There were a lot of crappy foods in my childhood meal rotations— cereals with way too much sugar, cheap meats, odd sandwich combinations and frozen dinners— but I never ate macaroni and cheese until I was in my 40s. To this day, I have only eaten mac and cheese a few times.
It’s not because I am a food snob or anything, far from it. I grew up eating a lot of mediocre foodstuffs. In the 1960s, my brother and I ate beanie weenies almost every Sunday night while watching Bonanza or Ed Sullivan. We also ate canned, whop-them-on-the-counter sweet rolls many, many mornings. To this day, those canned sweet rolls are guilty pleasures for both of us.
Our mother used to make mayonnaise and lettuce sandwiches. That’s it, just mayonnaise, lettuce, white bread, and maybe salt and pepper. I don’t know the origin of the mayonnaise and lettuce sandwich, but we were fed them on occasion. I haven’t eaten a mayonnaise and lettuce sandwich in over 50 years. I don’t miss them at all. I can’t think of anything blander than spreading white bread with mayo and finishing it with — the blandest of bland lettuce — iceberg. I can also remember eating white bread sandwiches spread with butter and sugar. It’s not that we didn’t have meat in the house, I think we did, but that was just what we were fed on occasion. When we weren’t eating those sandwiches, I was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I ate them all of the time. With so much peanut butter and jelly in the house, I don’t know why anyone would ever opt for mayo and lettuce or butter and sugar. I still eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The late great New Orleans restaurant matron Ella Brennan once said, “You know why kids love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Because peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are good.”
It seems that TV dinners were also a big part of our childhood, too. I don’t know what TV dinners are like these days, but in the 1960s they were awful. The potatoes almost had no substance, as if they were made with air — bad air. The peas and carrots were hard, bland and neon-colored. The meats were either soggy fried chicken or overly tough Salisbury steak. There was always a dessert in there, too, though it always smelled and tasted like the chicken or beef.
We ate Hamburger Helper and all manner of crummy food, but we never ate mac and cheese. I don’t know why. All of my friends ate it, but my mother never bought it. Maybe mac and cheese was an item in which she chose to plant her flag and take her stand.
I eat a lot of pasta these days. I own an Italian restaurant. and it comes with the territory. Before the year is out, I will have spent two months in Italy. Pasta is almost a required foodstuff over there. Though, whether through the restaurant or the trips to Italy, mac and cheese won’t be on the agenda.
Save the emails. I get it. You love mac and cheese. I’m not saying mac and cheese is bad, or that I am above eating mac and cheese. Not at all. Far from it. I’m not above eating anything. If you know me, you know that. I’m just saying we never ate mac and cheese.
We do serve upgraded versions of mac and cheese at a couple of our restaurants— one with lobster and one with crawfish. Those are wildly popular dishes at our restaurants. We also serve several upscale versions of mac and cheese when we cater events. Mac and cheese are as American as, well, as mac and cheese.
Our restaurant, The Midtowner, is a breakfast and lunch-only spot. Except on Friday and Saturday nights when we turn it into a catfish house, and serve thin-fried catfish, all of the typical fixin’s, and family-style passed vegetables, such as fried okra, baked beans, and collard greens. On Saturday nights we add mac and cheese to the passed-vegetable mix. People love it.
One of the biggest culinary mistakes I ever made was with mac and cheese. My second book was a book that included southern staples and deep south comfort food. I needed a good homemade mac and cheese recipe, but mac and cheese was something — at that time — I had never eaten. I turned that recipe development over to one of my chefs. She came up with a very good recipe. The problem came when my secretary was transcribing the recipe. She listed “condensed” milk in the recipe instead of “evaporated” milk. That’s right, condensed milk, as in sweetened condensed milk. Folks, if you want truly awful mac and cheese, make it with sweetened condensed milk. Unfortunately, no one caught the mistake and it made it into the first printing of the book.
I had corrected it by the second printing, but there were still 10,000 books out there that used sweetened condensed milk in the cheese sauce. People were furious. I received several calls and emails, and I deserved every one of them.
One night we were hosting a church group at our home. It was a group of parents and they were all bringing their children. I had the chefs at the restaurant make most of the food I was going to serve that night. For the kids, I told one of the chefs, “Just make the mac and cheese out of the second book.” Unfortunately, the copy that was in the restaurant office was one of the first editions that I hadn’t corrected.
The parents pumped the dinner up in the kid’s minds. “We’re going over to Mr. St. John’s house. You know he owns all of those restaurants. You’re going to have a very special dinner tonight!” Special? Not really. Memorable? Most definitely, and in all of the bad ways.
About midway through the grownups' dinner I walked into the breakfast room where the kids' table was and expected to bask in the glow of adulating children with full bellies and glowing reviews. What ensued was nothing short of a food riot. Seriously, little kids can be brutally honest. Had they been armed with pellet guns I would have been toast. As it was, I was fortunate that I got out of there without someone throwing a plate at me.
So, what did we learn here today, kids? There’s nothing you can do to a mayonnaise and lettuce sandwich to make it legit. Sugar and butter on a sandwich are no way to treat two pieces of bread. Never serve kids TV dinners unless they’ve done something horribly wrong and you’re punishing them. You’re typically better off eating the TV instead of the TV dinner. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches rock. And never — I repeat, never — use sweetened condensed milk in your mac and cheese.
1 tsp Bacon grease (or canola oil)
1 cup Onion, minced
2 cups Half and half
1-1/2 oz can evaporated milk
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup Flour
2 tsp Salt
1 tsp white pepper
12 oz Velveeta cut into large chunks
8 oz Sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 pound Elbow macaroni
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Heat the bacon grease in a two-quart saucepot over low heat. Cook onion five to six minutes, then add half and half and condensed milk into saucepot. Bring to a simmer. In a separate skillet, melt butter and stir in flour to make a roux. Cook until the roux becomes light blond and add to milk mixture. Cook for six to seven minutes on low, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and fold in Velveeta, cheddar cheese, pepper and salt. Stir until cheeses are melted.
While you are preparing the sauce, bring six quarts of water to a boil. Add one tablespoon salt and cook macaroni to just tender. Drain and fold macaroni into cheese mixture. Place in a two-quart baking dish and bake for 25 minutes. Yield: 5-8 portions.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restaurateur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.