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Introducing The Inaugural Federalist Mac And Cheese Summit

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From: Ben Domenech
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it
First lady: Kids will ‘eventually’ embrace new school lunches
Anyone want to write a quick defense of Kraft Mac and Cheese?
Michelle O: ‘Cheese Dust Is Not Food’


From: D.C. McAllister
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

I don’t know if I could write a defense of Kraft Mac and Cheese because it’s high in calories and sodium. They’ve taken out the artificial dyes, which is good, but it’s nutritional value is rather low. What I could defend is the right to give our kids Kraft Mac and Cheese in moderation–just as they get chocolate cake in moderation or potato chips. The point is that Michele Obama and the federal government has no business telling us what we should eat or what schools should feed kids. A balanced meal is going to have some elements that are not perfect. If you ate Mac and Cheese all the time, that would be unhealthy, but no one is suggesting that for kids. But people do love Mac and Cheese. Just as they like Cocoa Puffs and Pop Tarts. They’re tasty and fun, but they’re not all we eat. We should have the freedom to have not-so-healthy items in our diet. Everything in moderation and without government control is a good thing. Aiming for culinary utopia through government coercion is not.


From: Jayme Metzgar
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Don’t hate me, but I’m kind of with Michelle on this one. I’d put cheese dust in the not-real-food category (although we still eat it on occasion . . . like Denise said, everything in moderation).

Living in West Virginia as I do, I’ve been pretty shocked at people’s unfamiliarity with real food. I kid you not, a few weeks ago I was at Walmart getting a bag of bulk red potatoes, and the checkout girl (approximate age: 20) said “Now, what are these little things?” POTATOES.

I’m pretty fine with Michelle Obama using her cultural platform as first lady to encourage healthier eating. I doubt it’s extremely effective, but hey, go for it. Of course, I would not be okay with any attempt to coerce rather than persuade. But has that been attempted at this point? I mean, there’s the school lunch issue, which may or may not be realistic in its approach and implementation. But if the government is going to be feeding kids at all, is there something wrong with trying to do a less-crappy job of it? Just wondering what the arguments are.


From: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

I feed my kids mac and cheese out of a box and I believe that’s my American duty. All y’all fancy people can go home.


From: Georgi Boorman
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

You can also find a middle ground and add broccoli to the mac n cheese. That’s what I do. I also add carrots to my ramen noodles (yes, I still eat like a college student, and have good reason to).

Also, something we all should remember in the “fight against obesity”, which we fight, ironically, at the same time we’re fighting child hunger, that cost per calorie matters. People who opt more often for low cost per calorie foods like pasta and potatoes to sustain them shouldn’t be chastised by the government. It’s basically criticizing someone for being poor. Or trying to get through college with as little debt as possible.

What you can do instead of trying to get people to not eat macaroni, is instead acknowledge, hey, you should get some low cost high calorie food, but because it’s high in calories, you don’t need to eat as much. The difference in cost can then be made up in vegetables. And yes, frozen veggies are okay!

Has the government caught up on the science that fat isn’t actually bad for you beyond the minimum necessary to keep your hair from falling out? Fats like olive oil are good for you. Bacon can be good for you, too. Fat sustains you–I know because I add extra oil to my muffins to get me through the morning. The healthy whole grain cereal crap is a joke. And high cost for low calories. The low fat stuff is BS; it’s the carbs that get you.


From: Jayme Metzgar
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

TOTALLY with you on that, Georgi. I’m for bacon. And butter. And whole milk and heavy whipping cream. Basically, “try to eat stuff Grandma ate as a kid” is my loose food philosophy. But I’m very budget-strapped too, so I don’t execute it even close to perfectly. I find that the most annoying thing about health guru types. They come across as so all-or-nothing that it seems to discourage people from even trying a few small changes.

As for Michelle Obama, there’s such a fine distinction between her role as social role model and her position within the circle of presidential power . . . is it perhaps impossible for people to see a difference between her admonishments and “government chastisement”? I’m honestly trying to flesh out my opinion on this. I’m the last person who wants government telling people how to live their daily lives. But I don’t typically have a problem with people giving advice, as long as we’re all free to take it or leave it.


