Brown Sauce Broodings

As the light warms the early morning, I take the dog outside. The marigolds blaze in the corner by the driveway; the mums are just starting to blink at the world. Tiny red leaves from the burning bush spatter the dirt and the pavement, and in Sandy’s yard, a thick layer of crisp, leathery leaves stains the grass and seeps out into the street.

Thocka. Thocka. Acorns steadily pelt shingled roofs and metal car tops. A lone leaf detaches from Sandy’s tree and drifts, slowly, slowly, down to join its peers. And, Chicken, I think suddenly. We’ll have chicken for dinner.

I steer the little dog back home, where I take a container of chicken thighs from the chest freezer. And all morning, the picture of what dinner will be struggles and evolves in my mind.

While I’m doing laundry, I think about last week, when I took Jim to Riesbeck’s market. He ordered himself a fried chicken luncheon. When the clerk asked what pieces he’d like, he selected a breast and a thigh, which surprised me.

“I like the thigh,” he explained, “if it’s FRIED chicken.”

I do not really want the splatter and mess of stove-top fried chicken tonight; I’d rather dress it and put it in the oven. I remember a recipe from a cookbook I ordered before Jim was in school–ABC Cookery, a Gold Medal Flour cookbook for kids. I still have the book. There are instructions in there for oven-fried chicken; we once enjoyed that very much. Moves and schedules, I guess, relegated that method to the past, but today, I decide, I will revive it.

I find the slender cookbook and put it on the shelf next to the microwave.

So the entree is confirmed. We get in the car, running through the sudden, unexpected rain, to pick up Mark, to go to the post office, to stop at Panera and enjoy lunch financed by the last of a gift card, and I am thinking about sides. Green beans, steamed, I think, having had many, many green salads in the last four days. And maybe…rice?

But plain rice is missing something. Then I realize this would be a great day to try out a new sauce recipe.

********

I have been away for four days, and I need to cook.

*********

When we get home, I pull out Mastering the Art of French Cooking, open to page 54, and I read.

“Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking,” writes Julia Child, in collaboration with her French cooking comrades, “yet there is nothing secret or mysterious about making them.”

Good, I think, and I flip through the chapter. A brown sauce would be just right, I decide, and I read on, realizing I will need the whole afternoon for the task. But it is just 2:00, and I have time.

I run my finger down the ingredients list, and I take chicken broth from the freezer and put it in the microwave to thaw. I pull out a carrot and an onion and a slice of ham (Ham! I think. That’s a surprise!) I get out my good knife, and I pare away the outer edge of the carrot and I peel off the papery onion skin. I chop and dice while oil heats in the heavy pan. I cut the ham into thin strips, and I dice that, too. Then everything goes into the pot, and it simmers and swirls for ten minutes, before I add the flour.

The flour melts into the oil, coating the sofrito, and I follow the instructions closely and obediently, stirring for another ten minutes. The mixture slowly turns a nice nut brown. I see what Julia Child means: this is not rocket science, but patience, rhythmic patience, is required.

I pour rich hot chicken broth into the pot, and I add two tablespoons of tomato paste and a handful of herbs; I whisk until the paste is melted into the mix, and then I step away to let time do its work. I get out the strainer and a blue ceramic bowl; I set out the pots for rice and green beans. I scoop out the rice, and I pour water into a measuring cup.

I wash the chicken and pat it dry, and I melt half a stick of butter. I mix flour and paprika and salt and pepper and a dash of cayenne. I slide each chicken piece into the butter, then dredge it with the flour. I put the pieces, bone side down, on a metal rack in the glass roasting pan. When I have placed the last piece of chicken carefully in the last space, my fingers are coated, fat with buttery clumps of flour dough.

I wash my hands and I stir the sauce, which is bubbling softly. It is brown and thick and aromatic.

I put laundry in and I take laundry out. I hang dress shirts and tuck matched socks into each other and I fold t-shirts into rectangles and put cold, wet towels into the dryer. I vacuum up dog hair from the carpet in the family room; shedding season seems to have begun in earnest. I answer emails and update my calendar, and I run downstairs to check the still-damp towels, setting the dryer for another cycle. And every fifteen minutes I check the brown sauce. I skim frowsy acid off the surface, peel away the skin that forms, and marvel at the alchemy taking place.

I have no idea what it will taste like. Some of the ingredients are totally unexpected.
But I trust Julia Child, who has never once led me astray. We simmer on.

