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In defence of mac and cheese

Flickr photo by sandrasalaskaphotographs.

Just a few days ago, I read a eulogy for mac on the Vancouver Observer.

The author called macaroni and cheese a “lost art” that is “all bad … at the moment” and bemoaned the fact that Vancouver “is ruining mac and cheese.”

As a self-professed “regular gal searching for comfort (in) food in Vancouver,” I felt obligated to step up in defense of Mac. 

The author was on to something when she highlighted the fussiness of comfort food. Yes, most of us crave comfort foods from our childhood. But it wasn’t just that Mom had the time to make you macaroni and cheese from scratch. Nor was it the “many ingredients” that made the mac. It wasn’t even Mom’s cooking skill.

It was that each of us came to love that one particular version of mac and cheese. When we think back to that mac, it isn’t even about the food; it’s about family, community and nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood. 

I have a friend whose favourite mac is Kraft Dinner mixed with ketchup. That’s how her mother made it and that’s how she likes it.

My husband’s grandmother made macaroni and cheese with hamburger meat and tomatoes and, to this day, he prefers a meaty, tomatoey mac.

As for myself, my memories of macaroni and cheese come from The Bahamas. My family moved there for two years when I was eight years old. The women in our tiny community on Andros Island made macaroni and cheese with onions and hot pepper that was baked into solid squares. Every time I eat macaroni and cheese, I compare it to that mac. But really, nothing compares and nothing ever will. I might be able to recreate the mac, but I can’t recreate the magic of childhood.

Is it any wonder, then, that variations flourish almost to an excess? Macaroni and cheese is a dish that is so open to interpretation (and inspiration) that there are nearly limitless ways to recreate or reimagine our favourite childhood versions. Not exactly what I’d call a “lost art.”

As for the mac and cheese that led the author to despair, I too would be less than satisfied with a mac that consisted of nothing more than noodles, butter and a sprinkle of cheese.

However, the argument could be made that this was a “traditional” macaroni and cheese. A macaroni recipe from the 14th century called for noodles, oil, salt, butter and cheese. Rather boring, I understand, but there is probably someone out there who likes it that way. Whether people like it enough to make the dish profitable for the restaurant … well, I say, leave that decision to the manager. 

This applies to all the Do One Thing places out there, as well as the Comfort Food restaurants. Maybe The Mac Shack doesn’t make the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had (they don’t), but maybe they do for someone else. Their website claims, “This is the same Mac + Cheese you remember. Just reinvented.” As for my husband, he just raved about The Mac Shack’s “Ultimate” mac and cheese with all its meat and tomato goodness — so much like his grandma used to make. My son loves the mac and cheese with pulled pork available from Jethro’s Fine Grub. As for myself, I prefer a stiffer, more solid mac. The next best thing to the Bahamian mac that Vancouver has to offer is the mac and cheese at Acme Café. There’s just something about that thick crust of cheddar that gets me. 

No, Vancouver is not ruining mac and cheese. If anything could ruin mac, it would have been the 1937 introduction of the processed version. Macaroni and cheese survived Kraft; it will also survive Vancouver and a few misguided tweaks from some well-intentioned chefs. 

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