Pop Quiz: What’s your favorite comfort food? How many of you said, “Mac and cheese”?
I might be the only person in North America for whom macaroni and cheese is not a fond childhood memory. My mother’s mac and cheese was the worst! Somehow she missed the recipe where you fold shredded cheddar into a classic white sauce (no one called it béchamel in my neighborhood.) Instead, my mom poured milk directly over cooked elbow noodles, tossed on a scoop of flour, dropped in some cubed-up Velveeta, dusted the top with bread crumbs, dotted it with butter and popped it in the oven. There, everything, inevitably, curdled. Milk and flour, far from blending on their own, instead, coagulated. Velveeta turned to runny, orange pockets of cheesy goo. The bread crumbs became a tough crust. It was truly terrible. On a positive note, my mom preferred to cook “fresh” and was seldom tempted to buy commercially prepared foods, such as Kraft Dinner. So while other kids on our street were scarfing down their smooth, creamy, cheesy KD in front of "The Jetsons” on TV, I was choking down “homemade” at the kitchen table. Ketchup, in this instance, was a godsend – and counted as a serving of vegetables!
Mom did, however, make her own version of spaghetti that has become my guilty pleasure in adulthood. To a potful of spaghetti noodles, she added one tin of undiluted Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup and a cup of grated cheddar. Maybe some dried onion bits on gourmet nights. I was all grown up before I even heard of ragu or bolognese. Spaghetti sauce at our house was tomato soup. But I’ll tell ‘ya, if it weren’t for Weight Watchers, I’d be eating this once a week.
Come to think of it, mother made some really odd meals featuring ground beef. My dad called this one “Ground Beef Number One:” Into a banged up old pot that wobbled on the stove of its own accord when the heat was turned on, mom plopped a pound of ground beef, dried onion bits, chopped carrots and a dash of salt, added water to cover and let ‘er boil for a half hour. This was served over either the omnipresent mashed potatoes that I detested, or a thick slab of white bread. It actually tasted surprisingly good, and probably would have made an apt choice for an invalid’s diet, minus the onion bits. Certainly a person did not need teeth to eat it.
“Ground Beef Number Two:” This was a mixture of ground beef browned in a frying pan to which mother added Minute Rice, the ubiquitous onion bits and a can of tomato soup. This simmered for a half an hour or so. Also surprisingly not bad and for me it was a bonus because it wasn’t served with mashed potatoes. Neither of these recipes has made it to my kitchen, however.
To be fair, just about any casserole is better for the addition of Campbell’s soup. I marked the autumn equinox last week by putting a casserole in the oven. One of those “family-only” dishes that you’d never let on to your friends you actually make. Elbow macaroni, ground beef, grated cheddar, green peppers, onions, zucchini, dill pickles and a can of cream of mushroom. Mm, mm, good. C’mon, admit it. You probably have something similar in your repertoire as well.
At this time of year, I am really happy to get back to cooking fall and winter dishes. I find it nice to abandon the grill for the season. It gives me a cozy, snug feeling to braise or roast something, or make soup instead of salad, or assemble a rich, creamy risotto or pasta dish. It’s like wearing a sweater on the first cool evening of September, or putting the duvet on the bed again. Comforting, you know?
I’d love to hear about your favorite childhood foods. Or was your childhood home similar to mine? Did you grow up in a homey atmosphere of comfort food or in a culinary house of horrors?
p.s. my mother more than made up for the mac and cheese by being an awesome baker of pies, cookies and what Winnipeggers call “slices.”