My mother worked full time outside of the home and never had much interest in cooking. Our usual family meals were frozen “TV” dinners (they were quite the rage in the 1960s and we ate them regularly on week nights) and other than that, I have absolutely no recollection of family dinners or special meals with my immediate family, which was just my mother, my father and me.
Dinner at my grandmother’s house was another story. Nana loved to cook. She was always happiest in her kitchen or her garden. But of all the dishes Nana cooked, it was her macaroni and cheese that embodied the meaning of COMFORT FOOD for me. It is her macaroni and cheese that my own children have come to love even though I only get it “right” one out of every four attempts. “Right” means, like Nana’s, or at least how I remember hers.
Sometimes Nana would make macaroni and cheese for a special Sunday dinner but it is linked in my memory with Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is probably why it stands out as a special dish. It is linked with aunts and uncles and cousins – loud family gatherings with three or four conversations going on at once – and the TV on in the background. I can still see the condensation on the glass of the storm door as I walk up to the porch and smell the turkey and stuffing, the fresh yeast rolls and feel the warm humid mist envelope me as I enter. The whole house is fragrant and warm from days of cooking and the transition from the cold outside to the warmth within is like a big strong hug from a friend I haven’t seen in a year.
Nowadays it is rare for one person to prepare everything for a Thanksgiving feast without help – but that was Nana’s style. The way we could help was to stay out of her way when she was in the kitchen but be ready to come quickly when she said – “dinner’s ready.” (She hated for anything to get cold.) Nana had a system and it didn’t work well when others tried to help. Her job was to cook; our job was to eat.
I know from the few times I’ve tried it that cooking a huge meal for a lot of people is exhausting and stressful but Nana never seemed happier than when she was cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner for 15 -20 people. Somehow she made it look easy. And how she coordinated the number of dishes that had to go in and out of the oven (this was before microwave ovens) so that everything was on the table without getting cold, I’ll never understand. But somehow she did it.
There are so many ways that a relatively simple dish like macaroni and cheese can go wrong – but Nana’s never did. Cook it too long and it’s dry; cook it on an oven rack that’s too low and the bottom burns, too much butter – it’s greasy, not enough cheese – it’s eggy and probably, the most common mistake of all – cook it without enough liquid and the noodles get crunchy on top AND it’s too dry too. Condensed milk instead of evaporated milk, well – you can imagine. It’s simply not edible and there’s no way to salvage it – I know this because I tried. (How was I supposed to know that there was more than one kind of milk that came in a small can?) I only made that mistake one time – of course it happened to be the first Thanksgiving with my husband’s family when I was trying to share my family’s Thanksgiving traditions.
So like Nana, I faithfully prepare macaroni and cheese on Thanksgiving and Christmas and another generation will associate that dish with holiday meals. But even at its best, when the chunks of cheese melt into creamy orange islands that blend perfectly with the “not too greasy, not too eggy, not too dry” macaroni, my favorite dish can only be a substitute. The missing ingredient will always be the love that Nana put into every dish she cooked for her family.