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From knees to cheese

October 31, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

I've always thought one sign of a great mind - like mine - is the ability to find similarities between vastly different objects. Of course, that can also be a sign of rampant lunacy, but that's a whole different issue altogether (or at least I hope so).

Anyhow, the other day I found an amazing connection. It's how similar the public's knowledge of knees is to their knowledge of macaroni and cheese.

It all started this summer, when I increased my running. It wasn't very hard to increase, since I hadn't run all winter, and it had a predictable result - my knees started to ache. No biggie, really. The pain was manageable, and I actually found the clicks and clacks oddly pleasant - like being accompanied by a little chorus of castanets wherever I went.

But I developed a slight limp, which a lot of people immediately noticed. And when they did, they all asked me what was wrong. I'd tell them, and they'd immediately launch into a spiel about knees in general and my knees in particular.

It was unreal. It seemed that almost everyone had knee stories - either of casualties, causes or curesor most commonly, all three. And so, inevitably, after they told me their knee horror story, they'd tell me what was wrong with my knee and what to do about it.

As for what was wrong with my knees, I was almost always told I shouldn't have been running on pavement for the last 40 years. And as for what to do about them, I was told to quit running. While their intentions were good, they were futile, since it's too late for me to do anything about the first pronouncement, and I'm too stubborn to do anything about the second.

But the point is everyone is an expert on knees. That is, everyone thinks they know about knee woes and will give you serious and extensive input about it - usually without your even asking.

The patellar-provolone connection

As for macaroni and cheese? Well, as with knees, everyone knows something about it, and almost everyone knows how to make it. Plus, like the patellar posse, the mac and cheese crowd often offer their opinions unsolicited.

And how, you might ask, did I find this out?

Simple, I've just embarked on a crusade in search of "The Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese."

Oh yeah, to clarify for all you cynics: I am not looking for any frozen of packaged stuff either - I'm talking about the make-it-from-scratch stuff, the Real McCoy (or is it the Real MacCoy?).

So how did all of this start?

Originally, if you want to take a Freudian approach to this, it all started in my childhood - in my relationship with my mother.

My mother's cooking skills were inconsistent at best. Some things she made were ruined beyond palatability - it's too painful to talk about even now. Other things, however, she made brilliantly (her soups have never been matched). And still other things, for reasons I never knew, she didn't make at all. One of them was macaroni and cheese.

The mac and cheese deprivation of my childhood would've passed unnoticed had it not been for the cub scouts, for at their cover dish suppers, m & c was a staple. I got hooked with my first biteand stayed hook my whole life. The only problem was because I didn't cook, I was at the mercy of whatever mac and cheese I ran across - at diners or friends' places or very rarely, now that I'm not a cub scout, at cover dish suppers.

For decades, it was a real hit-or-miss affair. Then, I decided I'd try to make my own mac and cheese.

Where to begin? Where else - the Internet. I Googled the sacred stuff up and - Voila! there were recipes for macaroni and cheese beyond my wildest imaginings. They were also beyond my ken: Since I'd never made the stuff and don't cook anyway, I had no idea how any of them might taste.

But I did realize one thing: Virtually all the recipes were amazingly simple. Sure, they had different ingredients, proportions and methods of preparation, but all of them could be made by someone who never cooked and was a complete Dope besides. In other words, someone just like me.

The chase is afoot

Immediately, I sprang into action, got my ingredients and began my gustatory adventure.

My first batch (of the stovetop variety) was good - very good, if I must say so myself. But it wasn't as good as I knew m & c could be. Over the next few days, I chatted up some friends, and was told that "real" macaroni and cheese isn't made on the stove top -it has to be baked.

I'm nothing if not a quick study, so I hauled down to the Dorsey Street exchange, where I bought a beautiful casserole dish for a lordly two bucks and hauled back home for m & c numero dos. This one was better than the first, but not spectacularly so.

I then figured the issue wasn't necessarily the stovetop or the oven - it was the recipe itself. And thus, my crusade began. Everywhere I went, I asked everyone I knew if they had a special m & c recipe.

It was wild. Not only did everyone I asked have a great recipe, but people overhearing us offered their advice, too. It was an experience like none I've ever had. I understand people eavesdrop -heck, I do it compulsively myself - but they'll almost never actually reveal themselves. But talk about m &c, even in a whisper, and whoever's around chimes in with their or Granny's winning recipe or finishing touch or secret ingredient.

Maybe it's something about the food itself that its mere mention conjures up the gooey, artery-clogging richness that makes us feel so darn goodin spite of how much the nutrition Nazis tell us to forgo it.

Or maybe m & c people are just a warm, companionable bunch who can't resist sharing their warmth with others.

Regardless, I'm taking full advantage of the situation and asking everyone I know (and a whole bunch of people I don't know) for their recipes. And in turn, I'm getting recipes galore.

So will I ever actually find the ultimate Macaroni and Cheese? Who knows?

I only know I'm going to have a whole lot of fun trying.



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