********

I heat the oven to 425, and Jim comes in to inspect the chicken just as I’m ready to put it in to roast. “Hmmm,” he says, noncommittal; he will wait and see how closely ‘oven-fried’ resembles the fried chicken of his dreams.

I put the rice and the beans on when Mark pulls into the driveway. I grab oven mitts and pull the chicken from the oven; I use tongs to turn it, and Jim and Mark lean in to approve the crisp golden coating. Jim is being swayed. It smells really good, he says.

And the rice cooks up to soft and sticky, and the juices run clear on the chicken. I turn off the heat and I mitt up, hefting the big cooking pot and pouring the sauce into the strainer. “Strain,” the instructions exhort me, “pressing juice out of vegetables.”

I press the veggies. The little dog dances at my feet as I scrape them into a throw-away bag.

***********

The kitchen clatters: plates are pulled from the highest shelf and silverware from its drawer, water is poured, and serving spoons and tongs wrestled out of their jumbled space. The chicken is tender and perfectly cooked,–the crunchy coating, a triumph. The beans are crisp and buttery. And the sauce is thick and rich and savory,–more, I think, than the sum of its parts. It’s the magic of time and patience and good things combined.

We eat and we talk, and the chicken disappears; Mark and I split the very last piece. We scrape the juices from our plates, mop up the last bit of sauce, eat every morsel of sticky rice. A good meal, simmered and slow-roasted in the time provided by this post-work era. A good meal, providing the time to catch up, to family up, after having been away for four days.

We are reluctant to leave the table, but the little dog begins to dance, and a home-cooked meal offers up a sinkful of pots and pans to scrub, and there are chores to be done, plants to water, runs to be made. We are fueled and fortified, though.

There’s a metaphor, I think, in the making of a long-simmered sauce, in the surprising combination of sturdy everyday ingredients into a mixture once unthought-of. There’s an analogy in the thoughtful preparation, the dicing and the sauteing, the careful addition and nurture of the flour, and the long, slow, vigilant bubbling. There’s a lesson to be drawn.

And maybe tomorrow, I will draw it. But tonight I am lulled and comforted by the hearty food, enjoying the re-connection with the boyos, the lazy walk at dusk with the slow-footed little dog. We step back into the house, into a kitchen still rich with the smells of roasting and simmering. It is right, it is good, to be home.

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Considering What to Write on the First Cold Day of Autumn

First, I thought I’d write about history.

I got up early to start a draft. I let the dog out and said goodbye to the husband who hurried off to slay legal dragons, and I plunked my battered IPad on the dining room table. I poured steaming coffee into my new favorite mug, and I sat down and flexed my fingers.

And I thought about the author I’d met this weekend, GL Corum, who became so fascinated with the Underground Railroad in Ohio that she moved here from the east coast just to do her research. Corum showed us a map. On it, she had plotted the homes of people who were known to have actively supported the Underground Railroad. There was a line of homes, a flowing river of homes–yes, a RAILROAD of homes,–all along Zane’s Trace, placed a thoughtful and systematic twelve miles or so apart.

They were just far enough apart that a person could walk between them in a day.

But the fascinating thing that GL Corum found was that these homesteaders had bought their land and built their homes in the 1700’s, the early days of the United States. Corum maintains that a freedom network was in full force fifty years before anyone thought of dubbing it ‘the underground railroad’. She has evidence that people were quietly helping the enslaved to reach the geography of freedom from the earliest inception of slavery in the United States. And she says that prominent families, including Ulysses S. Grant’s, were among them.

There were good reasons the people involved didn’t boast to their friends, didn’t keep  receipts, didn’t write things down: lives hung in the balance. More important for a person to reach a place of freedom than for a helper along the way to get a footnote in a history book.

Corum maintains, too, that the histories disremember President Grant. US Grant, she says, was so popular that, at his death, the roads were lined for seven miles with throngs of mourners hoping to see his funeral cortege–the biggest crowd, she told us, ever gathered in the United States to that point. Grant, says Corum, was more popular in his presidency than Lincoln ever was in his, and was a highly effective president, to boot. His image as a drunken butcher was a gift to posterity from Ku Klux Klan detractors; she’s pretty certain of that.

Her presentation had me thinking all week. I thought about published history and personal histories and about how what we believe is often part truth, part myth, and part expedience on someone’s part. When it comes to history, I mulled, what can we really believe, and what should we question? And when is the questioning important?

Is it always better to know?

