It’s one of the true ironies of life — the older we get, the more we try to embrace our younger selves.
We crave the foods of our childhood. It could be a lobster roll of our past Cape Cod summers, or the tomato soup Mom made when we came in from snow play.
We grab and then enjoy wholeheartedly simpler pleasures without a care for scrutiny or deadlines. Who cares if you eat ice cream for lunch, or stay up all night watching an I Love Lucy marathon? Who’s going to say a word?
We live in the moment, completely focused on the here and now directly in front of us. We remember what it feels like to not be in the clutches of either the memories of the past or the worries of the future. We go with it.
And, when you are dying, as is the case of L. on my Meals on Wheels route, and you know your time is about to be up, I suggest that this is even more so. That sand is speeding up in its downwards trickle through the hour glass, and perhaps she can even feel the life force draining out of her. Drip. Drip.
Life is no longer an open-ended question; all that’s left is a sentence almost fully finished and articulated, with only space for a few words left, and then the inevitable punctuation. Period. That’s it.
I visited L. last Friday and I was shocked to see her in her present condition. Just two weeks before, she was weak but ambulatory. Her color good, her eyes clear, and her speech perfect.
This time, however, she was in a hospital bed in her living room, and she said that a hospice worker had just left.
I held her hand, and we chatted for a few minutes. Afterwards, I asked her what I could cook for her. What was not said but not understood was, okay, we all know we’re in the end game now. Tell me what you miss. Tell me what you crave. Tell me. Let me help you, ease your way.
Thinking back on it, I see that I was being selfish — I was asking her to help me to feel useful, to assist me in being able to justify my own good health, and enable me to walk out without breaking down. Please give me something other than your upcoming death to think about.
Macaroni and cheese, she told me finally.
Okay, I thought. You’ve given me something I can work with, something I can do.
Interestingly enough, I had just had a conversation the day before about this same dish.
Angie, a Mom I know from school and an obviously proficient cook in her own right, told me recently that mac and cheese was one of the few foods she struggled with cooking as it always ended up tasting flat when she made it. So her comments and the need to do it really do it right this time for L., made me give it extra thought.
And so I bring to you,
5 Steps for the Best Macaroni and Cheese:
1. Take the time out to make a quick bechamel. It only takes a few minutes to do, and it will give the pasta that creaminess and yielding quality that is the hallmark of a great casserole.
2. Go for a noodle that’s small enough that you can get perhaps a few pieces on a fork at a time. I like shells or mini penne like those below; I know the elbow shape is traditional but it looks too much like the boxed stuff (which, sadly, my kids also like) and I want that visual separation. If it’s homemade, it should look it.
3. Aim for a blend of cheeses — good melters mostly with varying amounts of tang or sharpness. I think the problem with most inferior mac and cheese dishes is they’re made with just the wallflowers of the cheese world: mild cheddar, jack and/or mozzarella. Pasta has little flavor so all you are left with is fat without a punch. Pablum.
Instead, mix it up. I like adding at least four different kinds. In yesterday’s version, I added (from top left clockwise): smoked Gouda, aged sharp Cheddar, grated Mozzarella, and grated Reggiano Parmesan. Together they really delivered a complex and rounded cheese flavor.
Other times I have added truffled cheese, or gorgonzola, or Brie, or smoked Jack, and they’ve all contributed to making the final dish a standout. For 1 pound of dry pasta, I usually do about 8-10 oz. of my melters swirled into my bechamel with a couple handfuls of grated cheese tossed in with the pasta.
4. Salt and season to the hilt. I liberally salt the cooked pasta (just shy of how I’d eat it straight out of the pot) and I add lots of garlic — both fresh minced garlic to the butter in the bechamel and powdered garlic to the cooked dish. This hit of allium really gives it a depth of flavor. Besides, what’s more comforting than garlic fresh from a warm butter bath? I don’t care what anyone says — garlic is Viagra for your appetite; just a little and you can continue enjoying yourself for hours.
5. Consider the last jolt of flavor or texture; in most cases, I will add something chopped atop for tasty intrigue. I wanted L.’s to be a purist version (and perhaps closest to that of a childhood memory), but usually I add a bit of chopped basil, toasted panko bread crumbs, or even almonds on top of my finished dish.
My kids still talk about the time I took a giant casserole of mac to a party, oozy with smoked Mozzarella and Pecorino and topped off with a pound of fresh bacon crumbles on it (bacon topped mac? Those were some lucky SOB’s.)
L. wasn’t entirely lucid. Her face came alive when she saw the plant, and when I told her that I had her mac and cheese with me, she asked me to bring it over to the bed. I walked over, the still-warm dish balanced carefully in my hands.
“Come closer,” she asked weakly. “I want to smell it.”
I brought it up inches from her nose, and for a good ten seconds she inhaled deeply with her eyes closed. She smiled. I slowly took it away and brought it to the kitchen for later use.
A friend who was visiting her just then took this moment of privacy to tell me that the last week had been rough. She had wet the bed the night before and had woken up mortified. As she recounted the heartbreaking details, her husband paced in the corner like a caged fox. He’s a handsome man, but I noticed the bad shaving job, the spots that had been chafed raw while others patches of stubble clearly overlooked. He looked like he wanted to climb out of his skin.
The friend and I returned to her side. The rest of the conversation was awkward; she clearly was heavily medicated, her words a little slurry. She wanted to know where I was from, how long I had lived in Portland. She had trouble remembering her own birthplace.
Sensing that our time was coming to a close for the day, I asked her for new marching orders.
“What next should I bring you? What else are you craving?”
She looked confused, as if summoning her preferences was insurmountable at the moment.
Her dear friend was ready to fill in the awkward silence. “Mushroom soup, doll. Remember — you love it.” L. broke out in a big smile. “Yessssssssss.”
Her friend had another suggestion. “And pie. You never pass it up.” Her friend looked over me and we locked eyes. “Pie. Thanks — that would be great.”
She was teary, I was teary, and I wanted to leave before I lost it. The caged fox emerged from the tiny kitchen, thanked me for the visit, picked up the phone, and returned to the kitchen ostensibly to make a private call.
Her friend told L. they should do manicures that afternoon. Knowing that sleep was elusive for her, I wished her rest.
Pie? Mushroom Soup? Neither are in my wheelhouse, but I will put it out there.
Portlanders, do you have suggestions for me as where best to procure pie or mushroom sauce?Out-of-town readers, do you have a foolproof recipe for either?
If you do, please pass along quickly; a little beauty (in a blue flowered nightie that matches her eyes) is probably at home, watching the tulips outside her window, and waiting for her next treat as we speak.