Sean Davis
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

What I see from Michelle O on this is not so much “hey, here are some great ways to easily feed your family healthy food on a budget,” but “you stupid poor people have terrible taste.”

Good, healthy food is expensive. Not just in terms of what you pay at the store, but in the amount of time it takes to prepare. When you have one parent working to the feed the family, and the other parent working to feed the government, there’s not a lot of extra time or money sitting around.

If she really cared about families eating healthier, she’d do something about 1) making it a whole lot less expensive (our grocery bills have skyrocketed over the last few years), and 2) reducing the amount of time we have to spend working to pay off the government instead of working to provide for our families.

I’m not a big fan at all of her food shame campaign. Honestly, if she wanted to have a real societal impact without looking like a scold, she’d show up to people’s houses with healthy, affordable food and show them how to cook it in 30 minutes or less.


From: Ben Domenech
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Sean, you ignorant sexist, you just said that the first lady could be a lot more effective at this if she was in the kitchen.


From: Sean Davis
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

She’s welcome to send Mario Batali to my house instead!


From: Jayme Metzgar
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Okay, Sean, *that* I found convincing. Thanks.

I remember reading somewhere once that healthy eating required two of three variables in any combination: money, time, or knowledge. I think this is generally true. There are ways to eat decently without spending a mint, but it basically means you are preparing your own food every day and doing a lot of work (ask me how I know). And you’re so right about the government exacerbating the problem through policies that just make everything harder. I guess it’s just an update on Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat kale.”


From: Robert Tracinski
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Please do not perpetuate the assumption that Kraft mac and cheese in a box is actual macaroni and cheese. Actual macaroni and cheese is a fine treat and a foundation of American cuisine, going back (according to legend) to Thomas Jefferson. But it is made with decent pasta and real cheese, not the poor substitute marketed by Kraft. It is also extremely simple to make, never takes more than about 20 minutes–basically, as long as it takes for the water to come to a boil, then cook the pasta–and does not require expensive ingredients. A very large batch, enough to give leftovers for a week, can be made for five or six dollars. My mom taught me how to make it when I was probably 12. I like it plain, as a side-dish, but it is also an excellent substrate into which to add other ingredients, from broccoli to bacon to lobster.


From: Mollie

I make a wonderful home-made mac and cheese. Mac and cheese in a box shares the name but it is of course a completely different product. It’s in a box, for one thing, so that’s a good clue. It’s like how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America shares a name with other Lutherans. It’s just something that happened as a historical curiosity even though they share nothing theologically.

But also, as easy as it is to make mac and cheese, getting a good roux together will never be the same as dumping things out of a box.

I mean, yes, if you have the time to hand shred all the cheeses and whisk the roux and grate the nutmeg and cook the shells, etc., it’s easy. But that’s kind of a big assumption when you’re managing a busy household.


From: Amy Otto
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Michelle can come and take my Kraft Mac and cheese from my 6-year-old’s orangutan-like grip. Besides, why should we all judge what food is based on whether Malia can figure out how to manufacture it? 🙂

My kid would have grinded it to a pulp 🙂


From: Sean Davis
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Amen, Amy. That was actually my first thought. Good luck manually turning raw cane into cane sugar at home.


From: Robert Tracinski
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

If you do it right, the extra time required to make the real stuff is about five minutes. I don’t think anyone’s family is too busy for an extra five minutes’ work. I do it all the time and regard real mac and cheese as my quick, easy fallback if I don’t have time to do something else.


From: Mollie
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Guys, my pasta in a box company just tweeted at me. I’m so happy now.

 


From: Nicole Russell
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Robert you’re right: it doesn’t take that much extra time. Unless you bake yours.


From: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

You know that line about when seconds count the police are minutes away?

That’s how I feel about this discussion.

No, homemade mac and cheese isn’t that difficult. But when seconds count, it’s minutes away.


