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Return of the Mac Daddy

November 7, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

My last week's column was about macaroni and cheese, something I thought could not be simpler. Milk, pasta, salt, cheese, bread crumbs, maybe a grain or two of pepper and that's it.

Or at least that would've been it if I'd been considering any macaroni and cheese. But I wasn't. Instead, I was searching for "The Ultimate M & C."

It's like asking boxing fans who was the greatest fighter, asking baseball fanatics who'd make up the best All-Star team or asking movie fans to name the finest flick.

Inevitably, you'll get dozens of answers - everyone insisting his or hers is the "correct" one.

And thus it was with The Ultimate M & C - everyone's is different.

Which brings up another anomaly: There have to be at least 16,000 different kinds M & C, but everybody makes only one, their specialty - the best one. It's as if their making two different kinds would be admitting there's no ultimate recipe after all.

Something else about the M & C cartel: No one ran across their favorite recipe on the Internet or in a cookbook or magazine. Uh-uh, everyone's recipe has deep personal connections, and a story behind it as well.

Either it was Grammy Thibedeau's (who got it from her great-aunt, Cordelia, just before she passed), or it came from a little old lady in Kudzu County, Ga., who cooked for 65 years in the logging camps. Or maybe it came from a long-defunct diner, the recipe having been stolen by a kitchen helper because the cook swore he'd take it to the grave with him.

A few folks had put together an M & C that duplicated some hotshot restaurant's recipe. This was no small deal since the restaurant would never reveal their recipe, so the folks figured it out all by themselves, and only after thousands of hours and countless mistakes - something they never tire of telling you.

The revelations

From my quest, I learned a whole lot about M & C.

For one thing, forget the elbows - use shells instead. Don't know if it's true, but it seems the shells hold much more the gloppage per forkful. And let's face it, when it comes to M & C, gloppage is what it's all about.

I also learned 2-percent milk does not cut it. If true mac and cheese has a slogan, it's "Whole Milk or Bust!"

Some other revelations

First, while there are all sorts of stovetop recipes, they don't match baked M & C. Second, no baked M & C is worth its cholesterol unless it has a breaded crust. Third, no crust can be considered world-class crust unless it's baked longer than the recipe says.

And none of it'll be worth a tiddly-doo if you don't slather the casserole dish with butter before you pour in the fixings.

But what I found most interesting wasn't what I learned about M & C so much as about the people who make it.

For one thing, while M & C seems to be the most democratic and down-to-earth of dishes, many of its aficionados are shameless purists.

For example, my pal Bob Griffin said he'd read my column and had a dynamite recipe himself.

"Oh?" I asked. "Is it your own?"

"Of course," he said. Then, in a confessional addendum, he said, "Well it's my wife's, so that's pretty much my own."

"Yeah?" I said. "So what kind of cheeses do you use?"

"Cheeses?" he all but spit out. "Cheeses?"

"What?" I asked, confused. "You don't use different cheeses?"

"For mac and cheese," he sniffed, "there's only one cheese - cheddar. Otherwise, it's not mac and cheese. Oh, it might taste pretty good, whatever it is - but it's not mac and cheese."

Another example: I was in Nori's, chatting with Nadia Korths about - what else? - M & C, when a joyless, pinch-faced woman who was eavesdropping cut in.

"Did I hear you say you're thinking of putting stewed tomatoes in macaroni and cheese?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said. "My friend Stacie said she has a great recipe using stewed tomatoes."

"But do you realize that stewed tomatoes contain high-fructose corn syrup?"

I didn't, and I told her so. She then launched into a 10-minute tirade about high-fructose corn syrup causing everything from bipolar disorder to bleeding piles.

"Yeah, well, OK," I told her. "You've sure convinced me. Heh, heh. Gonna get rid of all my cans of stewed tomatoes this afternoon - right after I go to the dentist and have all my mercury fillings removed."

The secrets

And finally, there are the most mysterious and exotic of Mac-and-Cheesedomhood - those guarded, tight-lipped types whose recipes couldn't be waterboarded out of them. If their leader isn't my putative colleague, the Sterling Ann Sterling, it sure should be.

SAS is a chef, a gourmet and a connoisseur, so I figured she'd have a boffo recipe, which she did. And since we work together, I figured she'd give it to me, which she didn't.

"So, Ann," I said, sidling up to her all buddy-buddy at the copying machine, "you must know a great mac and cheese recipe, eh?"

She nodded, but said nothing, a wary look crossing her features as she took a step back.

"So what is it?" I asked.

She shrugged and smiled - but not warmly.

"You use cheddar?" I prodded.

"Ye-e-s," she said, "Among other cheeses."

"Like which ones?"

"Oh, just this and that."

"You use elbows?"

"Um no," she said.



"So what pasta do you use?"

"I'll tell you some other time," she said. "I've got to get back to my office got to water my cactus."

And with that, she glided from the room with nary a backward glance.

So is it impossible to find out the Secretive Ms. S's recipe?

A week ago, I would've said yes.

But now, after Tuesday's election, I'm not so sure.



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