It was one of those volunteer duties, the one where you agree to talk to your kid’s class about your job. I figured it would be easy: I’d ask the kids what their family eats at Thanksgiving and we’d do a middle-school version of Brillat-Savarin’s old saw, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.”
I stood at the wipe-off board and wrote down what the kids called out: Turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie.
Then it happened: One child called out, “Macaroni and cheese.”
Across the room, every white child said a version of “Say what?” And every black child said a version of “Well, sure.”
The person who really got educated that day wasn’t the kids. I’d learned that America’s beloved comfort food leads a double life.
In black culture, for the most part, macaroni and cheese is the pinnacle, the highest culinary accolade. Who makes it, how it’s made and who’s allowed to bring it to a gathering involves negotiation, tradition and tacit understanding. It’s made from scratch and usually involves multiple kinds of cheese, secret touches (eggs and evaporated milk may be involved) and debates over toppings. It’s baked, and it’s a side dish, but it’s the side dish of honor, present at every important occasion.
Just rip the top off a blue box? It would be like ripping through your grandmother’s heart.
In white culture, for the most part, macaroni and cheese is certainly considered tasty — cheesy, comforting and filling. It’s also cheap, the kind of thing your mother pulled together on a weeknight to stretch the budget. You might make it from scratch for a filling meal, but it’s also so simple, any kid can make it: Tear open the box, boil the macaroni, dump in the powder, stir in the milk.
Macaroni and cheese on a holiday table would be as out of place as ripped blue jeans in church.
The debate over this sounds like a joke, and sometimes it is: On websites and Twitter feeds like @soulphoodie, you find cracks about who makes the best macaroni and cheese, with memes like “Becky’s Mac and cheese” — instant, creamy, made on the stove — vs. “Your Mama’s Mac and cheese” — baked, in a casserole and made from scratch.
In America today, we come together in public places and private occasions. We bring friends to Thanksgiving, gather blended families and define ourselves in our menus. Maybe it’s time we discuss this: Is it macaroni and cheese? Or is it more?
LET DOWN BY PATTI LABELLE
Mimi Beal, 52, sums up macaroni and cheese simply: “It’s EVERYTHING.”
A native of Cleveland who now lives in Charlotte, Beal’s family is a product of the Great Migration, when African-Americans left the South for more opportunity in the North. Her father was born in Memphis, the son of a sharecropper, and met her mother in Ohio.
“Like most blacks then, they took the train north. My uncle moved to Cleveland and my father and another brother followed.”
In her family, macaroni and cheese was “a sacred thing.” It wasn’t until she went to an integrated high school that she learned that her white friends did it differently.
“I never knew it’s a cultural thing,” she says. “I never knew that people ate macaroni and cheese for dinner, not as a side item, until I got into high school. The white kids were having it just for dinner. No, it’s a side dish!”
A side dish, but special.
“I associate mac and cheese with every holiday. Winter and summer. If there’s a barbecue, somebody has mac and cheese. Easter. July the Fourth. In black families, you associate macaroni and cheese with comfort, with your mother, your aunts. Not just anybody is allowed to make the mac and cheese. If you’re invited to someone’s house, especially for a holiday, you can’t just bring the mac and cheese, you know. You have to be assigned.
“You have to be a tested, tried-and-true, mac-&-cheese maker.”
Here’s how loaded the issue can become: Beal, who is single, loves to cook.
“I hate to brag, but people really love my cooking,” she says. “I do everything — I’ll do any sides, the meat, I plan the menu, I am my mother’s assistant. We’re in charge of the meal.”
She’s the cook, with one exception: Her sister Lauren makes the macaroni and cheese. She’s the only one in the family who has perfected their mother’s version. Beal doesn’t even have the recipe.
“They share little secrets,” she says. “I know you do a sharp cheddar and a mild cheddar, but I don’t know the ratio. And I’ve heard them talk about how they’ve added either sour cream or cream cheese, but I’m not sure. It’s a secret.”
Beal tried to fight back at first. One year, she made a version from soul singer Patti LaBelle that involved seven kinds of cheese. When her nephew, Brandon, tried it, he dismissed it as “too cheesy.”
“Those words still ring in my ears,” Beal says. “ ‘It’s too cheesy.’ It wasn’t his granny’s.”
Today, she says, she’s made peace with it. She’s the cook for everything else, but not the most important thing.
“It’s OK,” she says, laughing. “When somebody can make the mac and cheese, you can’t replace them.”