I sat down to explore that, to write about histories individual and familial and political and histories that are hidden and histories that are just wrong. I poised my fingers above the keyboard and pondered what I should say and how I wanted to say it.

And then I noticed that the wind was blowing, a hard sweeping sound circling my house, and I ran out the front door to see if my morning news had arrived, and if it was in danger of blowing away. The little dog came with me to the front door; she shoved her nose into the bumptious air and sniffed, and I ran down the two brick steps to the walk, and I grabbed the errant newspaper. It had a spotted green leaf glued wetly to its plastic cover.

The dog yipped; I looked up from my leaf-peeling to see the back end of a bounding deer disappearing down the slope behind our across-the-street neighbor’s house. The sun shone, pale and tired. And I said to Greta, my crazy hound, “It’s cold, Greta! The first cold day of autumn!”

We pulled the front door shut behind us and retreated to the warmth of the house.

I didn’t write about history. There were more questions in my mind than thoughts to share. I’d better explore this a little further, I decided.

I scrolled through WordPress, and I noticed that one of the daily prompts this week was ‘generous,’ a concept I like to thrash around in my head. There are more important ways, I think, than financial ones that people show their generosity, telling ways that often go unsung. Then I looked at email and opened a call from a magazine to submit essays, and their monthly theme for September was ‘generosity.’

And I thought, Well, there you go. Clearly I am meant to write about true generosity.

So I sat down to do that, and I decided maybe the best way was to create vignettes, short sketches of people who were truly giving—not of money, but of time and talents and resources–people who disdained names on plaques, or headline recognition, or medals or fanfares or flowery accolades spun from an august dais in front of a hefty crowd of the duly impressed assembled. I started to try to spin a series of stories about people who comforted when they could have used comfort, who shared when they didn’t really have enough for sharing, who made time even when it meant they might have to give up precious time later, themselves.

I wrote about all these different generous people, in these different challenging circumstances, and when I sat back to read it, I thought, No. This is all wrong. This is one person, not a half dozen. And this is meant to be a short story, not an essay.

It needs, I thought sadly, to be completely rewritten. I sighed and put my IPad back into its charger, and I went off to the do the work my day job requires. The wind was howling now; clouds were scudding across the blue sky; and I finally had a reason to wear my fleecy new jacket, swag from the 10-K Wendy and I walked earlier this month.

By the time my work was completed, it was mid-afternoon. In the kitchen, I looked at the big crockery bowl of new potatoes and at the autumn basket containing, among other things, pears and apples. I looked out the big kitchen window to the driveway and watched a series of acorns hit the blacktop, tops wrenching free and flying. The wind gusted; leaves scuttered.

The clouds were glowering now, and I knew that it was a cooking day.

I took some beef and some pork from the chest freezer downstairs; I took a ball of pie crust dough I’d mixed up a month or so ago from the kitchen freezer. Jim brought me Volume One of the family cookbook he’s crafting; we found recipes and wrote down missing ingredients, and we searched through the coupon files, and we went for a quick Kroger run.

We returned thirty minutes later with olive oil and brown sugar and Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls,–returned in a cold, soaking, autumn rain. The boy and I bundled the groceries into the house, and we settled the dog, who hates the rain. Jim had an inspiration percolating, an insistent mental jumping bean, so he gathered up his writing gear, and he moved into the living room.

I washed my hands and started cooking. I rolled out dough and shaped a bottom crust and flipped open the cookbook to the page that talks about pies with crumb toppings.  I sliced fruit and slid the slices into the big flat Pfaltzgraff bowl Pat gave us. I thought that probably there was something more comfortable than slicing apples in my kitchen on a brisk and rainy autumn day. The oven was churging into life, and cinnamon and nutmeg were dancing together, their scents rising from the growing pile of apple slices, floating on the currents crafted by the ceiling fan.

I peeled and chopped and slid residue into the grumbling disposal, and I watched the leaves flat-falling onto the slick black pavement of my driveway, where they lay, spread-eagled and hopeless, as the rain pounded them silly. I couldn’t, at that moment, think of any more comforting thing to be doing.

And I made stew, chopping meat into small neat chunks, sliding the gristle and fat into a little saucepan to simmer with some  water for the spoiled little dog. I heated olive oil in my heavy kettle, and I sautéed onions; and then the meat, dredged in whole wheat flour and seasoned, went into the sizzling mix.

The dog jumped up and cried just for the tantalizing smell of it.

