At the Yard House in Las Vegas recently, I was distracted by my friend Caitlin, who was embarrassing herself with exclamations of joy about "thick-cut bacon," "white truffle oil," and "transendence." I'm a fan of all three, but in fact what Caitlin was eating was Macaroni and Cheese.
I pity those who didn't grow up as I did. As a Navy brat, I lacked what you might describe as a "stable environment," instead moving from squalid Navy housing project to squalid Navy housing project, generally living in poverty. We used the back seat of a car for living room furniture. We could afford no treats, and very few celebrations of any kind. Shopping at the Navy Commissary for everything, we may have missed many of the finer things in life, but one joy I did discover was the one true Macaroni and Cheese. It came in a white box, printed with just those words in black, using a typeface I cannot now find, but which I remember as the same style used for all military things in the 1970s. To this date, it appears to be known only as BOXED MACARONI & CHEESE MIX, "GENERIC".
Even those so-called "generic" boxes covered with color, I suspect they too did not contain the pure and simple joy I knew. At nineteen cents per box, I probably ate hundreds of dollars of this stuff growing up, and it defines the entire category of Macaroni and Cheese for me.
My wife grew up with "Kraft Dinner," a delightfully Canadian brand loyalty that doesn't motivate me to eat her preferred soggy mess. Every so often, my wife prepares a dish from scratch, and I'm sure it's delightful for those who missed out on my childhood, with onions, breadcrumbs, and several kinds of cheese, but it still misses the mark for me. She asks me to pretend to like it for the sake of our children, but I go to bed hungry.
Caitlin's "epitome of comfort food" just seemed like a waste of good thick-cut bacon and wild mushrooms.
Properly, Macaroni and Cheese comes from a box with noodles that are probably incapable of being anything other than al denté no matter how long they're boiled, orange powder that may or may not have ever come into contact with dairy, and a bit of milk and butter from the refrigerator. Although I've eaten my share of free government cheese, it would only distract from the purity of this dish to add any of that here. It's the pasta, the powder, and the personal touch that makes Macaroni and Cheese work.
Kraft Dinner? Too creamy, too soft. Homemade? Too rich, even overwhelming. Chicken? White truffle oil? What next? Capers? Steak? I'm a simple man, I need a simple box, preferably in black and white. There are plenty of salads — or crackers — that beg for goat cheese, and plenty of pasta that cries out to be coated in crust, but since my father retired from the United States Navy, I've had a craving I cannot satisfy, and pretentious pastas won't pass.