BOXING IT OUT
Amber Donoghue, 33, is a professional food fan in Charlotte, a freelance food writer who also has a podcast, Haute Dish. In her 10 years in Charlotte, she has made food the center of her life. But her love of boxed macaroni and cheese is a little secret.
“I probably have $10,000 worth of cookbooks,” she says. “I’m big on not eating processed food, I have an enormous garden. And when people find out I eat exorbitant amounts of Kraft (macaroni and cheese), they’re like, ‘what?’ ”
For Donoghue, though, that box is a symbol of freedom.
“My mother was a God-awful cook,” she says. “My first experiences started with mac and cheese. It was really simple and really, really hard to mess up. And it gave you instant gratification that I fed myself.”
As an adult, she started to learn that other people think of it as something so much more than just something from a box. In college, she was dating a Native American and brought him home for Thanksgiving with her Sicilian family. He was disappointed: There was no macaroni and cheese.
“I thought that was the most bizarre concept — really, mac and cheese at a holiday?”
Since college, Donoghue has learned a lot about macaroni and cheese. She may still reach for the box for herself, but she makes it from scratch for occasions, like her Family Meal events, dinners she hosts on Monday nights for friends in the restaurant industry.
Still, when she was the host for a big Thanksgiving dinner with friends last year, she debated making it and decided not to include it.
“It just didn’t seem like it belonged on the holiday table.”
SPECIAL TO NOTHING SPECIAL
So where did people branch off over macaroni and cheese? Adrian Miller has tried to find out. An African-American writer based in Colorado, he tackled the question in his first book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of American Cuisine One Plate at a Time.”
Some historians think macaroni and cheese became a simple thing during the Depression, when “government cheese” was a commodity handed out to people struggling for food.
Miller found a report in New York’s Amsterdam News, the oldest black newspaper in America, showing that the Harlem Relief and Employment Committee included macaroni and cheese in emergency food baskets in 1930 — seven years before Kraft put it in a box as a convenience product. So it already was a known dish and already had a role as inexpensive and filling.
But Miller thinks the idea of macaroni and cheese as a celebration food goes back a lot further. Thomas Jefferson brought back molds for making tubular pasta from Italy, and recipes for a cheese-based “macaroni pudding” have been found in cookbooks from the early 1800s.
“My theory is that enslaved people got this expertise (in making it) and it was a special-occasion food back then,” Miller says. “Then, after Emancipation, it gets incorporated into the African-American culinary repertoire.”
The funny thing is, Miller almost didn’t include macaroni and cheese in his book. He had grown up thinking of it as a universal comfort food, something everyone ate. But then he started making a list of what people consider soul food.
“So many black people were like, ‘What? Where’s the mac and cheese?’ ”
Many older black people Miller interviewed had an interesting perspective, he says.
“They were convinced mac and cheese was something white people stole from us. I thought they were kidding, but they were like, ‘No, it’s like rock ‘n’ roll — we started that.’ They were serious.”
NO LAUGHING MATTER
Jennifer Friedmann, a baker who used to live in Charlotte, now has a wedding-cake business in Irmo, S.C. Her macaroni and cheese issues are complicated: Friedmann grew up in a low-income family and later was a single mother in the military. Macaroni and cheese was the reliable staple of her early life, she says.
“Macaroni and cheese speaks to me about survival,” she says. “Carbohydrates and calories, a lot of bang for your buck.”
Growing up, her family used the box but added inexpensive meat to make it a full meal — cut-up hot dogs, diced bologna, even canned deviled ham. When she was a single mother in the military, it was something she could make even in the barracks, on a hot plate.
Today, she’s successful and secure. And she has made a point of elevating her macaroni and cheese for her kids: Gruyere cheese and bechamel, a topping of crushed German pretzels that she orders online. It’s important to her, she says, a way to take something that once just meant survival and make it special.
“I turned all the energy I had into taking the foods I grew up with and making them into a food that is whole. When I grew up, that food was not whole. So my children think macaroni and cheese is wonderful. But my immediate reaction is ‘powdered cheese and dried milk and bologna.’
“It comes from a sacred place. I wouldn’t give that away.”
Ashli Quesinberry Stokes, director of the Center for the Study of New South at UNCC, went deeply into issues of food and identity in her book “Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South,” with co-author Wendy Atkins-Sayre.
Talking about macaroni and cheese won’t solve the uncomfortable issues of race in this country, she says.
“Food’s not a fix, right? It’s not going to fix the very real problems in the South.”
But food may be an opening, Stokes says, a way to discover what we have in common.
“Food is a way to, maybe, begin a conversation. How we talk about it matters.”