Why I’m Trying To Make a Perfect Mac-n-Cheese
Thursday, September 16th, 2010
The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
An old friend of mine and nascent PK supporter, a certain Ms T (you know who you are), recently put in a request in for my best take on mac-n-cheese. Not just any mac-n-cheese, mind you, but a “rich, rich, rich, very adult mac-n-cheese”. This, T must have intuited, sits squarely in our wheelhouse because, here at the Proximal Kitchen, we love cheese, we love pasta, and we’re not scared of butter. But for me, and I suspect for T and probably most of you, it’s also about much more than that: A deeply satisfying mac-n-cheese is the very epitome of comfort food, and the right bite at the right time can transport us, in Proustian fashion, to a happy, child-like place. In short, I’m working on this recipe for T because mac-n-cheese makes me smile.
While I’ve tried any number of variations, I haven’t ever felt like I quite “got it”; maybe it’s just that I’ve not yet made a mac-n-cheese that is my mac-n-cheese, that expresses everything I associate with mac-n-cheese in one piping hot, gooey, luxuriant mouthful of sclerotic wonderfulness. So I’m starting with primary research (aka, my favorite cookbooks), after which will come some experimental work on the cook top, and what I hope will end with my own personal favorite take on this definitive nectar of the home-cooking gods, the one that casts a Platonic shadow on my kitchen wall.
I say “my own personal favorite” because this particular little exercise – developing a recipe for a hugely nostalgic dish, on request, for a friend – is a microcosm of why I cook: I truly love preparing good food for, and enjoying it with, other people, but I also prefer to do so exclusively with foods that ilike to eat, prepared how I think they ought to be prepared. Self-centered? Probably, but that misses the point: Cooking is at least as much about process as it is about product, and we should all like what we engage in, because when we choose an activity – any activity, excepting perhaps sleep – we are, by definition, choosing not to do all sorts of other, and otherwise wonderful, things with that particular piece of our life. Returning to the kitchen, it takes a considerable investment of time and money in order to construct a quality dish; the proper preparation of even the most humble and simply-dressed salad of leaves or box of dried pasta comes at the expense of the multitude of other things you could have done with that time or eaten instead. This may seem trivially obvious when the topic is food, but I really believe that it applies equally to the choices we make in our education, our career, the time we spend with our kids, the time I spend writing this blog.
I suspect I’ll be on this thread for a little while, as long as it takes to build a recipe that makes me smile, and while I’m at it, I’m going to try to remind myself what Thoreau, who died at 45, had to say about the cost of a thing.