Neither cinnamon nor cumin, peppermint nor paprika, were scents often smelt in my kitchen growing up. My mom was never a culinary caper—she worked full-time for most of my childhood—but mostly it was because cooking was something she never really learned how to do. “I just don’t know how to season,” she says.
Mom was the product of a single-parent household, back when the Beaver family was still a model home, but microwave dinners were first en vogue. Her widowed mother worked full-time, so ensuring there was food to eat was more important to her than the preparation, and extravagant cooking for just the two of them was unrealistic. Grandma was the product of the depression, where children were taught to eat what they were served and commodities like eggs and butter and milk were treated like delicacies. It is not surprising that when my mother became the head of the household, homemade cooking was not a priority. It is our family joke that when my sister was a baby, she thought the ding of the microwave meant dinner.
But there was one dish that always warmed our little one-bedroom duplex in Ojai, California, where we lived while I was growing up, and one dish that my mom still makes today, to warm her rustic cabin nestled in the fishing village of Stonington, CT, during blizzards and power outages and whenever I come to visit.
Homemade macaroni and cheese.
This macaroni and cheese is no blue-box-blues, packet-of-cheese, processed concoction. No, this is two blocks of sharp cheddar, one yellow, one white, grated by hand and layered with care. One layer of macaroni, one layer of cheese, splash of cream, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, layer by layer until Italian breadcrumbs are laid to rest on the top. This macaroni and cheese is the kind that you must bake for an hour, so the top layer of cheese gets crispy and the boiling and bubbling juices are visible to hungry, antsy children peeking through the oven window.
My mom’s macaroni and cheese are what family dinners are made of. This is one dish my mom made that my dad always loved. My great-grandmother taught my grandmother how to make it and my grandmother taught my mother and my mother taught my sister and me. The recipe has changed a bit with each chef, but the meal remains a symbol of warmth and family and love. It is an example that “I can’t cook” and “I can’t season” doesn’t mean one cannot make something delicious. It means one parent still means family and is a homage to the microwave’s own parents: the oven.