I’m pretty sure it was 1974. The year we watched the Watergate trials on television all summer long, in the cool dark den on the shag carpeting. The year that the Vietnam war had been declared over but still appeared on the television between Watergate and the Brady Bunch. The year of third grade, when my teacher was this embittered old woman who forced herself to smile at us through her false teeth. One day, she beat one of my classmates with a ruler, beat him on top of his hands and on the sides of his head, because he didn’t read the worksheet very well that day. He had only moved from Mexico a few months before. I stood at the back of the classroom with my hands opening and closing into fists. I didn’t do anything, but I told my parents. It was the year of striped pants, a banana seat on my bicycle, the Sunshine Family pottery store, barbecued steaks and lemonade, and wet t-shirt nights during the summer when we soaked our t-shirts and lay on mattresses on our parents’ bedroom floor to huddle into the fan against the heat. It was the year I turned 8.
Then again, memory being the fickle friend it is, it could have been 1972. Or 1976. I really have no certainty here.
Our kitchen was outfitted with avocado-green counters and an orange sink. (Or was it the other way around? Or was it yellow?) There was a little breakfast nook, surrounded by walls my mother had papered with an intricate contact paper design of spindly, angular houses side by side. It wasn’t until we were in the back of a neon-green Rabbit going down Lombard Street with our cousins that I realized I had been looking at row houses in San Francisco as I ate my Eggos every morning. There was a chugging-along dishwasher, an electric plug-in griddle on which we made pancakes most Sundays, a drawer full of candy bars and junk food, and not enough space for all four of us to fit at once.
Later, when I was an awkward teenager, I’d stand at that sink and look out the window at the avocado tree in our backyard, dreaming of boys who made me sigh and wishing they’d notice me. But in 1974 (or 72 or 76), I wasn’t thinking of boys. I was thinking about macaroni and cheese.
I made a disastrous breakfast for my parents, which I believe happened before this mac and cheese. (However, looking back at that post I wrote in 2006, I said I knew how to make mac and cheese before this. See what I mean about memory?) My mother taught me early to sauté the ground beef if we were eating chili or tacos. I was allowed to fetch the sugar and flour from the baking cupboards when my mom set out to bake. But I don’t remember another meal I made from scratch before this one.
I remember feeling excited, my knees trembling a bit as I stood on the chair. Slowly, I unwrapped every slice of American cheese of its plastic, then folded it into quarters, and made a stack of cheese squares. With great diligence — and a few scraped knuckles — I grated the cheddar on the tall box grater that had been in the drawer. While the pasta cooked in boiling water, I poured out the milk, unwrapped the margarine from its shiny gold foil wrapper, and waited.
(When I told Danny about this ritual, he loved it. He also laughed. “Hey, at least you were setting up a mise en place. It’s taken you years to remember that now.”)
I waited to make dinner for my family.
Cheese sauce. Really, it was all about the cheese sauce. The pasta was elbow macaroni — were there other shapes available back then? Plain and functional and entirely necessary. But really, in the end, not that interesting.
It was the sauce, the gooppy sauce that tasted of cheddar and salt and milk, the sauce that thickened from the plastic substance that made up American cheese (you know that it’s technically a cheese-style product, right?), and surrounding every small piece of elbow macaroni with the kind of whole-hearted embrace that I later hoped for from those junior high boys.
Did you ever pick up a single piece of elbow macaroni and suck out the cheese sauce? I did. I sure liked that.
I still love cheese.
(Just not American cheese. When we were re-creating this sense memory for our meal on Thursday, I tried to convince Danny to let us buy American cheese. No way. He is forever scarred by the experience of eating a piece of cheesecake when he was 12, an expensive piece of cheesecake in an historic hotel in Colorado, a piece of cheesecake paid for by his friend’s mother, a piece of cheesecake that tasted as though it had been made of American cheese. No way, he said. I just can’t do it.)
I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember my mother talking me through the process from the kitchen nook. I remember the magic feeling of watching the margarine melt into a lurid-yellow pool, the milk skimming its surface, and the sauce starting to thicken the more cheese I added. It was magic. I started with a bunch of ingredients on a paper towel. By standing in front of the stove, attentive and excited, I ended up with a casserole dish full of cheesy pasta nestled against each other, waiting for our forks.
