As a kid, the only days I knew I was going to get fed were holidays. My mother, being a single mother in the 70’s had other agendas going on, she did not always think of feeding her three children. We had to learn how to feed ourselves at very young ages.
When my mother would make us something to eat, it was always something she liked, and she had no taste buds from a lifetime of smoking and drinking. There were some things she could do well; fried chicken, chicken fried steak, chicken fried pork chops, fried potatoes… etc. Of course, mom only had her limited imagination. Nothing out of the ordinary came out of her kitchen. Nope, everything she made was very expected very traditional. Only half of it was edible, as far as I was concerned.
Which worked out very well at holiday times.
When my mom married my step dad, things kind of changed. I recognize now what she was trying to do when they were first married (the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach). Then I did not care, I was getting fed more often, and didn’t have to fight anyone for a piece of bread. My mom was trying to impress her new hubby. Trying to impress him with her cooking.
Was she impressive? Nope. Recanting the memories has left a bad taste in my mouth as it is. Thankfully my dad was from the midwest where the men there ate meat and potatoes. Again, this was fine with me. I was getting fed everyday now, and that was cool. Red meat was the common protein. With the meat, one night we would have potatoes, one night we would have (what would become one of my worst childhood memories) Macaroni and Cheese.
My first memory of macaroni and cheese still lingers with me to this day. One might think that this memory would be comforting. Not a mission to get through a pile of almost melted cheese and paste. Stringy cheese mess all over, stuck to everything. noodles over cooked and close to mush. Cheese sauce and melted cheese have completely different flavors. Melted cheese does not go on everything cheese can go with.
I cringed when I was told we were having macaroni and cheese with dinner. First off, I would be the kid in charge of grating the mountain of cheese she would put into it, this chore allowed me to get out of washing dishes. With now 5 brothers and 3 sisters, it was like fish frenzy at feeding time. All of them would come around and grab a nibble of the grated cheese. Even for a family our size, a pound of cheese should not go into a batch of mac n cheese.
My mother did not understand the process behind making a cheese sauce for the noodles. Which is such a simple recipe. Butter, flour, milk, cheese and salt n pepper. Oh, and whatever it is you are going to put the sauce on. My mom used store bought elbow macaroni. For those who do not want to take on the job of making their own, store bought pasta and noodles are terrific.
In consideration of cost, instead of using a whole one pound block of cheese, only a cup of grated cheese is needed. My dad was making really good money, and could afford it, but food is one of the areas where making better food can be cheaper than making bad food. making a cheese sauce goes so much further.
I wish I could have this conversation with my mom. I wish I could go into her 1976 kitchen and show her that macaroni and cheese should not be used as a torture device. I would explain that melting a couple tablespoons of butter, with equal amounts of flour whisked in and a cup of milk is the basis for so many sauces.
I would have shown her how to whisk the butter and flour so it didn’t burn, I would have taken the time to go through the process of introducing the milk to the butter and flour. “With this sauce,” I would tell her, “You can make some of the best soups and sauces, but today we add the cheese, off the heat, and melt it all together for the noodles.” as I would add about a quarter of the shredded cheese at a time.
“See, Mom! No more cheese beards for us!” Spooning the creamy, cheesy sauce on elbow macaroni. I can almost see her mocked expression of “Very well then!” She looked at me that way all the time.
I am still wary of macaroni and cheese, with full knowledge that today’s standards of mac n cheese is so much more than when I was a kid. The funny thing is, she used to make this dish called “creamed peas.” Peas in a cream sauce, the one mentioned above. I hated it. I bet I can make it better. I think I am going to tackle cream peas.