I sliced celery and crushed cloves of garlic and added them to the simmering. I peeled carrots and potatoes, and I sliced and chopped and cubed. I defrosted beef broth and veggie broth; I crushed rosemary and basil, dried from plants that live right outside my kitchen door. I stirred and swirled and let it all simmer. The flavors met and mixed and married; and the smell of roasting apples rose and sang aloud.

The rain fell, and I watched the pilot episode of SuperGirl with Jim in the snug family room. When the dog leapt off my lap, I dug out my yarn and needles and started knitting a hat for a baby. Every so often, Jim would freeze the screen, and I would jump up to stir the stew, to pull open the oven door and check the pie, to slide the rolls my buddy Sister Schubert had made for us from their plastic packaging and cover the pan with aluminum foil.

The dog sighed herself to sleep on the carpet at my feet. The pie came out of the oven to rest, bubbling up fragrant caramel juices, on the warming rack. I turned the stew down to simmer gently.

Supergirl got in touch with her amazing powers.

And Mark came home and we explored the day just past, scooping ladles of stew into thick white bowls, breaking open soft hot rolls and letting butter melt inside them. The gray sky darkened into night, the dog took her reluctant last meander out in the chilly neighborhood, and we settled in to watch a long-awaited film with plates of pie a la mode.

The wind blew.  I pulled the ratty old throw up to my neck, scraping the dregs of the apple-y syrup, the vanilla bean ice cream, from my dessert plate, and laughing as Paul Newman and Bruce Willis traded barbed remarks.  Mark went to lock the back door; he reported the deer family was nestled up tight under the pine tree out back, finding their own familial warmth this blustery night.

And I thought about history, and I thought about generosity, and then I put my arms inside the old blanket and I snuggled, and I gave myself up to watching the satisfying film and savoring, in the company of my husband and son, the comfort of the warm old house, settling around me on this harbinger night. In the morning, I thought, my brain will churgle back on and I can determine what portentous things to write about this week.

Right now, though, I decided contentedly, I’m soaking in the comforts of the first cold day of autumn.

Of Snow Storms and Fitness and Cookies, Still Warm

 

Soup

When I leave work at 5:30, it has just started to snow, a hard, fine sugar that glazes the roads.  I take the long way, carefully, and savor driving through the sparkling mist in the half-light of dusk.

At home, the dog meets me at the door; she trots to the edge of the back stoop, and she puts her nose out into the weather.  She turns her head, gives me a look that says, clearly, “Never mind!” and hurries back inside.

I feed her.  I change into a soft old navy blue sweater and pull-on pants.  I start a pot of soup.

The soup is a hearty recipe from a dear friend, Kathie, and it  goes together quickly. I follow the recipe exactly. Well, I do, except that I have five cups of broth made from the bones of Sunday’s roast chicken in the fridge, and I put that in instead of the water that’s called for.  Which is just as well, because, instead of a package of wild rice mix with its tangy flavor packet, I use the leftover rice from a big batch of risotto.  And I discover a little cup of French style green beans from last night’s dinner, so I throw those in–with a hefty helping more from the bag in the freezer–instead of broccoli.

Other than that, though, it is EXACTLY Kathie’s recipe, and it begins, quickly, to burble enticingly. It blends sautéed onion and shredded carrot, the nice lean chicken, the broth with the fat skimmed off. It is hefty on the vegetable matter–even the broth was a long simmer of celery and carrot and bay leaf, herbs and spices and bones with shreds of meat a-clingin’, onion and leftover corn and one sad tomato. For the most part, I think, Tara would approve of this soup.

Tara is our wellness coach at the College; every Wednesday she meets with us, and evaluates us and talks to us.  She demonstrates good stuff to us.

At our first meeting, she takes our measures. Considering them, she sets the curriculum: we’ll work, she says, on body mass indexes, cholesterol, and nutrition.  We’ll learn, Tara tells us, to incorporate activity into our days, to do exercises that relieve the stress in our backs and our necks, and to walk until our heart rates reach a nice healthy thumping pace.

We nod and smile and look at each other plaintively.

Tara is an inspiring person, glowing of mien, joyously giving, and there is no way we can doubt that what she tells us is what we should do.

So we begin, and we encourage each other: I pack celery sticks for snacking, enough to share.  Linda brings baby carrots; Jaime stashes a six pack of little Greek yogurt cups in the staff room refrigerator.  We bring our sneakers to work; in the afternoons, at 2:00 or so, we lap the building, striding down the hallways, romping up the stairs.  For the first circuit, anyway.  We elevate our heart rates.