I have rarely been so proud in my life as I was the night my family first ate my macaroni and cheese.
And now, as my daughter stands at the counter beside me (a counter free of avocado-green, unless we are slicing up another one and sprinkling it with salt), I laugh as she reaches for the gluten-free pasta. “Noodles!” she says, remembering her love for this food as well as the guy on Sesame Street, who always makes her smile.
I wonder all the time: what will be the memories of these years of her life? What will she be like when she is 8? And what will be the first meal she makes on her own, with Danny and I offering advice if she wants, but standing back and letting her make her own mistakes?
I know that when I eat that dish, whatever it is, whenever it is offered, I will think of my mother and thank her again. There’s nothing having your own child to make you fully appreciate the parents you had.
Thank you, Mom.
* * *
This post was inspired by a conversation on Twitter late last week. Interested, I asked: “What was the first food you cooked when you were a kid? How did it make you feel?”
I’ve been thinking lately about cooking, and how some people don’t cook at all, and how sad that makes me because it can be such a joy. There are so many reasons for the lack of cooking from scratch in some households. So many reasons. But I’ve seen that some people are intimidated by the process, think their food should be like the stuff in magazines, and so they don’t begin.
I love fresh ingredients, produce from the farm stand down the street from us, deeply flavored cuts of meat we buy at the farmers’ market, and everything in season. But since Lu was born, I’ve been softening some on what I now think of as my rigid insistence on the “right” food. Now that she’s an active toddler who never stops moving, I can see the allure of the microwave and a packaged dinner. We still cook, though. I think cooking from scratch is not just about the food. We’re cooking to create memories together.
If only we all cooked with as much attention and excitement as we felt the first time we cooked, we would never stop.
So I asked that question and was deluged with responses. People’s answers were so rich with detail and exuberance that I could feel their faces smiling through the screen. I encouraged everyone to write a post by today, a piece about the first foods they ever cooked.
If you can, set aside some time tonight or tomorrow morning, and read. People, you are so generous and open-hearted here. I loved reading every single post.
And I’ll be adding more as the week goes on, so if you feel inclined to write, let me know.
For extra credit points (because I gave you an assignment, after all), make the recipe written by someone else here and let us know how it worked out for you.
Macaroni and Cheese
You know, there’s a recipe for macaroni and cheese in my first book. It’s Danny’s, and it’s delicious. It has a gluten-free roux to make a white sauce, and Manchego and Gruyere (I think) and gluten-free breadcrumbs on top. It’s refined and so lovely.
But sometimes, you just want food to taste the way it did when you were a kid. Last week, we made this mac and cheese, all cheesy goodness and no fancy techniques, and we all ate happily together.
12 ounces gluten-free pasta (we used this Bionaturae rigatoni)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 cup whole milk
mound of grated cheddar cheese (a little more than a cup for us)
mound of grated gouda cheese (a little more than a cup for us)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to rapid boil. Throw in the pasta, along with a glug of olive oil. Cook until the pasta has a slight bite to it. (Gluten-free pasta needs to come out of the water with a little bit of crunch. Cook until it is soft and you will have mush.) Trust your taste instead of the timing on the package. They are usually off. Drain in a colander, toss with a little bit of oil, and set aside.
In the same pot, melt the butter. Add the milk and swirl them together. When you have one bubbly liquid, add handfuls of the cheese and stir. Add more handfuls of the cheese and stir until all the cheese has been melted fully.
I found that using the Gouda instead of the American cheese I used as a kid meant this sauce didn’t thicken the way I expected. You could use less milk, or you could do what we did. Make a little slurry with the cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of water. Stir it well, then add a bit into the cheese sauce and stir. The sauce will thicken immediately (you may not need all the slurry).
Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Pour in the pasta. Stir.
You can easily eat the mac and cheese right here. Or, if you want, you can brown it in a 400° oven while you make some broccoli and salad for dinner.