*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!
Reexamining what’s in the blue box: America’s iconic mac & cheese
The Kraft product, available since the Great Depression, has as large a following as Donald Trump, and as small a noodle.
Guest Blog By: Sheppard Ranbom
Photos By: David Kidd
In my previous post, I described two famous literary references about food—Proust’s revelation of a moment eating a madeleine that created the impetus for Remembrance of Things Past and a scene from the breakfast table in Hemingway’s “Soldiers Home” where the author ingeniously aptured a soldier’s feeling of distance and alienation on returning to his Midwestern family home after World War II. “Krebs watched the bacon fat harden on his plate.
Hemingway’s description is a powerful example of “inscape”—the writer using an external image to capture the internal mood of a moment, in this case a feeling of constriction, discomfort, and dislocation.
Proust had a multisensory experience—an orgasmic explosion of mind and memory that was the impetus for the seven novels that are part of In Search of Lost Time.
After preparing the contents of the famous blue box that comprise Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, I will have to say that my sensory experience upon eating was far more like Hemingway than Proust. It did not smack of love but gave me a sick, constricting feeling.
The straight tubular noodles, about an inch long (half the length of a fork tine and almost as thin) must be eaten in clumps to be substantial enough to chew. The sauce, adulterated per the instructions with a small amount of milk and butter, tasted as much of milk as cheddar and had a soupy consistency. The flavor forced me to ask what most people ask about Kraft mac and cheese: What, exactly, is this stuff made of?
A glance at the box’s fine print reveals that the macaroni consists of wheat and durum flour with iron, vitamins, and folic acid, and the gratin consists of whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, sodium triphosphate, and less than two percent of citric acid, lactic acid, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, enzymes, and cheese culture, with paprika, turmeric, and annatto added for color.
I also tried the updated Deluxe Kraft mac and cheese (original flavor, made with “100 percent cheese”). The Deluxe noodles are far superior to the durum fork tines. Rounded, firm and consequential against the teeth, the noodles are not overwhelmed by the sauce, which seems salty, oily smooth, and tastes comparatively mild when compared to any real “100 percent” cheddar.
The Deluxe sauce consists of whey, milk, and canola oil, more preservatives, and natural flavors. It also is more likely to clog arteries. The unopened Deluxe cheese sauce package weighs in at nearly eight ounces, seven times heavier than what comes in the original sauce packet, with no need to add milk or butter.
The celebrity most like the traditional Kraft Mac and Cheese is Donald Trump—orange and cheesy, with a tiny noodle. And like Trump, it inexplicably maintains a loyal following. Though I don’t have actual numbers, I would guess that close to 40 percent of the population who know the Kraft original to be fake cheese still swear by it.
I would compare the Deluxe version to Buck Showalter, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles. It is salty and tough and every year seems to get the most out of the limited ingredients he has to work with. It aspires to be a top-shelf product, but Kraft ownership has not done enough to get it of the cellar.
The very title, “Deluxe,” made me think about how Kraft views the upgrade of its product. How deluxe is it really? I had a favorite employee who, on his last day of work before leaving for law school, made a strange request to celebrate his time with the company. He told me: “I want you to change my title. After working for a few years as an associate and senior associate, I’d like, for one day, to be the Vice-President Deluxe.” He told me with a wink it would look great on his resume. And I knew that he had truly graduated from the PR business, learned the major lesson—it’s not what you can do for clients or what you know of the substance of the work, it’s all about the branding. He and I knew, even with the title, he was still the same person.
Kraft Deluxe is another case in point. Even though the sauce is “100 percent cheese,” it still doesn’t taste real or have the dignity and presence of the Cabot extra sharp I regularly use. But then who am I to tell Kraft it doesn’t know jack about cheese.
Sheppard Ranbom is a Washington, D.C.-based poet and public affairs executive who writes about education, books, food, and the arts.