Sunday, August 3, 2008
My husband Barry says mac and cheese is his favorite vegetable.
“What part grows in the ground? Do you harvest the macaroni or the cheese?” I ask, laughing at his remark.
He points to the menu he holds. Our favorite meat- and- three restaurant in our little mountain town lists macaroni and cheese under the green beans and sliced tomatoes, right along with mashed potatoes.
I like macaroni and cheese, but it must be real cheese. Not a microwave dish or plastic-packaged cheese sauce thrown on top of noodles. Neither do I like to order cheese grits and have my plate served with a spoonful of grits and a slice of Velveeta lying across the top. Some things you just don’t try to short cut.
My recipe for macaroni and cheese elicits raves from my dinner guests. I use three different cheeses. In the oven the sharp cheddar on top melts into a golden lava flow and crisps at the edges. Beneath that sunny cover a creamy sauce, seasoned perfectly with salt and pepper, with a jar of pimento mixed in to give color and sweet pepper flavor, awaits the diner’s taste buds. Pimento and cheese go together like peanut butter and jelly and is a favorite combination in our family. I’m not bragging, but I’ve been told I make the best pimento cheese sandwiches. I use sharp cheese, just enough mayo, and I am heavy handed with the pimento. Barry said he thought macaroni and cheese couldn’t get any better until he ate it with chopped pimento.
Still, I think my mother made the best. She simply prepared a cream sauce from scratch, stirred in grated cheese until it melted and turned the sauce a pale yellow. She poured it over cooked elbows and layered the top with more freshly grated hoop cheese she bought at Hancock’s grocery.
I remember Mr. Hancock, wearing his blood-spattered white smock, used a butcher knife to cut a wedge from the great round that lay sweating on his meat counter. He ripped off a sheet of white butcher paper from a nearby roll and wrapped, without a wrinkle, the pock-marked chunk of cheddar.
Riding home in the Nash, sitting next to my sister, the pungent smell reeking through the brown bag tempted me to open the white paper and sneak a bite. Just like the tiny mice that wintered in our farm house, I was drawn to the smell of what Daddy called rat cheese. Many evenings before going to bed, he cut a small piece off the wedge and baited a mouse trap.
The next morning he held up the spring-coiled death instrument and laughed. “It never fails,” he’d say, as he carried the corpses outside for the cats. I felt sorry for those mice. They had been tempted by the “rat cheese” just as I was, and I’m sure, even if they had known it was to be their last meal, they had to take a bite.
When we arrived home from the store, Mother would put away the groceries, but she left the cheese on the kitchen counter. The flavor peaked at room temperature she told me. When she wasn’t looking I nibbled on the triangled hunk, breaking off one small piece at the time. I wished I could eat the whole thing. But I knew Mother had to make that cheese feed our big family.
Later, when she took the bubbling dish of macaroni and cheese from the oven, the aroma wafted throughout our house. My four teenaged brothers, my sister and I needed no coaxing to come to dinner. If it had been allowed, I’d have made my meal on that one dish, filling my plate over and over with the soft noodles.
I was not a big fan of greens or rutabagas, or many other things from the garden that Mother put on the table every day, so, like Barry, when I was a kid macaroni and cheese was my favorite vegetable, too.