From: Robert Tracinski
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Mollie, I think you’re cutting your schedule way finer than I cut mine. In my version, though, the only variable for total cooking time is literally: how long does it take to get water to a boil and then cook pasta for five minutes? All of the other work is done while waiting for the water to boil or the pasta to cook. I don’t bake mine, but if you do, that’s the easiest time of all. You shove it in the oven and go do something else.

I am open to the idea that there are companies other than Kraft that might make an edible mac and cheese in a box. But it’s still no substitute for having a real actual sauce that is properly absorbed into the pasta.


From: Nicole Russell
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Hahaha. I understand this with 4 kids under 7; homeschooling two; writing etc. Every. Minute. Counts.


From: D.C. McAllister
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Robert, what kind of cheese do you use? Mild or medium cheddar, sharp, or Longhorn?


From: Robert Tracinski
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Well, I think I actually have a more hidebound attitude toward this. If you can’t make 30 minutes to cook a meal on a regular basis, then that’s a much bigger problem than what you’re eating.


From: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

I make all of my family’s meals and we eat home-cooked meals every single day of the year. I do a lot of planning and shopping to make this work smoothly and affordably. I also work full-time and am a stay-at-home mother. My kids have the occasional box of mac and cheese. Sue me.


From: Nicole Russell
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

We too eat mostly home cooked meals. The amount of planning this takes should not be underestimated.

I do not cook Sunday lunch though.


From: Robert Tracinski
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

I don’t get fancy about the cheese. This is comfort food. I’ll confess that the only lowbrow aspect of my recipe is that I run back to the Kraft corporation: Kraft sliced sharp cheddar (which is actually a mild cheddar). Not American, which is too bland, and not “singles,” which taste like the plastic they are wrapped in. There are two practical reasons: it’s sliced, not grated, so you save a step. The other reason is that regular “brick” cheddars have a very grainy texture, which is OK. But when you use them, I find the sauce tends to “break” when reheated, i.e., it breaks down to lumpy kurds of cheese and a slick of butter. (This happens with my uber-simple Fettucine Alfredo, but it tastes so good I reheat the leftovers anyway. If there are any, which there usually aren’t.) The Kraft cheddar has a creamy rather than a grainy texture, thanks no doubt to some kind of weird emulsifiers, but it never breaks when reheated. And part of my calculation with mac and cheese is that I always make a big enough batch to have leftovers for later. So what you spend in effort today you get back later when you take a plate of leftover mac and cheese and stick it in the microwave.

But the great thing about mac and cheese is that it has so many variations, and while it’s nice to experiment with fancy new versions, most of us end up going back to the way mom made it. In my case, this is actually important because my kids spend a fair bit of time with my mom and eat her mac and cheese for lunches there. You know how young kids are about switching back and forth between two different recipes of the same meal. And for some reason, they always like grandma’s version of a recipe better than mine, even if mine is objectively better. So I stick close to the version my mom taught me.


From: Heather Wilhelm
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

I never make mac and cheese, boxed or from scratch. This thread is inspirational! I want to make some tonight now.

On the boxed food defense front, I will say that there are some amazing boxed risottos out there. I told this to a chef friend once and I could tell he wanted to throw something across the room, but it’s true.


From: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Y’all don’t deserve boxed mac and cheese. Yeah, I said it. YOU DON’T DESERVE IT.


From: D.C. McAllister
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Okay about the boxed mac and cheese. Just don’t get me started on Kraft Lunchables. Ugh.


From: Robert Tracinski
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

OK, so here’s where I should also check my privilege and confess: I benefit enormously from having my parents live nearby. It’s a big economic benefit, because I’ve never paid money for babysitters or daycare. (I pay that all back, and then some, by sending my kids to a private school.) And it’s a help when it comes to meals, especially in the summer.

But look, I’m not seeking to shame anyone for eating mac and cheese out of a box. De gustibus non disputandum, I guess. I’ll be happy to see Mollie make her case.


From: Georgi Boorman
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Here’s the thing. If I want mac n cheese that tastes exactly like cheddar cheese, then I might as well make it from the box. It doesn’t taste the same, but it’s about equal in terms of how good it tastes. If I want delicious “real” macaroni, then I’m not skimping. I go for the fancy cheese.

