[ed. note: this is from Friday – I’m behind a little in posting (not celebrating).]
Thomas Jefferson who was always reticent with the President is believed to have brought Mac and Cheese to the United States. When he was off getting high with the French where was introduced to pasta dishes and their reach cheesy sauces. When he returned to the states to see what he missed, he brought with him the recipes and pasta machines so he could recreate them at Monticello. When he was President, he served a version of macaroni and cheese at a state dinner in 1802. From there, the American love of macaroni and cheese took foot and it didn’t take long until it became part of the rich and diverse food culture of our great union. In 1937, the next big thing in macaroni and cheese came to town, this time from the folks at Kraft. They introduced their boxed mac and cheese which would feed a family of four for 19 cents. The time was at the heart of the Great Depression and Americans were drawn to this economical dinner. When the war came in the 1940s, fresh meat and dairy products were rationed to help the war effort and not readily available. This helped the popularity of the box mac and cheese to rise because Kraft Macaroni and Cheese were not rationed and were readily available. It soon became a standard for any pantry or well-stocked household. The golden age of mac and cheese was upon us.
It’s popularity stems from being a cheap product. That’s why it rose to fame, that’s why thrifty housewives made it a staple and that’s why it’s still a favorite of the proverbial college student to this day. However, when it comes down to it, we just like mac and cheese because it’s good – a guilty pleasure. Easy to make and delivers on taste. You can say what you want, but when it comes down to it, there is a fondness for that particular boxed Mac and Cheese flavor. It’s the orange cheese. The powder. We’re not sure what it is – some kind of processed cheese with flavoring, but if you mix it into hot pasta along with proper amounts of butter and milk, you get the perfect coating. Creamy, delicious and filling. Sure there are other kinds of Macaroni and Cheese out there. Specialty pastas with their hand-melted cheeses. In fact, Lobster Mac and Cheese seems to be the big trend in restaurants lately, adding chunks of whole lobster to the chef-specialty pastas. Those are all good, no doubt. However, you never forget your first love.
When I saw it was Mac and Cheese Day, I had visions of making a really fancy casserole with fresh grated cheeses, hand crafted pasta and the whole works. I’d make my own roux, add in the cheese and then fold in the pasta. Sprinkle in some seasonings – salt, pepper, maybe some garlic, a little nutmeg for depth. Then I would top with breadcrumbs and bake it so it would get a little crunchy on the outside. That sounded all well and good, but then I realized that this day should celebrate the original. The one and only. So I scrapped the plans for the casserole and simply went Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for this one. Lola was ok with that decision too. I picked up two boxes at the store. We prefer the SpongeBob Squarepants version. That’s not because we are particular fans of SpongeBob, but rather we have discovered through tireless research that the character-shaped pasta is well-suited for the cheese sauce. Each piece of pasta has a lot of nooks and crannies in it and that allows for more space for the cheese sauce to adhere to. Even though Kraft bills their original, the small tubular pieces, as “the cheesiest,” we find the character shapes better. Clements was out of SpongeBob so I opted for Star Wars mac and cheese instead. The force was with us.
When I got home, I made it. I hope you don’t really need to know how I made this because it’s the same recipe they have had on the box for years. Actually, I do finesse my version slightly by adding more butter and less milk. I like the sauce to be nice and thick and more butter helps with that. It also adds a creamer taste to it as well. It cooked up in no time and soon it was ready for serving. That’s when I came to “the dilemma.” We are usually a house that lives in simple peace and harmony, however when it comes to adding something to Mac and Cheese, our household erupts like the citizens of Anatevka in a heated mule/horse debate. I prefer to add peas to my Mac and Cheese. Lola says nay-nay to that. I just like the color, the added texture and the subtle flavor peas bring to the mix. Lola however is a purist and gets mad at the mere suggestion. In fact any time I make it, I always jest that I am about to put peas in and in that mere suggestion, Lola’s Irish starts to rise. So no peas for Lola today (I did add some to my bowl). I served Lola hers with some chopsticks. That’s her preferred method of Mac and Cheese consumption. I prefer the traditional fork (or shovel, so I can eat it faster).
There are few meals that are more comforting than the Mac and Cheese. A simple homey favorite. All the fancy mac and cheeses can be what they want to be, but that will never quite replace the joy of the boxed Mac and Cheese. An easy recipe that almost anyone can make, an economical price point and a flavor that not only comes through but takes you back to happy memories. It’s comfort food 101. And it’s usually right there in your pantry. It goes well with lazy Friday nights catching up on Game of Thrones. It’s best enjoyed in pajamas and in bowls that fit right in the palms of your hands. It’s good with peas (shhh…don’t tell Lola). It’s just a simple joy and that is what I celebrated tonight. My R2-D2s didn’t taste exactly like the Patrick Star I had hoped for, but it did the job. It was a delicate balance of celebration today: finding the happy point between the over-the-top versions of macaroni and cheese and the classic and simple versions. I went classic, because that is more of the tradition we were celebrating today. The tradition of comfort, simplicity and joy that Mac and cheese delivers. And you know what they say about not honoring traditions: without traditions, our lives as shaky as… as a fiddler on the roof.
Next up: National Tapioca Pudding Day