Summer is a time where food is at the center of all we do. Whether a family barbecue, impromptu picnic or wedding reception, food is the common thread that ties together just about any occasion.
At 89-years-old, my grandmother doesn’t cook much anymore. But if you remind her that no one makes mac & cheese like she does, you just may see her green casserole dish at the next family gathering, filled to the brim with one of America’s favorite comfort foods.
Elbow macaroni, whole milk, butter, saltines and two types of sharp cheddar cheese. “That’s all it is,” she’ll humbly recite to her raving guests. A recipe she learned from her own mother, who passed away before I had the chance to see her cooking in action. But that’s the funny thing about family recipes, not only do they fill your belly with goodness but they leave you feeling full in other ways you may have never known.
I may have never met my great grandmother, but I’ve learned what a gentle soul she had by the way my grandmother taught my own mother how to get this recipe just right. The opposite of Chef Ramsay in the kitchen, I observed my grandmother nudging her daughter-in-law to have a heavier hand with the milk pour. “Well, maybe just a little more,” she’d say subtly.
When I moved away from Maine from 2005-2010, I’d crave the perfection of this dish. Sure I could’ve made it in my tiny Waikiki apartment, but it was one of those foods I wanted to share with family. Perhaps, in hindsight, I was yearning for something more than a taste of home, but to be surrounded by people who made me feel at home.
During the time I lived away, I got married. Now that I was beginning a family of my own, I recall thinking to myself, it’s time to introduce “the recipe.” I made it for my husband at the time, who, being from New York, loved all-things pasta. When he asked me to make it for the “guys at the station” where he worked, I hesitated at first. After all, this is a family recipe. But I recalled all the times my grandmother had made it for different church functions or for meals at the homeless shelter and other organizations in need of a hearty donation that could feed a lot of mouths.
Although we aren’t always surrounded by family, there’s certain foods that when we eat them, we can almost feel the history and in turn, become that much more connected to the people in around us. Even if it’s a room full of strangers or people you just met. I made the macand cheese not only for his co-workers that one time, but many times. Beyond that, I brought it to baby showers, school functions and even a wedding that had a potluck style reception. For that wedding, the bride was someone whom I had lost touch with for many years, but had grown up and eaten this mac & cheese with me and my family many times when we were kids. Now, I had the opportunity to make it for her on a day she’d remember forever.
I am thankful for learning early on the importance food plays in our culture. When I travel to new places, I want to try the local delicacies not for the sake of saying “I tried Lau Lau in Hawaii” or because I’m looking for a new favorite dish, but because I want to connect to the heritage. I want to connect to the person serving me the food and ask how does this relate to you and your family?
In an age where we have all the information we could ever imagine at the tap of a button, food is still there to help bring us together. To start a conversation that we may not otherwise have initiated. Whether it’s at the dinner table over frozen pizza or in a far off destination where you can see a local fisherman catch your meal.
We don’t need to know who originally masterminded the recipe because every time someone reinvents the dish a different interpretation is born, reminding us that the secret isn’t in the sauce but in our commitment to retelling a story that began long ago.
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