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April 9, 2009

The cheesiest post yet



At a time when upscale mac 'n' cheese is one of the trendiest foods around, guest poster Owl Meat brings us back to earth with his insightful examination of the original version. EL

Don't hurry, puff and wheeze, there's a main dish that's a breeze.
– World War II era radio ad

Times may be tough now, but 1937 was a real downer.  The Hindenburg went kaboom; Amelia Earhart lost her luggage; and my great-grandfather hauled a wheelbarrow full of money to the Bergdorfschneider to buy a cardboard belt. 

In these dark times perched upon the brink of the abyss, it would take the ingenuity of a young country with lofty ideals and a robust belief in the transformative power of technology to lead the world into a new era. 

That country was the United States of America, and the clarion blast of hope for the future came in a box – Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. ...

During World War II, sales soared by a factor of ten when the supply of dairy products and meat was rationed.  Luckily German scientists didn't perfect Wienerschnitzel in a Box before the end of the war.

When introduced, it was simply Kraft Dinner and was meant to feed a family of four.  Although it is "the cheesiest," a box provides only 90 percent of the RDA of sodium. 

The variations are legion: Original, Spirals, Shells, Pokemon, Scooby Doo, Spiderman, SpongeBob, Thick 'n Creamy, Three Cheese (LOL), Velveeta, etc.  There is Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Topping (for popcorn) and six kinds of Kraft Mac & Sneeze crackers.  Despite its seven-decade domination, selling two million boxes a day, Kraft bombards us with ads including this unfortunate one.

Thomas Jefferson promoted a primitive version (macaroni and non-powdered cheese) by bringing a macaroni machine back from Europe, inventing a better one, and serving the dish at the White House in 1802.  Whatever.  This is an icon of American food in its primitive natural form and in the Nazi-killing rattling box of freedom version. 

In college I wrote a short story about a student in a writing class who was so aggravated with the boring people in his class that he fantasizes about murdering them.  While they didn't object to the fictional violence against themselves, they did take issue with a character in the story doing violence against a sacred American icon -- mac 'n cheese.
The objection: Who would make macaroni and cheese with hot dogs and hot sauce?

That's college gourmet.  I was so broke in college that I rarely had milk or butter, so I substituted water and olive oil, settling for store brand or ... worse.  I continued to buy the cheapest version and make it college style until recently, when I gave myself permission to get my cheez on properly. 
In Panama there were bright yellow 55 gallon drums scattered around Panama City with QUESO stamped in black letters on them.  I don't know what their purpose was, but I think it's somehow related to today's topic. 
So now I'm an adult with varied and refined tastes.  Thus I ask the question – what wine goes with Kraft Macaroni & Cheese? 

I assembled a symposium to explore the question.  I invited gal pals Kiki, Kimmer and her roommate Katya (just to round out the hard consonants) to the Owl's Nest for wine and cheez.  Kiki brought her dog Monkey and some wine.  Kimmer was late, but brought a nice Cava and some Lithuanian hip hop CDs.  Katya brought her charming Russian accent and the wide-eyed wonderment of what iz dees mackencheez? 

We tested a Montepulciano, Rioja, Pinot Noir, Côtes du Rhône and a Cabernet blend that Kimmer's neighbor makes in his basement.  After many tastings the unclear winner was the Montepulciano. 

Thai Extra Pedas Sambal sauce was the best condiment, beating ketchup, sriracha, Tabasco, sweet chili sauce and salsa.   In the end it degenerated into an exercise in entropy with Katya busting out a bottle of unlabelled Russian vodka with mysterious herbs in it.  She introduced us to a drinking game possibly called tajinki that involved dice, a fork and questionable judgment.  
In my experience people have specific preferences and rituals involving the blue box of surreally colored vaguely futuristic comfort food.  Some use a fork, some a spoon.  Some like it soupy and others gluey.  I clearly have no respect for the instructions and dabble with any number of spices and condiments.  The weirdest version that I heard about was with cinnamon and sugar.  Oh, the humanity.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 2:30 PM | | Comments (43)


Norm that sits next to me at work says that's the best Funtastic Thursday yet.

Bravo, OMG. You've brought back many memories, not all of them pleasant. I was too poor as a student to afford anything but the really weird brands from the dollar stores. After too many migraines attributed to the fun chemicals and enormous loads of salt compressed into that Day-Glo orange powder, I swore off packaged mac-n-cheez for years. Instead I lived on sandwiches made from canned chocolate frosting smeared on plain unsalted "wheat" crackers topped with dried prunes. All major food groups including fiber, but excluding alcohol, were covered.

If I could have afforded it, I bet the Montepulciano would have tasted best with the frosting sandwiches as well. It complements many dishes and is often overlooked.

Also, did you know that Velveeta-N-Mac is not as good as the Original Kraft?

It's really all about the cheese and what combinations of cheeses you use. I would love to try a recipe that included feta!

Thanks Hal. It sounded like a quick post to write but I went crazy on research and wrote too much. I realized that I could probably write a small book. Luckily I finshed it before hearing the bad news yesterday after which I was a mess.

Michael, my girlfriend makes this recipe. It's one of the most insanely delicious things I've ever eaten.

Everyone loves a mac and cheez.

That glo-orange powder is like crack.

Did I hear something about lobster macaroni and cheese somwehere? So where are the gourmet macaroni and cheese dishes? I'm not familiar with any

there's no link there jon parker

I fixed it. Don't forget to use the preview function to make sure your links work before you post. EL

It is still called Kraft Dinner in Canada, no matter the brand.

I don't like it. I prefer the offest of off-brand Kraft Dinner and I mix in Aleppo pepper.

Hmm..that has to be some kind of gourmet miscegenation, come to think of it.

Thanks Owl.

I didn't know it was originally called "Kraft Dinner". Growing up, meatcakes and Kraft Dinner were a staple at the house. The meatcakes were pretty much ground beef with some onion mixed in (and other spices) cooked in a cast-iron frying pan. Served with some brown gravy on top. Simple, but we loved it then. My oldest brother still eats that meal.

Back in my school days, I seem to remember a mac-n-cheese that came in a cup, like cup-a-noodles. I ate that stuff a lot.

I usually mix a little dijon mustard, mayo and hot sauce into my mac and cheese.

I usually mix a little dijon mustard, mayo and hot sauce into my mac and cheese.

Oh the humanity!

It was ketchup for me growing up. Hot sauce later. And most recently a foundation of black pepper, cayenne and then sriracha or crazy herbapalooza from curry to who knows. It's basically a blank canvas for flavor painting.

I like to add cut up hard boiled egg to mine and then eat it with chicken wings. Washed down with Starbucks coffee.

I want to like rooster sauce (sriracha), but it is too sweet.

The chilli garlic past by the same company, though...that is wonderful stuff, on Kraft Dinner, on tortillas, on sandwiches, on ice cream...

I think mac n cheez was probably the first and only stove top meal that I made for myself when I was a teenager. I vaguely remember making it or possibly helping. Microwaving stuff doesn't count.

I never make the end product in the pot, but rather in a bowl (same with oatmeal). Easier to clean up. Of course you could just eat out of the pot, but that's just plain desperate.

For the record I like it soupy and spicy like a low rent cheese soup with pasta. When I lower my standards it can get ugly


Yes, I've seen Lobster Mac N' Cheese at a few places. My personal favorite is at Mustang Alleys on the corner of Bank ond Central.

The Wine Market has also has an excellent baked Mac N' Cheese, no lobster. But no discussion of Mac N' Cheese is complete without a deep bow and heartfelt thanks to the guy at Jack's Bistro in Canton who decided to top it with shaved chocolate, thereby creating an obession in a small cup.

But for quick comfort food, its the blue box, double butter, and no milk. Mix in whatever canned veggies you have around just to feel less guilty.

For the record, Marion, who doesn't comment here much, makes the second best mac and cheese I've ever had. Right after my girlfriend's. Unfortunately the recipe is a family secret.

With hard boiled eggs and chicken wings? Sounds great – to throw against the wal! Eee eee eee! Maybe add some rare bacon and kim chi. Mmmmm....

secret recipes on a blog, well that just don't work

Not all sriracha is the same. The ubiquitous rooster brand (huong foy?) is harsh compared to some Thai-made brands. Rooster is made in the US and is considered non-traditional by Thais, but cheaper.

Yin Yankee in Annapolis does or at least did a lobster mac and cheese. It is good, but I find the combination to be a case where the sum is less than the parts. Now, sausage and mac and cheese, well that's near close to a perfect marriage.

Thanks Jon! My Aunt Dean developed the recipe and entrusted me with it. She no longer makes it as she is almost 80. My mac & cheese seems to be more and more in demand. At the last work pot luck my boss demanded that I make mac & cheese. I'm hoping my secret mac & cheese recipe might ensure job security. :-)

Marion--you just stick to your guns, and keep that recipe secret! In this economy, we all need every advantage we can get!

