In my real life as a writer, I am currently enrolled in a memoir class at Stanford University—a ten-week gig I hoped would kick start a project about my mother. And it has. But is has also conjured many other memories that arise like pleasant little gifts to be chewed over and savored, reflected upon and digested. When looking back with concerted effort into our lives we find ourselves embroiled in patterns and themes. One thing I recall with fondness and a hint of curiosity, is how many friends I had in which our bonds were sealed through food.
I recall Marnie, whose house I went to for weeknight studying because I knew her mother always kept fresh gallons of mint chip ice cream in the fridge. There was punk rock Roxanne whose larder was stocked with my favorite blueberry cheesecake. Dori had a freezer full of pepperoni hot pockets and Melissa’s family owned a Jewish deli. Their pantry boasted fruit roll ups, granola bars, Doritos; an array of snacks that would put a convenience store to shame. Sometimes, I sheepishly admit now, I would make the decision to visit a friend because I was secretly hungry for something in their kitchen that I didn’t have in my own.
During my sophomore year I lived for a bit in Minnesota with my father. One of my favorite friends to hang out with was Katie. She lived a few snowy blocks away from me and made the best macaroni and cheese from scratch. Having been raised on boxes of Kraft’s fossil-hard noodles with fluorescent powdered cheese, the idea of “real” mac and cheese was completely foreign. Katie and I would spend Sunday mornings trolling the used bookstore near our homes for fifty-cent copies of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets. We would spend entire gloomy white afternoons shacked up in her bed beneath covers under her ceiling with its glow in the dark stars reading things like: “She is neither pink nor pale, And she never will be all mine; She learned her hands in a fairy-tale, And her mouth on a valentine” while cradling a hot bowl of four cheese covered noodles. She had taught me her secret recipe of cooking a pot of medium shells and then grating Swiss, cheddar, mozzarella and jack with a half a stick of butter right into the pot to mix. A healthy dose of pepper was the ingredient that sealed the deal. Looking back, I realize that so much of my love for that dish had nothing to do with it being palatable—it was shined up by our love of sappy antique literature and our secret faux starlight club. But I would spend the rest of my life seeking a mac and cheese that tasted as good.
The truth is that in real life a good ramekin of macaroni and cheese is almost impossible to find let alone an exceptional one. Although the concept of our favorite al dente form of curvaceous, cavernous pasta infused with multiple, blending, melted cheeses sounds divine, there are so many things that can and typically do go wrong. First of all, after boiling pasta and then attempting to re-cook it with a bake in the oven, it almost always ends up dry and no amount of liquid, cheesy goo can disguise that fact. In fact, I am convinced that the reason there is so much cheese in mac and cheese in the first place is that some peasant women was sincerely trying to sex up her nightly pot of cheap noodles to feed her brood and realized only three pounds from the sheep was going to do it. Even when I run into pots of the dish studded with exotic ingredients like lobster chunks or chorizo or truffles, I end up feeling like the mac and cheese has somehow sullied their glory and distilled their taste. The only exception to boring comes when the Cute Gardener makes me his version pilfered from a fancy L.A. restaurant and re-imagined in his mind but refined through the use of elegant tiny elbows and a sauce that is actually a sauce and not globs of grated cheese.
Regardless, I stay hopeful on my search. You would think I would just give up but then things like Bon Appetit’s pimento version come along, teasing me with the inclusion of tangy red pepper and peppadews, hinting at a toasty panko crunch explosion in my mouth. Instead I spend hours making the dish for dinner and it is the inevitable dry noodles made wet with heart attack-inducing amounts of expensive cheeses. Unfortunately, it tastes better cold and congealed after a hike the next day.
Maybe I just need to splatter some faux comets and constellations on my kitchen ceiling and whip out the graying pages of poetry tucked away in my high school journals the next time I am compelled to try the supposedly universal comfort dish again.