Rose is a Foodhist. Worship Buddha, Buddhist; worship Food, Foodhist. She made that up, I can’t take credit for it.
“I’ll teach you to make homemade mac and cheese,” she told me. “I just take whatever cheese I’ve got – I clean out my fridge!” Last night she offered some aged smoked gouda to her husband and my bf as they snacked on wasabi peas and $4.99 red table wine from Trader Joe’s (hey, it was from Spain!) and solved the world’s problems. Then, while penne boiled on the stove, Rose brought out more cheese, a plateful, which if I remember correctly consisted of
two blocks of “the expensive shit”
“These didn’t look so good before you got here,” she whispered, “but I just cut all the bad parts off and it’s fine!”
“Oh, I’ll eat it,” I replied, remembering a 9th grade science presentation that mentioned it was ok to cut mold off hard cheeses. What’s cheese without mold, right? Plus, when I’m hungry, I’ve been known to put my immune system to the test.
Into her blue Le Creuset pan: butter and flour, then whole milk. Then, the cheese, shredded, which came out to about a pound. (No, we didn’t weigh it.) Tomatoes and onions, then the pasta. We mixed it all up, covered with grated parmesan, and popped it in the oven.
“Oh wait!” Rose clapped her hands. “I know what we can add!” She grabbed a tin of paprika from a high shelf and instructed me to stick my fingertip in and taste. “It’s smoked,” she said. I tried it. It was hot and tasted faintly of hickory. We took the mac out of the oven and Rose rubbed the red spice from her hands with a sorcerer’s flourish, like this was Fantasia with fromage.
After administering the paprika, Rose seemed content.
As the oven timer ticked away, Rose and I and her sister Marilyn, also there for dinner, went outside and picked tomatoes, plants with names like Sweet 100’s, Ping Pong, and Early Girl. We made salad with homemade vinaigrette. We sliced up collard greens and sauteed them with olive oil, pancetta, and chopped garlic.
When the mac and cheese was done, it was amazing! The parmesan had baked to a crumby perfect crisp, and the cheese-laden penne looked like a pan of sunshine, golden and full of promise. Rose had amended the recipe from a cookbook called The Silver Palate (?) – it was Quattro Formaggio something or other, but at my count we’d used six or seven cheeses, not four. So much the better. “What I love about the way I cook it is I’ll never know exactly how it’ll come out,” she smiled. “It’s like art!” I said. Rose agreed. You go in with an idea, keep taste-testing, and in a way let the work guide you just as much as you it.
The table was set. We started with bowls of romaine, red onion, those sweet 100’s, and little hunks of ripe avocado. We’d finished the Bardolino red stuff, so more cheap wine was in order; Rose’s hubby broke some Smoking Loon chardonnay out of the fridge, and anything featuring water fowl with a cigar in its mouth was totally fine by me and Marcus. The mac and cheese was DIVINE, and the greens proved the best way to intake vitamin A is flavored with bacon. Mmm, yeah. Dessert was homemade strawberry shortcake – the biscuity kind, not the spongy kind – with organic strawberries (both sliced and smushed) and whipped cream. I was full, I was totally muffin-topping, but I ate every. last. bite.
While cooking, Rose and I had talked about the history of macaroni and cheese and greens, their Southern roots well-known, from soul food restaurant to KFC. “Weren’t collard greens sort of a cast away food?” I asked, thinking of tripe and pig’s feet and other things people ate partly because they were the things wanted least and thus the easiest to get. Collard greens are cheap to grow, Rose informed me, and slaves weren’t allowed any meat but salted pork. As for mac and cheese, I already knew pasta and cheddar and milk were all kitchen fundamentals, and anything of the casserole variety practically screamed to be served at a potluck or on a table for a family of four or more.
So though mac and cheese or collard greens might be linked to slaves and not kings, I have to say it fed us in a way not many foods can – I was not only satisfied, but I had to resist the urge to lick up every last bit of cheese sauce and pancetta juice (it’s probably bad guest behavior to molest one’s empty dish in front of the hostess). Some meals make you feel rich, even when you aren’t. Rose’s dinner was magic. Soul food, indeed.