There’s a reason why boxed macaroni and cheese is cheese-flavored. And it has nothing to do with “mac and cheese” being a perennially beloved comfort food that companies have tried to replicate in convenient boxed form. No. That’s what they want you to think. The unvarnished truth is that the shoddy-quality macaroni noodles in the box are, well, in the box. For months, and sometimes years. The taste of the bargain-basement cardboard leaches into the noodles. As a result, companies needed a strong taste to mask this unique bouquet (and anchovies and horseradish had been, presumably, ruled out). Enter the cheddar flavor packet, chock-full of modified milk ingredients that somehow taste cheesier than cheese. Success! People have devoured it for years. All was well.
Until one Canadian subsidiary went rogue.
KD Flavour Boost (even the Cotton Candy one) seemed like an interesting idea at first. A bit of a PR stunt, maybe, but the Butter Chicken might have been interesting, and the Buffalo Wings incarnation had potential. This for Kraft, a Canadian juggernaut that has long held a near-monopoly on boxed macaroni products under the eponymous brand name “Kraft Dinner” (KD for short; saying “KD” in English-speaking Canada is like saying “Kleenex” or “Google it”).
As a lower-income kid in Nova Scotia, I was reared on KD’s cheddar flavor, not even branching out to try white cheddar or the gluten-free failure that was cauliflower noodles. I later became a very preachy teenage vegan (picture hiking boots that have been painted on, a buzz cut, an Amnesty International T-shirt, and a scowl). One of my first, shocking acts of rebellion as an ex-vegan four years later was to buy three boxes of regular cheddar KD, avoiding the grocery cashier’s eyes as if I was buying condoms. It didn’t taste the greatest, but it tasted like home.
And maybe, I thought recently (as I poured the Kool-Aid-like, bright-pink cotton candy crystals into my KD noodles), I could find a new home in a new flavor.
I swirled the cotton candy flavor packet together with some margarine and the reliably depressing little tubes of Kraft Dinner noodles. The whole mixture immediately turned an alarming fuchsia, a shade most drag queens would happily wear as a feather boa. (The second ingredient is beetroot concentrate.) I was feeling confident, maybe a little cocky—those old bastards at Kraft actually pulled it off! Numb to my own hubris, I hungrily plunged my fork into the melee and sampled—what, exactly?
The mixture tasted almost exclusively of the cheap cardboard used to keep the thin noodles shelf-stable. Cardboard and the unvarnished flour-i-ness of cheap pasta, with the exact vague aftertaste you would get if you ate a single sugar cube. (Pretend, for my sake, that you also do this sometimes.) I passed the pot of lurid noodles around the kitchen to my roommates, and even though each one of them was stoned, they turned up their noses at it in turn. Maybe, I thought, I had done it wrong.
So I added the cheese packet that usually comes with KD.
Almost at once, the noodles turned an appealing, pumpkin-like dark orange color—but only in patches. Some oranges deepened to red, some pinks to purple, until the noodles in the pot resembled an ambitious third grader’s blobby painting of a sunset.
I tasted it: the cheese packet flavor predominated, canceling out the taste of the cardboard, but the sugar cube aftertaste lingered (as if I had added imitation maple syrup into the mix).
Everyone else wandered away. I took one bowl, then two bowls of Franken-Macaroni back to my bedroom, and scarfed them down. It was almost like eating sunsets. They didn’t taste at all like home. Everything tasted as if I had discovered a new land entirely—but one that could never belong to me.