Mac and cheese was a staple in my pantry after college, when, despite working two jobs, I had to save up for animal protein. It was easy to make and convenient too. I could put it on my Mobil card, along with beer, without buying gas.
As my career advanced, poultry, beef, and pork took centerstage. Then came the kids. Mac and cheese got a second act. Store brand boxes, priced by the lot, we could get 10 for $10. Economy mac and cheese has a narrow noodle. You could suck them up with a straw. It was just the right size for tiny fingers to grasp on a highchair tray.
When the kids left for college, we sent them with boxes of mac and cheese. The baton had been passed. They, however, needed organic, gluten-free, free-range, farm-to-table, mac and cheese. The kind where you know the name, city, and astrological sign of the farmer who grew the wheat for the pasta and the genomic profile of the cow whose milk had been dehydrated into powder. (Just to prove the cow’s DNA had not been modified.) We paid $40 for four boxes so they could douse it in hot sauce.
Then came the encore performance of mac and cheese — COVID-19. I was throwing boxes in my grocery cart like it was half-price toilet paper. After emptying a row of tall, slender blue boxes, I reached for a squat six-ounce box: the deluxe dinner version. It came with a velvety, creamy, cheesy packet. I wouldn’t need milk. I wouldn’t need butter. Who knows if and when I would have those high-end ingredients in the weeks to come? Would I be churning my own butter at some point?
I took the plunge: deluxe mac and cheese. No mixing required, just squeeze the packet of orange cheese onto cooked pasta. Pre-COVID-19, squeezable, orange cheese wouldn’t have made it into my grocery cart. Since we don’t enjoy rock climbing or space travel, we never prized cheese for its squeezability. Solid orange cheese is used as a joke gift in our Northern New England household. We go through a two-pound brick of white cheddar in a week because “cheese is love.”
But these are uncertain times; the TV commercials tell me 3,000 times a day. Right now, squeezable orange cheese makes sense. I can put in on toast or sandwiches. (We’ll make sourdough bread.) A hamburger? No, I’ll never find ground beef. Potatoes? I have lots of potatoes. What about rice? Who needs the San Francisco treat, if I have this golden, cheesy drizzle?
It didn’t take me long to whip up my first deluxe dinner of mac and cheese. The rotund elbow pasta had subtle ribbing, engineered to grab ahold of the orange ooze. The cheese food was remarkably shiny as it flowed from the silver packet. It stirred in quickly and, as advertised, created a glistening, golden “hard to resist, cheesy meal.” I finished it with cracked pepper before delivering a bowl to my husband Jim, working at his game table-based office in the basement.
“Wow, this is the fancy kind with the packet, isn’t it?” my husband asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Special treat.”
To eat mine, I took two lactase tablets and overlooked the cheese’s aftertaste. (It had the metallic notes of fat-free cream cheese.) So, I can’t explain what came over me.
Standing at the top of the stairs with his empty bowl and fork, Jim caught me sucking on the dregs of the cheese packet. “Can I have it next?” he asked.