Tara talks about changing habits rather than dieting, so I set myself two immediate goals:  increasing the helpings of fruits and veggies I eat each day, and building three thirty minute sessions of heart-pumping exercise into my week.  I’ll start, also,  practicing better portion control, and, as time rolls on, when I use up a bag of flour or a loaf of bread or a box of pasta, I’ll replace that soft white starchiness with something whole grained and hearty.

I am determined. I am committed.

I am home on a snowy cold night, and I am–sorry, Tara,–going to make cookies.

The soup bubbles merrily. I get out the peanut butter, the eggs, the flour, the rich dark brown sugar.  The butter. I pull out my old red-checkered cookbook and check the instructions. I mix up a double batch of peanut butter cookie dough.

By the time I am done, the boyos have arrived, safely home from their excursion to Westerville, 50 miles away. The roads were fine on their way there.  They kept an appointment, browsed through a bookstore, stopped at Panera for dinner.  By then, the snow had begun to fall, and they drove sedately home. Mark brought a beautiful little loaf of sliced, crusty, rustic bread.  It is the perfect thing to go with the steaming soup.  I ladle out a bowl and take two small slices of bread from the bag. The boyos shed their snowy jackets and stomp off their boots in the back hall, and I grab my cozy murder mystery and take my lovely supper to the table.

Despite my variations, the soup is as good as I remember; the bread is a fresh and  chewy treat, and the book is a tantalizing, comforting read. Refreshed, I turn the oven on to 350, pull the baking sheets out of the cabinet, and begin shaping little meatballs of peanut butter cookie dough. It’s a learned task; I must have first done this well over fifty years ago, when my mother taught me that the cookie jar should never really be empty.

She was not an extravagant shopper, my mother–and the family budget applauded that: we did not have soda pop or potato chips or ice cream treats in the house very often.  But we always had baked goods.  The cookie jar was full or it was being replenished; and sometimes there was also a cake or a pie. Our friends liked to visit. They were each on a first name basis with the cookie jar, and they knew where to find the glasses to contain tall drinks of milk.

No more demonstrative than she was extravagant, my mother showed she cared by baking for us.  A house devoid of home-baked cookies was an empty home, indeed.

That’s especially true, I think,  on a night when the furnace has to struggle and chug itself to life and the snow’s so cold it glitters. I set up trays of peanut butter doughballs, dip a fork into sugar, and flatten the balls with criss-cross tine marks limned in sweet crystals.  I slip the first two trays into the oven; in moments the smell of warm peanut butter floats through the house.  The dog comes out to sit by my side as I type, hopeful, keeping me company, trotting at my heels when I pull two sheets from the hot oven and replace them with two more.

She gets the leftover burger, the dog does, but no cookies. She considers that, and then, a canine pragmatist, accepts.  Mark and Jim appear in the kitchen, take themselves little stacks of cookies warm from the oven, slide back to their electronic universes, munching.

“These are GOOD,” they say.  I try one, too, and I agree.

Outside, in the full dark, snow still falls, getting more defined and less sugary.  The wind picks up.  Drifts pile up in the shelter of the hedges.  This is a storm so strong the weather gurus have named it; I watch the deepening glitter and fantasize that work tomorrow may be cancelled. Mark goes quietly through the house, opening cabinet doors that shelter pipes; the warmed air will cradle those conduits, keep them from freezing.

I pull the last two trays of cookies from the oven. With a spatula, I slide the cookies onto a platter, adding them to a burgeoning mountain.  I clean the last of the baking things, setting the cookie sheets face down on the warm stove to dry.  I divide the soup into little containers, and I look around my kitchen.

Some deep-seeded need to fill the larder, to batten down against the storm,  is satisfied.  Maybe the snow will stop within the hour; maybe it will continue all night. I hear the vigilant snowplow scrape by; I acknowledge, sadly, that a snow day tomorrow is an unlikely thing.  But whatever happens, there is soup in the refrigerator; there are cookies in the jar.  My family is safe and warm, protected from the elements.

Tomorrow I will chop more celery sticks to take to work; I’ll do some solitary Saturday laps around the building.  I will keep to my goals. But I will not regret the cookies, those warm and fragrant amulets that keep winter’s breath at bay.

PB Cookies

 

Pasta Imperfect

Markaroni and Cheese

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.