Macaroni Cheese: culinary colossus or symbol of palate atrophy?
'You mean you've never had Mac'n'Cheese before?'
'Of course I've eaten macaroni cheese; it's just that it isn't such a bastion of British cookery as it would appear to be here.'
'Well, that's about to change. We're going to introduce you to American Mac'n'Cheese.'
fuzzy and blue and The Debutante, standing in the wertoon's kitchen
To the foreign eye it would appear that macaroni cheese forms a staple addition to the mealtime repertoire of most American parents. It's the sort of meal that can be produced with varying degrees of effort and economy, and rarely will it result in a turned-up nose, a sneer of derision, or a whine of: 'I don't want that!' Throw together a salad to serve alongside and you have a meal containing all the necessary food groups and should satisfy just about everyone. What's not to like? Granted, there is the issue of fat content, but quite frankly, if your children are half as active as I was — either on a bike, on a horse, or halfway up a tree — it's almost an irrelevancy.
I have to admit that I'm struggling to name a British equivalent to macaroni cheese. Perhaps it might be fish fingers, mash, and beans, but if you have any better suggestions, answers on a postcard, please.
Of course in today's time-poor society where it appears that we are suffering from a de-skilling epidemic evidenced by ready-to-toast baked beans on toast, shake-and-make pancakes, and fresh soup from cartons (tinned soup, although remaining an abomination, is a different beast), even macaroni cheese has been reduced to something that can be produced from a box. Kraft appears to have led the charge for sometime, but Annie's organic version is now gaining ground (a February 2007 straw poll suggests that as many as three in eight people have switched from Kraft to Annie's), and most supermarkets have their own version. But I'd not experienced any of these and fuzzy and blue decided that this had to change.
Well, it was about to change until we hit the Co-op and a reading of the ingredients list sported by Kraft's contribution to this great culinary tradition left me hyperventilating mid-aisle. There was nothing included in the contents that even remotely resembled cheese. By the time that I had hit the two variations of yellow food colouring I had been rendered pretty-much speechless. fuzzy and blue took the executive decision that we'd settle for Annie's and her own version: Kraft simply could not be inflicted upon me. At least the ingredients list of Annie's Macaroni Cheese did in fact resemble discernible products, even if the thought of desiccated cheese sauce leaves me shuddering.
Macaroni cheese is not exactly a summer dish: it's far too warming and filling. However, our determination to conduct a taste-test over-rode the fact that temperatures were hitting in excess of 100 degrees Farenheit (which is 37 degrees Celsius for anyone not in the USA) that day. We just sat down to eat at 10 pm. fuzzy and blue was in charge of preparation. Her version took longer to cook, but it had the advantage of not having to stand at the hob and stir. It required mixing all of the ingredients (1/2 lb macaroni, 1 lb strong cheddar, 1 pint whole milk, 1 cup cottage cheese, pinch cayenne pepper, 1 heaped teaspoon grain mustard) in a bowl, pouring into a buttered oven dish, and baking at 350 degrees Farenheit (180 degrees Celsius) for 45 minutes. The most demanding aspect of the entire process was grating the cheese. You could of course delegate this task to your significant other, a small child mildly proficient with a grater, a readily available house elf, or, heaven forfend, pre-grated cheese. Ultimately, this recipe is not that hard. Neither was following the directions on the box of Annie's, but standing at the hob and stirring was less appealing.
But what of the results?
We started with Annie's version. My initial reaction was one of surprise that it wasn't overly salty, which is a perennial curse of ready-prepared food. The sauce had been enriched by the addition of some butter, but was marred by an unpleasant powdery or grainy texture that lingered on the tongue. After the first three mouthfuls my surprise at the lack of saltiness gave way to complete indifference: each mouthful tasted of nothing much at all. By the fifth or sixth mouthful I'd given up. The blandness was underwhelming to a point of being overwhelming. There was nothing exciting about it, no depth of flavour, nothing that challenged my palate. It was just a rather uninspiring source of energy for my body. Now I can understand how this might taste akin to manna from heaven when you're camping, or hill-walking, or hauling more than your bodyweight across the arctic tundra on a sled, but on an average day I'm sure that any of us could manage better. You don't need to be a Michelin-starred chef to produce macaroni cheese that excites the palate, that has a complexity of flavour and a slight variation in texture, that is satisfying in its richness. In short, if you follow fuzzy and blue's recipe you'll have a dish that you will want to continue eating because each mouthful gives you something to think about and something to enjoy. The mustard and the cayenne complement the cheese like horses go with carriages, whilst the cottage cheese helps to make a creamy sauce that won't sit like a ball of lead in the bottom of your stomach. Furthermore, the method of cooking ensures that the pasta isn't a soggy mass or the sauce is diluted by residual water. Okay, the homemade version takes longer to deliver to the table, but the majority of that time is passed by it actually cooking in the oven. There is nothing that requires your presence: you could take a shower, help with homework, maybe even hang out in the catbox.
The question is then: why are millions of boxes of almost-but-not-quite-ready-to-eat macaroni cheese sold each year, when an easily prepared homemade version tastes so much better? Well, I think it's down to perception. I had wanted to say that it was down to economy, to marketing, to convenience, but I'm not sure that they are factors on which the prevalence of pre-prepared foods can be pinned in their entirety. Moreover, it is perceived that semi-ready-made macaroni cheese is quicker, cheaper, and easier to produce than its homemade equivalent. And the marketing would have us think that it is just as good as anything that you can make yourself. Needless to say, I think those perceptions are wrong.
Oh sure, it takes fifteen minutes from ripping open the box to dolloping food on plates if you opt for the Kraft or Annie's option and it'll take nearer an hour if you make it yourself. However, that's not an hour of preparation; preparation is how long it takes you to grate 1lb of cheese, mix together the ingredients, pour into a dish, and throw in the oven. The cooking time is yours to do with as you please. If you're so pressed for time that supper needs to be on the table within twenty minutes, spaghetti carbonara takes about one and half minutes longer to make than your spaghetti takes to cook. I won't argue that at $0.89 a box of Kraft is cheaper than fuzzy and blue's alternative, and I spent enough years as a cash-strapped student to know that every penny is important, but how many people will that box feed? For how long will it sustain you? Make a homemade version and there'll be enough to feed six people and keep them satisfied until next meal time. As for the glow of satisfaction you'll experience having made it yourself: no comparison.
More than anything, though, I find it disturbing that we are prepared to accept such bland, uninspiring, unfulfilling food as acceptable fare at our tables, and that we'll feed it to our children. Somewhere along the line we became tolerant of sacrificing flavour and complexity at the altar of the idol of convenience and economy. It's not even that we're not teaching our children to enjoy a diversity of flavour, that cookery can be fun and rewarding, that satisfaction doesn't have to come from something supported by a multi-million pound or dollar advertising promotion; it's that we're actively promoting the atrophy of their palates by not encouraging them to try new things, that we're not providing them with the skills to actually care for themselves by setting an example, that we're not teaching them that sometimes money isn't everything: there really can be something better.
So, macaroni cheese: a culinary colossus or a symbol of palate atrophy? As far as I can tell it's open to interpretation. You could build a nation on it, if you wanted to. It is one of those dishes where you can introduce children to the kitchen, where they can become involved in food production, and experiment to accommodate what they do and do not like. Or you could teach them that food is synthetic and what we put into our bodies isn't actually of any consequence for us or for our environment. I know the path I'm walking.
Something for dessert: