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In 2015, I left my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama to start my career, make sense of life, and see what the world outside of the deep south has to offer. The most notable difference, aside from accents and geographically rooted slang, was the cuisine. When I lived in Boston, I loved eating fresh catches of the day, followed by bread bowls of clam chowder, and my life-changing first encounter with broccolini. And then there were things I couldn’t grasp, like breadcrumbs on macaroni and cheese.
Macaroni and cheese as I knew it in the south is a magical dish that usually consists of medium-sized elbow noodles paired with fresh condiments, milk, and grated cheese. What comes out of the oven after a few hours of preparation is a thick, almost pudding-like meal that oozes comfort. But “Southern Macaroni and Cheese,” as it is on menus outside of the South, doesn’t look like what I made with my family. Disappointed with the hastily performed presentation in front of me, I would end up criticizing everything, from the thick Cavatpi noodles to the watered down cheddar sauce to the dangerous topping of breadcrumbs or, if bacon, randomly all over the dish. It had not occurred to me that as I left the house I would often come across imitations of the southern experience on the east coast – a blatant misrepresentation of my culture.
The history of macaroni and cheese in America is pretty complicated and is highly controversial. It is believed that Thomas Jefferson, who likely came across the dish of Italian origin on his travels to France, popularized it in the United States by serving it to his wealthy diners. Of course, this narrative obliterates the man who refined the recipe and prepared the dish: the enslaved chef James Hemings, classically trained in France, who deserves credit for the macaroni and cheese that many enjoy today. James Lewis Kraft would later dilute this recipe with a patent for emulsifying and processing cheese, creating what we know as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Kraft Foods introduced its macaroni in boxes in 1937 „when America was in the midst of the Great Depression”. The rationing systems of World War II would popularize the blue box, Mac and cheese, for many, turn into a cheery subsistence meal.
One thing that differentiates southern versions of macaroni and cheese from others is the concept of intentionality. No matter where you’re from, my family’s recipe could be pretty similar to yours – but what makes the end product different is the purpose of our approach. The making of our mac and cheese was an all-hand-on-deck process and initially involved isolating ingredients, utensils, and kitchen utensils. Some of us were responsible for handing over the ingredients; someone else might stir the brew (the most coveted role); someone else could be responsible for the seasoning, and so on and so on.
Our Macaroni and cheese are made from small to medium-sized elbow noodles (nothing larger) and carefully seasoned milk, spices such as black pepper, ground yellow mustard, prika, and salt, heated together in a saucepan. As the milk warms up, someone starts grating blocks of cheese (everything from Gouda, Cheddar, Colby Jack, Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack), bits of each block falling into different hes. In another small pan, melt a blob or slice of butter and quickly stir in the flour, creating a roux. As kids, when we were old enough, one of us would take the warmed milk and slowly add it to the roux and keep mixing until it blends seamlessly. More butter is introduced along with some of the grated cheeses; the rest is slowly folded up with a long wooden or plastic spoon. An egg is then tempered with the sauce; Eggs are great binders and are incorporated to hold the macaroni and cheese together.
As soon as the pasta is between al dente and soft, a member of our kitchen crew hands our chef a large casserole dish, which lines the base with it. One of us excitedly starts pouring the cheesy roux to make sure it covers that first layer of pasta. Another of us, or whoever is closest, takes the remains of the grated cheese and crumbles them over the pasta and roux. We would all repeat this step until there was no more room in the bowl; the last layer is always grated cheese. The chef puts the dish in the oven at 350 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes, until it is golden brown on top.
The southern macaroni and cheese that I know involve an almost sacred dance between cook and ingredient; we bring generosity to preparation. This preparation was born out of our need to survive, to outlast the rooms we were forced to live in and small crops that left our pantries empty. My intentions in making mac and cheese are inextricably linked to the barely legible and hastily written generational rituals that were passed down to me. These rituals combine a painful past with a future that I and others can now enjoy more freely. As simple as it seems, my family’s macaroni and cheese recipe deepens my connection to a story that I can only imagine and relive in books and monuments in an earth that has not always been as forgiving as the future. By being conscious of every ingredient, of our cooking and preparation, I / we honor our southern heritage and those who came before us.
In the south we heal, forge fellowship; I grew up learning to tell stories through my family’s recipes. „The food of the south is a living record of the people, places and cultures that contributed to the development of our unique little corner of the world,” writes Angela Garrison Zontek in Due south. „Too complex and varied to ever write a coherent story of origin, the history of southern cuisine is best explored in terms of its main influences – the integration of cultures, natural abundance and love for community.” Meal cooking serves not just cooking, but also preserving the culture. This is evident throughout the South, particularly in black and indigenous communities, and has been a notable trend for centuries in movements like the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, the National Black Food & Justice Alliance, and many others like them.
After living in Boston; Manchester, New Hampshire; Takoma Park, Maryland; Washington, DC; and now Chicago, since leaving my hometown, I’ve noticed a lot of misrepresentation and exploitation of the South and its culture. This is to be expected as the south has a dark past. Still refusing to unpack the complicated history of the region, once a Confederate sanctuary and haven for slavery, instead trudge through its more redeeming qualities like cuisine. Instead of honoring the heritage of the south, the region is being robbed in parts by outsiders and presented as a commodity elsewhere. In an interview with NPR, John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Pers: A Food History of the Modern South, reflects on how popularizing foods from certain regions can ruin the integrity, culture, and even the intent behind a food: “If we want to canonize fried chicken on the list of great American dishes, then we canonize too [Georgia] Gilmore, a great roast chicken cook from Montgomery, Alabama who used the talents of the stove to drive change in our region. „
But one thing that isn’t complicated is that southern eating is at its core a conscious art form, much like the oral traditions of our ancestors, much like the sweet and savory recipes that are passed down from generation to generation. That is not to say that we cannot change what is written, reinvent our history to rewrite the future; Instead, it means that we remain passionate in our practice; To protect the core of our being, even if it means questioning those who only see our breadth in the form of Che noodles, cheese powder and water.
And Beela Washington is an Alabama-raised editor, poet, and aspiring art collector. Chelsea Akpan is a freelance cartoonist who brings bold colors and exaggerated shes together to create distinctive and playful works.