The Gleeful Gourmand: Traveling and Mac and Cheese

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Traveling and Mac and Cheese

I'm heading to Austin, TX tomorrow for a girl's weekend with my dear friend Kiki, and I'm completely excited about the culinary scene down there. Turns out the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival is going on, but all the events are rather pricey (plus I can't drink, being pregnant and all), so instead we're going to eat at some great restaurants and possibly stalk some celebrity chefs. And maybe see an enormous swarm of bats one night, but that's another story altogether.

My husband has been traveling a lot, and now with me leaving to go on an extended weekend, it got me thinking a lot about Mac and Cheese. Kraft Mac and Cheese to be exact. How did I get from traveling to the blue box? Well, my Dad used to do a fair amount of traveling for his job when I was a kid, and although we lived in a relatively healthy-eating household, when he was gone, that was the time for treats. Instead of the well-balanced meal my Mom usually served us, we might get to go to McDonald's for a Happy Meal, or more to my delight, have chicken nuggets with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

I know. The stuff in the blue box isn't real Mac and Cheese. It may be real pasta, but you have to look pretty hard to find an actual relationship to cheese there. Still, it was downright comforting to shovel that neon-orange stuff into my mouth with reckless abandon then, and I daresay it still is today. It was a treat, one we didn't get often. The same holds true today (though these days I use far less butter, and soy milk because I'm lactose intolerant), and as soon as I take my first bite, I'm instantly transported back to my childhood kitchen table with my Mom and brother. That first tangy mouthful, where you know the tang isn't necessarily from any cheese you'd be able to identify, but rather a glorious chemical concoction that can't be good for you. But who cares?

Judith Jones, in her wonderful memoir "The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food" relates how a young boy came to visit her home, and to make him feel welcome she asked him what he'd most like to have. Mac and cheese was the answer, so she made him the version she knew growing up: real pasta, with lots of really good Vermont cheese and buttered breadcrumbs. He was excited until he took his first bite, and then proclaimed it wasn't the same - he had been seduced by the blue box. I know just how he feels. I've tried other macaronis, but the chemicals from the blue box have so wired my brain in nostalgia and false goodness that it's just not that great. Well, except for that truffled mac and cheese I had one time at my favorite French restaurant.

My 3-year-old son didn't previously care for the blue box stuff either, which made me feel sad, because I really wanted his brain to be chemically altered into thinking this was good stuff too. But this afternoon was rainy and cold here in Virginia, and I caught sight of the box I have stocked on the shelves. I made it, and darned if he didn't eat a whole bowl! It made me feel warm inside as we slurped our noodles together, knowing that for a once in a while treat, it doesn't get much better than that.

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