*Note: Originally this blog gave mac & cheese celebrity alter egos. I removed most of those from existing blogs, but a mentor of mine wrote these, and they’ve aged well, so they get to stay!
Remembrance of Things Past-a
Guest Blog By: Sheppard Ranbom
Photos By: David Kidd
In one of the more famous passages in modern literature, Marcel Proust describes a hyper-sensory moment drinking tea and eating madeleines with his mother. The taste of the cake dipped in the tea sets off in the narrator a mind-changing convulsion, a rush of pleasure in which every aspect of his childhood village of Combray comes instantaneously alive to his senses. The scene is the impetus for Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past—seven novels born from a few tea-soaked crumbs.
Ernest Hemingway, too, recognized the power of food to capture feeling. As the protagonist in “Soldier’s Home” returns from war and is trapped in the safe and stifling orbit of his childhood home in middle America, Hemingway uses a distinctive image from the breakfast table—“Krebs watched the bacon fat harden on his plate”—to capture the soldier’s feeling of constriction and dislocation.
For me, the iconic meal of childhood was something my mother rarely prepared. It came in a narrow blue box of small tubular noodles and the accompanying white-jacketed package of dehydrated orange chemical cheese stuff—the gooey orange mélange we call Kraft macaroni and cheese.
The meal was so easy to make, my twin brother and I could prepare it ourselves. We had our first experiences as cooks making the Kraft dinner box when our parents had a night out and our older brothers were away at a sporting event or school. My mother enjoyed taking the night off, and Kraft mac and cheese was also likely a reminder of her of Depression-era childhood when a few blue boxes could fuel her entire family for 19 cents a box. Introduced in 1937, Kraft sold 8 million boxes in a single year. They rolled off the shelves during the war years, when mac and cheese became even more a staple while rationing put meat and dairy in short supply.
By the 1960s, the era of my childhood, it fit in with other kinds of one-pot meals. This was a period when “gastro-nomics” was not the art and science of good eating; it was a form of food economy—the greatest goop for the greatest number. Breakfast was quick oats and sugar-laced cereals. Lunch was cafeteria sloppy joes or sandwiches we brought from home—bologna slapped between slices of a local bakery’s knock-off of Wonder Bread. And for dinner, we ate string-tied roasts with potatoes and overcooked vegetables—spinach boiled to a grey-green pulp or haricots verts buried in a mass grave of green bean, cream-of- mush casserole.
Cooking the contents of the dinner box many years later, I maintain a deep historical and cultural appreciation of it. Though I have been served mac and cheese involving every type of fromage, noodle, crust, and additive imaginable, I still can appreciate a true original, much the way a car buff has to appreciate a Smart car or a Toyota “toaster.”
In my next post, I will review Kraft macaroni and cheese and compare it with the Kraft’s new Deluxe (100 percent cheese) version.
Sheppard Ranbom is a Washington, D.C.-based poet and public affairs executive who writes about education, books, food, and the arts.