THE HISTORY OF MACARONI AND CHEESE
Okay, not really the actual history of macaroni and cheese. That title is completely misleading. It’s MY history with macaroni and cheese. The evolution of macaroni and cheese in my life, from tuna casserole to Kraft to bacon and lobster and gruyere and sharp cheddar and all of the good, gooey stuff in between. Because life is cheese, especially when it’s mixed with macaroni.
When I was a kid, my mom made this concoction that she called tuna casserole. It was your basic homemade macaroni and cheese with a can of Starkist tuna mixed in. If she had extra slices of American, she’d tear them up and put them on the top before baking. And sometimes some crumbled potato chips, too. It was really good. Unless she snuck some peas in there. Peas are gross. Peas have no place in macaroni and cheese. They do, however, have a place in tuna casserole. I don’t make tuna casserole.
She made it mostly because it was really cheap to put together and it filled us up. It was the seventies. My dad’s company made parts for construction equipment and heavy trucks. We didn’t have a whole lot of money because who the hell was buying construction equipment and heavy trucks in the seventies? No one, that’s who. Sometimes Mom also served this concoction with a side of fried hot dog slices. What’s that you say? You’ve never eaten a hot dog sliced up and fried? You’ve never even heard of such a thing? You haven’t lived, my friend.
When things were really tight, sometimes she skipped the entire macaroni concept altogether and just ladled that cheese sauce right on to white toast. Or maybe it was because she didn’t have any macaroni in the house and didn’t have time to go to the store. I don’t really know. Maybe she was just cheap. Truth is, if you’re a kid and you’re getting to eat macaroni and cheese a lot, you feel like a rich person, so I don’t know if we were hard up for cash or not. If she had a can of tuna, she’d mix that in too. Cheese sauce on toast. I loved it.
I made cheese sauce on toast for myself once I became an “adult” and lived on my own. It was disgusting. Kids will eat any old shit.
Except when they won’t. When my kids were little, they resisted the concept of the tuna casserole. But it’s really the perfect food, because it has cheese in it, and also macaroni. And if you add some tuna, there’s some extra protein right there. And sometimes peas. I would mix the peas into one half of the casserole because I hate peas but my kids didn’t mind them. They wouldn’t eat it if I called it tuna casserole, however. This is when Mommy’s Special Macaroni was born. I can throw the words “Mommy’s Special” in front of pretty much anything, and my kids will think it’s awesome. Mommy’s Special Broccoli. Mommy’s Special Brussels sprouts. You get the idea. You’d think I wouldn’t need to use that trick with something as delicious as macaroni and cheese with tuna in it, but if I truly had a handle on what goes on inside the head of a little kid, I’d be a gazillionaire. Also, please don’t confuse this “Mommy’s Special” concept with Mother’s Little Helper. Totally different animal, though both equally crucial when it comes to parenting, in my own opinion.
Then there’s the blue box. The Kraft. The orange stuff.
One time when I was working more than full time and also going to grad school and I lived by myself, I made a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner and I left what I hadn’t eaten in the pan and kinda forgot about it for a really long time. Like, maybe a week. Maybe even longer. I am kind of a slob sometimes, so. When I finally went to clean it up, it was bubbling. It was making bubbling, crackling noises. I felt really bad about it, but I threw away the whole mess, pan and all. I’d have never been able to use that pan again without thinking of that bubbling noise and also the smell. Oh lord, the smell.
When I was pregnant with my children, I ate an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese nearly every day. If people asked me if I was experiencing cravings and whatnot, I’d always say no, because I didn’t really feel like I was craving the Kraft. I just ate it, without thought, every day. That was what I wanted to eat and it just didn’t occur to me to eat anything but that. I maintain that this is why my children have such strong teeth. I know this isn’t true, but I gotta have some way to validate having eaten a box of Kraft mac n cheese nearly every day for two stretches of nine months each over the course of a few years.
I still actually love the Kraft, but I only buy the creamy version. It’s decent, especially if you put a ton of pepper in it. There’s a couple of barbecue restaurants I frequent in the Chicagoland area and I’m pretty sure they both use the Kraft creamy mac n cheese and just put a ton of pepper in it and call it homemade, which is a bunch of bullshit but I don’t mind because it’s tasty and nicely accompanies the pulled pork sandwich.
Mommy’s Special Macaroni was a thing long before all the foodie snobs got their hands on macaroni and cheese and started putting all kinds of random crap in it and serving it in adorable little crocks with fancy cheese and charging like 15 bucks for it in their adorable hipster restaurants decorated with light fixtures made out of empty bottles and all the ironwork and heavy tables and you know the kind of place I’m talking about, right? I mean, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Because I tried lobster macaroni and cheese one time in one of those places and I about died right there in my chair.
