I remember making macaroni & cheese for the first time when I was 24. It took two boxes of elbow pasta, a large brick of cheddar cheese, 2 cups of whole milk, and a whole lot of determination… and waiting. The waiting was the hardest part, because I wasn’t sure if it would turn out okay, if all of that hard work would result in something that might possibly resemble the mac & cheese I had eaten as a child.
Some of my earliest memories were of my mother at the kitchen counter, making cold mac & cheese. By cold I mean she would mix all the ingredients up in a large bowl while I stood nearby begging for a piece of cheese from the collection of cut cheddar blocks on the plastic board just out of my reach. She would smile down at me, though, and give me the smallest block most times, a morsel I would savor long enough to swallow it, and then go back to my plaintive, hound dog expression.
The oven would be hot by then, having taken its time heating up while she mixed the ingredients. She would then pour the mixture into the one rectangular pan we owned, leaving a small bit in the large bowl. While the rest of the dish was browning up properly under the searing heat, she would dish out equal portions of what she had saved into two bowls for me and my sister, who always came running in at the last second to scoop up her bowl and disappear again. I would take my portion reverentially, transporting it carefully to the scarred dining room table to enjoy its succulence there, in private.
Soon thereafter the smells of My Thanksgiving would float out to me from our small kitchen. I called it My Thanksgiving because it was all I would ever eat for Thanksgiving, a huge dish of mac & cheese straight from my mama’s oven. Then I always went back for second helpings. It always tasted like heaven, and I knew I could never tire of eating it, even if it were for every single meal from then until eternity. But things change, and I moved, and the times I got to eat my mother’s mac & cheese became few and far between.
So when I opened the oven to extract my first attempt at recreating some of the best moments of my childhood it was with a mind-numbing combination of apprehension and hope. I half-expected my sister to come running from 800 miles away to grab her bowl and disappear back into the mists of distance and time. But she didn’t show up. No one did. Because I had made my first dish of macaroni & cheese for one. And as I set it on the counter it didn’t smell the same. And when I took a spoon and tested it, it didn’t taste the same.
That’s when I finally stopped listening for the sound of running feet, when I realized that it was never about the food itself, no matter how much I loved it. It was always about a feeling that could never be recreated, because it was steeped in time and a nostalgia that will never go away, and that can never be fulfilled. Except through memory.