever life slings at us, whatever gatherings will convene, I know this: I can–or Mark can–bring the macaroni and cheese.
No-Boil Macaroni and Cheese
(Makes three servings)
“This recipe is so good (writes Louise Strait of Groveport, OH) I often double it and use a bigger baking dish.”
1-3/4 cups chicken broth
1 cup uncooked macaroni
3/4 cup evaporated milk
2 to 3 tablespoons dried minced onion
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons flour
1-1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Optional–toasted bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine all ingredients except cheese and bread crumbs in a 1-1/2 quart baking dish. Cover.
Bake 50 minutes, stirring twice.
Remove from oven. Add cheese. Stir until melted.
Sprinkle with bread crumbs, if desired.
From the Columbus Dispatch, many moons ago.