My wife has corrupted our children! She took our boys to a local fried chicken restaurant where they were served a gooey, processed version of macaroni and cheese. They loved it and now they ask for this processed dish in place of my homemade version.
I can't help but feel that something more than my ego is at stake. I am concerned that by consuming this powdered, orange goop, my boys are not only missing out on one of life's truly wonderful gastronomic pleasures, but I also fear they will miss out on the stories that food contains.
In the African American kitchen, mac and cheese has attained hallowed status. You may be able to whip up a sumptuous beef Wellington or chicken cordon bleu, but in the Black community, if your macaroni and cheese is not — as the kids say, "off the hook!" — you can't really cook.
And like most Black folk, I consider myself something of a mac and cheese connoisseur. I am also a purist — I don't need anything fancy, no bits of imported ham or truffles. There's simply nothing more satisfying to me than a plate of piping-hot elbow macaroni held loosely together in a creamy, custard-like, cheddar cheese sauce covered with a crusty layer of baked cheese and buttered breadcrumbs.
This dish is perfect! I don't understand why anyone of any age would pass up the real deal to indulge in an artificial, orange lab experiment!
Mac and cheese is an incredibly simple dish. The name pretty much sums up the recipe: elbow macaroni or some other tube-shaped pasta, layered with cheese and cooked with milk or cream. That's all there is. But the simplicity of the dish is only part of its charm.
Macaroni and cheese lovers add all sorts of secret ingredients and guard their recipes like new money. This is the storytelling, the part that homogenization — or mass production — leaves out. Some folks prefer their mac and cheese baked into a solid block, while others swear by noodles that swim loosely in a rich, cheesy sauce. Singer Patti Labelle has a recipe that uses pepper-jack cheese. I know some folks who have tried it and now won't eat it any other way.
A guest at a potluck dinner we attended recently brought a concoction she had prepared with cream of chicken soup. The guests were polite and said, "Girl, is this your macaroni and cheese?" They were on their good behavior.
When Girlfriend left, the entire God-awful mess — bowl and all — was tossed into the garbage. This not only proves how particular folks are about their mac and cheese, but also adds to the many stories this simple dish has to tell.
When a cook prepares an especially good dish we say, "They put their foot in it." This is not only a description of the cook's pouring their heart and sweat into the dish; it also describes the history the cook brings along with them into the kitchen.
I know a woman who, having learned to cook at her mother's and grandmother's apron strings, has been engaged in a decades-long mac and cheese battle with her mother. Each Thanksgiving, the battle lines are drawn and her father and younger brother act as judges. After years of perfecting her recipe, the rest of the family now takes pains to guard her mother's ego because the daughter (the student) has finally become the master.
One Thanksgiving, while preparing the pasta and dairy delight, the family made the mistake of leaving a novice cook in charge of a key step. The dish was certainly edible, but the cheese sauce was lumpy and the noodles bland and overcooked. Needless to say, the turkey and stuffing sat on the table while my friend prepared another several pounds of mac and cheese.
I want my sons to experience food that inspires that kind of passion and conjures up those kinds of stories. This generation of children thinks fried chicken comes from "the Colonel," corn bread from a box and peach preserves from the grocery store. And don't get me started about seedless watermelon! What will we say to our children once the significance of real food — a reason for cultural storytelling — is totally dissolved?
Processed mac and cheese has been forbidden in my home. I told my wife our children's history — not to mention their taste buds — were just too important to sacrifice.
Joseph C. Phillips is an actor/writer based in Los Angeles.