A Brief History of Mac and Cheese

Commentator Joseph C. Phillips takes his macaroni and cheese very seriously. Phillips lays out the history of this dish and its many varieties. Phillips is an actor and columnist living in Los Angeles.

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Mr. JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS: My wife has corrupted our children.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Commentator Joseph C. Phillips.

Mr. PHILLIPS: She took our boys to a local fried chicken restaurant where they were served a gooey processed version of macaroni and cheese. I can't help but feel that something more than my ego is at stake. I'm concerned that by consuming this powdered orange goop my boys are not only missing out on one of life's truly wonderful gastronomic pleasures, but I also fear they will miss out on the stories that food contains.

In the African American kitchen, mac and cheese has attained hallowed status. You may be able to whip up a sumptuous beef Wellington or chicken cordon bleu but in the black community if your macaroni and cheese is not, as the kids say, off the hook, you can't really cook.

And like most black folk, I consider myself something of a mac and cheese connoisseur. I don't need anything fancy. No bits of imported ham or truffles. There's simply nothing more satisfying to me than a plate of piping hot elbow macaroni held loosely together in a creamy, custard-like cheddar cheese sauce covered with a crusty layer of baked cheese and buttered breadcrumbs. This dish is perfect. I don't understand why anyone of any age would pass up the real deal to indulge in an artificial orange lab experiment.

Mac and cheese is an incredibly simple dish. The name pretty much sums up the recipe. Elbow macaroni, or some other tube-shaped pasta, layered with cheese and cooked with milk or cream. That's all there is. But the simplicity of the dish is only part of its charm. Macaroni and cheese lovers add all sorts of secret ingredients and guard their recipes like new money.

This is the storytelling, the part that homogenization or mass production leaves out. Some folks prefer their mac and cheese baked into a solid block, while others swear by noodles that swim loosely in a rich, cheesy sauce. R&B singer Patti LaBelle has a recipe that utilized pepper jack cheese. I know some folks who've tried it and now won't eat it any other way.

A guest at a potluck dinner we attended recently brought a concoction she had prepared with cream of chicken soup. The guests were polite and said girl, is this your macaroni and cheese? They were on their good behavior. Oh, you know that's right. When girlfriend left, the entire God-awful mess, bowl and all, was tossed into the garbage.

This not only proves how particular folks are about their mac and cheese, but also adds to the many stories this simple dish has to tell. When a cook prepares an especially good dish, we say they put their foot in it. This is not only a description of the cook's pouring their heart and sweat into the dish. It also describes the history the cook brings along with them into the kitchen.

I know a woman who, having learned to cook at her mother and grandmother's apron strings, has been engaged in a decades-long mac and cheese battle with her mother. Each Thanksgiving, the battle lines are drawn and her father and younger brother act as judges. After years of perfecting her recipe, the rest of the family now takes pains to guard her mother's ego because the daughter, the student, has finally become the master. This is a family that is serious about mac and cheese.

I want my sons to experience food that inspires that kind of passion. This generation of children thinks fried chicken comes from the Colonel, cornbread from a box, and peach preserves from the grocery store. And don't even get me started about seedless watermelon. What will we say to our children once the significance of real food, a reason for cultural storytelling, is totally dissolved?

Processed mac and cheese has been forbidden in my home. I told my wife our children's history, not to mention their taste buds, was just too important to sacrifice.

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CHIDEYA: Joseph C. Phillips is an actor living in Los Angeles.

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