And of course, bacon. I don’t know when we thought up putting bacon in the Mommy’s Special Macaroni, but it was a while before I started seeing that happen in restaurants, so obviously those restaurants read my mind and stole my awesome idea. I’m not too attached to it, though, so it’s okay. Plus everyone should have bacon in as many ways as possible as often as they can. No one person owns the rights to putting bacon in or on stuff.
There came a day when the kids were all like “Why do you have to put all those stupid vegetables in there? Can’t you make it without the tuna?” and we started talking it over and the next thing you know I’m crumbling up a crispy-cooked pound of bacon into that pan of mac and cheese and we pretty much ate it like that on a nearly weekly basis for a really long time. But, you know, heart disease is a thing.
When I was a kid and it was tuna casserole night, it was my job to stir the sauce and unwrap the American cheese singles and slip them in one by one. When I got a little older, my mom taught me how to make the roux from beginning to end. That was the best thing I ever learned to cook. I developed a technique and I learned to watch the heat–not too high, not too low. Don’t let it boil. Keep stirring with one hand and unwrap the next slice and slip it in when the previous one has melted. Stick your finger into that super-hot cheese and give it a taste every minute or so. Nobody cared about germs back then.
I even loved the squelchy sound of stirring the cheese into the cooked elbow macaroni. I always made sure the tuna was all broken up so it would touch as many elbows as possible and you’d get some in every bite. I was always happy when there was a nearly-empty bag of potato chips in the chip cabinet so we could use them to crumble on top. I loved tearing up a few extra slices of American cheese and laying the strips on top so there’d be extra melty cheese. I loved eating a heaping bowl of the stuff and filling my belly and feeling all warm and cozy because cheese is great, macaroni is great, put it all together and it’s like a bowl of happiness.
Mommy’s Special Macaroni
Serves 4 (double it, triple it, quadruple it to your heart’s desire)
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
1/2 small yellow onion, chopped up very fine (you can leave this out if onions mess with your gastrointestinal well-being, but you’re about to eat a crap-ton of cheese so I’m guessing you don’t care that much about such things)
2 cups milk (1/2&1/2, whole milk, 2% are all fine but don’t you dare use skim)
1/2 box (4 servings worth) of macaroni noodles. I like the Barilla Cellentani, but any old elbow will do
12-16 slices of American cheese (I KNOW! Shut up!)
1 cup shredded cheddar
1/2 cup of a nice gouda
(You can use whatever the hell kind of cheese you want, but go for something melty. I advise a combo of at least two different cheeses).
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Boil up some water and get those noodles cookin’. Go for al dente, because you’re going to bake them too and you don’t want mushy macaroni and cheese. Unless you do.
Melt your butter in a saucepan (don’t let it burn!) on medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they’re all soft and sweaty. Add the flour and whisk it up until the whole gloppy mess starts to brown a little. DO NOT BURN IT.
Slowly add your milk while whisking and turn the heat up to medium-hot. Watch your heat. You don’t want this to boil or it’s ruined and you’ll have to start over. Once all the roux is incorporated with the milk, toss your whisk into the sink and start stirring with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring. Don’t stop. It’ll start thickening up. If you feel like it’s about to boil, reduce the heat. It has to be hot to thicken, but not so hot that it boils. You’ll figure it out.
Start adding your cheese. I start with the American first, then the cheddar, and then I add the gouda at the end. Stir until all that cheese is melted.
Salt and pepper to taste. You don’t need a lot of salt because CHEESE. But you can go overboard on the pepper and that’s a good thing. Lots of pepper makes it good. Unless you aren’t partial to pepper.
Drain your pasta well. Don’t rinse the noodles or anything silly like that. Add the noodles to your pan of cheese sauce and mix it up. Taste it. Do you taste the pepper? Just barely? Add more.
Now, here’s where you can get inventive. Do you like bacon? Add some crispy, crumbled bacon to this mac n cheese. Lobster or crab? Go for it. Tuna? Yep. Vegetables? Sure! Broccoli is good. Peas are probably good if you like peas. Mix all that in there then pour the whole cheesy mess into some kind of baking dish. This will fit in a relatively deep pie pan. Mix up some bread crumbs or panko with some melted butter and sprinkle on top. Bake at 400 degrees until the bread crumbs are brown and toasty and the cheese sauce is bubbling.
You can also just eat it right out of the pan with a fork if you want, and skip that whole baking step. That’s fine too. Do whatever you want. It’s your macaroni and cheese.