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Edward Bottone: Mac 'n' Cheese: Comfort out of the boxEdward Bottone
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Mac 'n' Cheese: Comfort out of the box
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Mac 'n' Cheese: Comfort out of the box

By Edward Bottone

The persistent popularity of commercially produced, macaroni elbows bound by a packet of powdered plasticine has yet to cease to amaze me.

That is not to say that a proper gooey, crusty, golden yellow, bubbling basin of hot macaroni and cheese is not the definition of comfort food. Long before “pasta e quattro formaggio” became part of the everyday, there was macaroni and cheese. And while many a snooty foodie might not put mac ‘n’ cheese in the same category with other pasta and cheese combinations, I don’t know of one who does not get giddy at the sight of a big pan of home made, not out of a box, elbow macaroni fossilized in a tempting bedrock of rapidly coalescing cheddar cheese. Everyone likes it, especially when it is made by somebody else. For many, however, their first encounter with a made-by-somebody-else mac ‘n’ cheese meant the insidious Kraft dinner.

While the marriage of pasta and cheese may have taken place centuries ago, the benchmark Kraft macaroni and cheese was born in 1937. It all began in St. Louis, Missouri — a town that comes up frequently in the history of foods like hot dogs and ice cream cones. A salesman with the Tenderoni Macaroni Company, in an effort to boost sales, tied a packet of Kraft grated “American” cheese to his box of noodles. When Kraft heard of his audacious marketing scheme they offered him a job. They packaged, pardon the expression, the idea and promoted the concept on the Kraft Music Hall radio show as a “meal for four in nine minutes.” That was the extraordinary year in which Spam was introduced, as was Pepperidge Farm bread, Kix cereal, Ragu Spaghetti sauce, Rolo chocolate coated caramels and Smarties. The novel,Gone with The Wind was a blockbuster best seller in America in 1937 and nine million boxes of Kraft dinner were sold at “the everyday price of 19 cents.” These days over 300 million units will sell nationally this year.

The basic recipe, however, has remained unchanged. This was and still is, an out of a pot, “not baked in the oven”, mac ‘n’ cheese. Like Sara Lee chocolate cake, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese has become the benchmark for taste and texture. The tiny elbow macaroni and salty tang of the bright yellow, slithery sauce laced with a good dose of nostalgia is a powerful draw. Some of what else it is laced with sounds near lethal.

Recently Kraft (a $37 billion company) has issued its Macaroni and Cheese in Scoobie Doo Sponge Bob and Spiderman manifestations to increase the allure for mac ‘n’ cheese’s most loyal followers — kids (and adults with severe arrested development). There is also microwaveable Easy Mac (for whom nine minutes is far too long), three cheese, extreme cheese, three types of Bistro Deluxe (portobello, Sun dried tomato and Three Cheese with four cheeses), two versions of organic cheddar, harvest wheat, Cheesy Alfredo (an amusing redundancy if ever there was one) among others. While many and varied are the chem. lab ingredients (like Sodium tripolyphosphate a preservative for seafood, meats, poultry and pet foods also found in toothpaste, soaps and detergents) they all share one thing — between 550 -1,470mg of sodium per serving. Muck ‘n’ Cheese, I say.

Today, there are any number of macaroni and cheese boxed kits Kraft klones by a variety of manufacturers — Trader Joe’s offers regular and organic, Back to Nature has a taste guarantee and others that are pretty much alike. Salty, tasty, but ultimately disgusting. It should be easy to get uncomfortable with this comfort food.

You can date the beginning of the convenience food era from the first Kraft Dinner. To those who grew up with it, the blue box became a comfort food when away from home. For many who went off to University, mac ‘n’ cheese was the first meal they learned to cook — maybe the only meal — that and Ramen the other farinaceous favorite. Although some may never graduate from mac ‘n’ cheese from the box, those that have know it as a from the oven delight. Think Mac ‘n’ Cheese out of the box rather than out of a box. Think: think baked ziti, fettuccine Alfredo, even Lasagne, or a bowl full of other Italian macaroni and cheese dishes. Think pasticcio, the Greek mac ‘n’ cheese, and the many wonderful up market variations on the pasta and creamy cheese theme.

You’re not Proust — a single food item will not unlock a memoir worthy past. Grow up! You’re not Thomas Wolfe — if you want to go home again, take the high road — make one of these baked macaroni and cheese dishes (see recipes) — well worth the journey.