OMG, that "Hot for Cheese" ad was indeed "unfortunate"--and that's putting it kindly.

There is also the "hookup", which consists of 1 pkg of Ramen noodles, 1 can of tuna, and 1 hard boiled egg. Mix all ingredients and enjoy.

I haven't got a mac 'n' cheese recipe with feta cheese, but I do have 2 with blue cheese, one with Gorgonzola, and one with chipotle chilies. Let me know if you (or anyone else) is interested and I'll post one or all.

I kind of make up my mac and cheese as I go. I like to use something like cheddar and gruyare for the contrast of flavors but have used havarti (the havarti with hots is interesting) and even brie. I just basically cook the roux (blonde), add onions until transparent, mix in milk and cheese - no amounts just til they're mixed and season with tabasco, salt, pepper and fresh nutmeg. I can't explain why but the nutmeg really adds something.

At any rate, I mix the cheese and mac together and bake about 15 minutes in a 350 oven and then add some shredded cheese on top to melt. It's never not come out.

I used to use buttered breadcrumbs too but the kid hates that. He actually prefers Kraft. sigh.

SoBo Cafe in Federal Hill makes amazing mac & cheese. I make it for my family on every holiday. It is a heart attack in a giant pan of gooey goodness! Instead of just cheddar, I grate in all kinds of cheeses -- fontina, smoked gouda ... yum. Here's a link to it:

Yummy mac-n-cheese additions include: sliced hot dogs, tuna fish, peas, ketchup. Of course, not at once. You have to mix and match. For instance, peas and tuna, hot dogs and ketchup, peas and ketchup... but NEVER hot dogs and tuna.

Thanks for bringing up mac n cheese. Just had this discussion in the office this morning. We were reminiscing over childhood Good Friday dinners of fish sticks and mac n cheese. Now there's a combo..

I'll be having Riso Bello brand four cheese ready risotto with my sauteed fish and steamed asparagus this evening.

I forgot to add my favorite story. When I was living in St. Thomas, I was at an informal dinner with the Governor of VI. He spoke of the magnicent native foods of the island: oxtail something, fried plantains, and macaroni and cheese. Yes, he claimed macaroni and cheese as a Virgin Islands invention. I think not.

The cheez-n-mac pictured looks either like cheesy intestines or cheese-dipped maggots, which would fit in quite well with the rest of the photo.

Equinox in D.C. has a wonderful truffled mac-n-cheese.

LEC, that sounds delicous, especially the steamed asparagus! I am so ready for spring veggies!

I think we need to discuss ramen soon.

Don't you think that there's something absolutely perfect about the shape, size and texture of the macaroni itself? Come on, macaroni and ziti just doesn't cut it' You really don't need to chew them. It's a return to infantile pleasure without the diapers, at least for me. No other pasta shape comes close.

Why are people talking about shaving monkeys here? There is clearly some hidden code.

shells, Owl! Love the regular sized shells (as opposed to the gargantuan sized for stuffed shells). I just love how they nest inside of each other giving you that al dente treat of smashing down on 2 shells at once.

Lissa, funny, I just mentioned ramen on another post. But, ramen with asapargus is sounding really good!

Late to the party again! It was hard to get past the illustration to read the rest of the post. The shirt is all wrong. First, no collar points. The white tab should fit neatly into a tunnel collar. Second, no buttons should be showing. When the standard clerical dress was established in the Victorian era, the rules dictating propriety had less to do about what showed and more to do with the temptation of access. Buttons equal access, ergo proper clergy would limit the temptation by having the buttons covered by a vest front, or in the modern age a flap covering the buttons. There is a liturgical garment purveyor in England who still markets a pointed collar shirt for those who wish to quickly become anonymous, but none of my friends would dare own one.

MD Canon - you didn't comment on the fact that he is giving us all the fire finger. What about that??

Uh, and most priests don't stand in flames and summon forth the Cheeze. Yeah his outfit looked wrong to me too.

Someone asked me what the photo meant? Meaning? Uhhh... well first of all photoshopping or animating for the post is my favorite part. What does it mean? I don't know, it's like an image poem. Next week: two new mascots join the League of Raptorous Gentlemen. I'm almost done with it.

I know what it means. Look where the mac and cheese is.

I am limited to royalty free images and Getty is a great source but not that great. This "priest" had puny flames coming from his hands, but I added better flames and feet flames. Basically, a photo of mac and cheese just isn't very exciting on Funtastic Thursday. Who wants Realistic Thursday? Not me.

Freud, Sometimes a plate of macaroni and cheese is just a plate of macaroni and cheese.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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