Happy Gastro Friday, world! This week, I’d like to chat a bit about my latest food studies class on macaroni and cheese. If you grew up in the U.S., odds are your mama fed you mac and cheese. Sometimes it is from scratch with cheddar cheese and a bechamel sauce, sometimes its from a blue box and synthetic neon cheese powder. Sometimes its deep fried, sometimes it is slathered on top of a pizza. No matter how it is made, Americans love their mac and cheese. My own mother made mac and cheese two ways–from scratch with Velveeta, a processed cheese that melts like a dream, and boxed mac and cheese. Even though I am sure Mom’s Velveeta mac and cheese tasted fine, I refused to eat anything but the boxed mac and cheese. There was something comforting in its blandness, its thin cheese sauce that doesn’t really taste like cheese, the soft noodles. Sure, I had to douse the stuff in salt to make it taste like anything at all, but it always tasted the same, and I think that is what appealed to me the most.
Who invented mac and cheese? Like many popular American foods, there is debate as to who first invented this dish. We know that pasta was originally invented in China, and cheese is one of the oldest foods known to man and is made all over the world. It is said that the Greeks and Romans were the first to pair cheese with pasta. It was refugees of The French Revolution (late eighteenth century) that brought over a dish to the U.S. that was the grandaddy of mac and cheese as we know it today. Our version of the dish wound up creamier and more unhealthy, as is the American way. It was such a popular dish, it is said that Thomas Jefferson served it at a White House dinner in 1802. Kraft macaroni and cheese (the infamous mac and cheese in a box I’ve been talking about) was invented in 1937 and called “Kraft Dinner”. It was cheap, easy to make and help popularize the dish across the country, especially during the Depression. Early ads called it ” a housewife’s friend”, and during WWII, it became a popular meat substitute when food became rationed. Even though Kraft macaroni and cheese does not have an actual cheese in it, children and adults alike still love to eat it. After the typical class lecture on the history, foodway and popular culture surrounding mac and cheese, I wanted the students to compare boxed mac and cheese to the homemade kind. I picked a few students to do the cooking and yes, I wrote out extremely detailed instructions that they still ignored, God bless ‘em. Why not let the whole class cook? There are no cooking facilities at my school, so we have to rock all of our food out on two tiny portable electric burners. These burners take a mere hour to bring an 8 qt. pot of water to boil, which made for an exciting class. I filled in the down time by explaining the cooking methods we were using to the entire class, including boiling pasta and creating a bechamel sauce with cheese. For the most part, both mac and cheeses turned out well, including the one with the bechamel. Many of the students who had only had Kraft mac and cheese were a bit scared by the homemade mac and cheese because it looked like it had REAL CHEESE in it. Real cheese melts and gets stringy and delicious. This scared some of them, which is sad, but hey, at least they got to try something different, even if they didn’t like it.
For the writing lab, we worked together as a class to compare and contrast the two mac and cheeses by focusing on the color, taste, ingredients and yum factor. I encouraged the students to critique the dishes in their own words, to be unique and funny. If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I like to write in a conversational tone of voice, and I wanted the students to experience that part of writing about food. First, I had the students say just generally how they felt about each mac and cheese in each category, and then I encouraged them to be a bit more creative and restate their thoughts. Since I knew the students would probably be hesitant or self conscious to join in on the fun, I brought some bribery in the form of candy for whoever created the most unique phrase. This sort of worked…we did get some funny lines up there, and some really creative ones, but at one point, it became more about making the meanest, funniest phrase possible, so this lab definitely needs to be tweaked. Before I left class last week, I saw a certain something written on the board. No, I didn’t pay anyone to write that, and I’m not ashamed to say I took a picture of it. It takes a lot of make a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds happy, and while I don’t do it all the time, it still feels good when I know the students enjoyed the class.