Proust’s Madeleine, But for People Who Grew Up With a Single Dad
Yesterday I made boxed macaroni and cheese. I haven’t made it in a long time, because one of the gifts I got for my 30th birthday was lactose tolerance, but I found a company that makes goat cheese macaroni and cheese that is actually quite good and easier on my nervous Jewish stomach. I mixed in some veggies, because I’m nearly 32 but still need to trick myself to eating vegetables sometimes, and had it for lunch.
But then I did the thing I think makes it best: put it in the fridge, so it could be reheated today. There are few things that taste more like comfort than reheated-in-the-microwave boxed macaroni and cheese.
I honestly think it tastes better that way. I know it sounds gross, but you have to keep in mind how I grew up. After my mother died, my single father had to find a way to feed five kids while also working a demanding job. Neither of my parents had been much for cooking, to begin with — they did like baking, and my dad still makes the best homemade bread ever, but five kids can’t live on bread alone. My dad had to think quickly, and in large quantities. Quality control kind of went out the window: meals were all about what was inexpensive and fast, what would last in the fridge and not taste terrible reheated the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that, unless some of the teenage sons’ friends came over and raided the fridge after school, which they usually did.
Sometimes people will tell me of their food memories, of the thing that sends them into a Proust-ian flood of memories, of their dad’s bolognese or their mom’s curry and how it was the best thing in the world and how they wish they could make it themselves. When they do, I’ll nod politely but say nothing, because I can’t relate. My relationship with food has always been practical. That’s not to say it hasn’t been sentimental, it’s just that the things that make me very sentimental are not the things that one might think.
I don’t know many people who were also raised by single fathers. For those who were (at least, those who also came from a white suburban lower-middle class background), let’s consider these our food memories.
Bisquick pancakes — Brunch for dinner? The perfect idea. Eggs are easy to scramble, turkey bacon can be made in a microwave, and it still feels like a novelty to a kid. Eat it in your pajamas and giggle about how you’re breaking routine.
Chili — I have not eaten chili in over a year, and it’s still probably the food I’ve eaten more than anything else in my life. It was my Dad’s favorite to make, and one of the easiest.
Spaghetti — With sauce out of a jar. I had no idea how people made their own pasta sauce until high school.
Spaghetti with chili on top — Best of both worlds! Served with lumpy Bisquick biscuits, of course.
Reheated boxed macaroni and cheese — The only thing better was when Dad had some time to bake it in the oven with little bread crumbs on top. But that was for special occasions, like birthdays and holidays.
Reheated delivery pizza — Once my dad left us money for pizza and my brother Jon called for pizza at one place and my brother Joel called for another, neither knowing of the other’s intentions. We ended up with something like four or five pizzas, and my dad ended up with no change.
Eleven soft tacos from Taco Bell — OK, this just happened the one time, and once again, it was a mistake on my brother’s part: he passed around a paper to take an order, I wrote down two in tally marks, and he misread it. He came home with a huge bag full of cheap tacos. We all laughed, but this being a family of three teenage and preteen boys, they were gone pretty fast.
Campbell’s Soup, served out of the giant family size cans —A day’s sodium in every bite, especially when you add mountains of saltines to it, as I would.
Stouffer’s, endless amounts of Stouffer’s —Two days’ sodium in one bite! I was always angry when my dad made this instead of the good macaroni and cheese.
Country Crock — We had butter, too, but it wasn’t really because we needed the Country Crock. It was so we could eat…
Something that wasn’t Country Crock, leftover, served out of the Country Crock container — Nine times out of ten? Chili.
Homemade pizza made from Bisquick dough, jarred tomato sauce, and cheddar cheese — Maybe some “Cinderella” cheese, too, as I used to call it.
Goldfish crackers — Never poured into a bowl, but grabbed in tiny handfuls from one of those seemingly endless family-size cartons from Smart and Final.
Cheerios and milk, drank out of a cup — Because you’ve got to have a snack while you’re doing your homework in front of the TV, right?
The bagged Malt-o-Meal cereals — Always called something like “Coco Rounds” or “Fruit Rings” or something like that. We ate so much cereal and milk in our house that at one time we were going through a gallon of milk a day. My dad would have to scope out the places it was cheapest (usually 7-11, interestingly) and bring home multiple gallons on his drive home from work every day.
Cream of Wheat — I can feel my iron levels go up just thinking about it.
The ice cream that comes in clear plastic buckets — I could write a book on this stuff. And yes, it is “stuff,” a “frozen dairy dessert” and not “ice cream,” as you will see in the picture. All the flavors taste the same, even when it’s neapolitan and you were supposed to be getting three flavors in one. (Moses Storm has a great bit about growing up poor and only being able to eat the bucket ice cream. Oh, the things you could do with those buckets!)
Milkshakes made with the ice cream that came in buckets — The only way to make that stuff taste good! My dad’s milkshakes were somehow always fantastic, he might as well have been an alchemist.
Slightly freezer burned ice cream sandwiches — They haven’t expired yet, they’ve just been in the back for a while, they’re still good!
Moose Tracks ice cream — One of my brothers discovered this at college and brought it back to us when he came home. Since we only had it when he visited, we thought it was very fancy, and would sit around eating massive bowls of the stuff while listening to Fastball’s “The Way” and “Fire Escape.”
Betty Crocker’s Cake Mix and Canned Frosting — One of two options for birthdays, the other, of course, being…
Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Cake — Everyone seemed to agree that the best possible combination was mint chocolate chip ice cream and chocolate cake, and with a lot of frosting roses, though one year I had to settle for a white cake with nothing but black frosting. We called it “the funeral cake.” Actually quite fitting for my morose, quasi-goth twelve-year-old self.
Slim-fast — Soylent before soylent!
Smucker’s Goober Grape or Goober Strawberry — They say it’s a mix of peanut butter and jelly, but it is basically just sugar that you can spread, and we’d have to try to get our babysitter to buy it in secret. We already knew it was a bad thing to eat and our dad wouldn’t approve.
The orange juice that comes in a frozen tube — There was a whole routine: let it thaw a little, dump it into the pitcher, fill it with water from the sink (this was before we knew how bad LA water was) get out the weird potato mashing tool and crush it down, stir and drink. Nevermind that we had actual citrus trees in our backyard, this was what we drank.
Things changed after my father remarried: not only did my stepmother like cooking more than he did, but my new step-uncle was a chef. We’d spend lots of time at our cousins’ house eating food prepared very differently, with time and care, and you could tell it was a relief for my dad. Still, I hope he knows how fondly I think of those years, and how I’ll always think of him when I eat something fast, inexpensive, and in large quantities.
Stuff I Did This Week: SPEAKING OF FOOD! I had the honor of being on Christy’s Kitchen Throwback, an amazing and adorable cooking show on Youtube, hosted by Christy Carlson Romano, a.k.a. Kim Possible, Ren from Even Stevens, and a fellow Big Hero 6 villain, Trina! We talked about Matilda and Disney and first kisses and so much more! If you’re feeling nostalgic, want to learn to make a berry tart, or see Christy EAT A BUG, this is the video for you! It’s one of the most fun shows I’ve done in a long time.
Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: Adversary (a crime show that’s been running for something like fifty years)