I’ve made Emeril whatsisface’s four-cheese macaroni with cajun seasoning and it’s AMAZING. But it ain’t cheap.

I’m with Mollie. I’ll defend Mac ‘n Cheese because sometimes we make tradeoffs of nutrition for convenience, and sometimes that’s OKAY. Like I said, just throw in some broccoli.

I mean, for goodness’ sake, there are so many more important things to worry about over whether people are eating macaroni from the box or having french fries instead of an apple. Michelle should get her priorities straight, because if she’s strictly a cultural influence, then she can use her power abroad, too, right? Speaking out on human rights and such. But no, she’s worried that we’re not eating our kale.


From: Jayme Metzgar
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Wait, Mollie, you use freaking Annie’s Organic mac & cheese and you called ME a fancy person? Pot, meet kettle (hopefully filled with delicious Annie’s mac & cheese with tomato and cilantro mixed in, yum, please share).


From: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Also, I wanted to rip on Tracinski for his inexplicable use of Kraft cheese — which is, admittedly, completely insane! You don’t like the chemical powdered cheese but you use crap cheese like that? — but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without totally undercutting all my previous arguments.


From: Ben Domenech
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

Aw, I found that endearing Mollie. It’s the high and the low! Beethoven and Katy Perry! It’s driving two hours round trip through traffic for higher quality steaks, but making Velveeta Mac and Cheese for the side. That’s American, right there.


From: Robert Tracinski
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

I will defend ONLY Kraft’s sliced sharp cheddar. I’ll provide a picture to make sure you know the stuff I’m talking about.

IMG_4202

First, Kraft is a reputable cheese maker, so it’s real cheese. It’s just not highbrow.

American cheese, by contrast, is hopelessly bland, and there’s an argument to be made that it isn’t real cheese. It’s packaged as “pasteurized process American cheese product.” I don’t even know what that means.

As for Velveeta, mention not that evil name in my presence.

That said, mac and cheese is one place where I make some allowance for non-culinary considerations. I was really struck by Bethany Mandel’s advice about writing down your recipes so that if anything happens to you, your kids know how to make the favorite foods from their childhood.

So for most of us, mac and cheese is something so closely associated with mom and childhood that it seems almost sacrilege to make it any other way. Unless that way involves a box.


From: Robert Tracinski
Subject: You’ll eat your gruel and like it

The core recipe is very simple, and you can add variations on top of it. This is for a half-batch, when I don’t want a lot of leftovers, but it’s easily doubled.

Start a medium to large pot of water on high heat. Add a tablespoon or so of salt to the water. This is the only salt that should ever be added, and it’s going where it’s supposed to: into the pasta.

While that comes to a boil, prepare two tablespoons butter, two tablespoons flour, and one cup milk. I prefer 2%, but if you want something richer use whole milk.

IMG_4205

In a small saucepan, melt the butter, whisk in the flour, and keep whisking on medium to low heat while the butter and flour mixture bubbles for a few minutes. (This is technically called a roux.)

IMG_4206

Then add the milk, whisk thoroughly, and increase the heat. Keep coming back to whisk it to keep the roux from separating out. Bring to a gentle boil, at which point the sauce will quickly thicken. (This is technically called a béchamel, one of the five “mother sauces” of French cuisine, and knowing how to make it will serve you well.)

IMG_4207

Take off the heat and add four ounces of cheese. I use pre-sliced cheese and add it two slices at a time, letting it melt and then whisking it in.

About the time you’re adding the cheese, the water will have come to a boil. Add 8 oz. of macaroni elbows, or penne pasta as a substitute. Stir to keep the elbows from sticking together. Cook for five minutes until they’re still a little firm or “al dente.” Drain it, put it back in the pan, pour the cheese sauce over it, and mix it in thoroughly.

I’m not snooty about the cheese, but I have distinct preferences about the pasta. Many macaroni elbows are made with a very smooth outer surface, which is all wrong because it doesn’t absorb the cheese as well. I like Barilla, which has a rough-textured surface that adheres to and absorbs the sauce. This is important because to my mind what makes a really great mac and cheese–and what I doubt a boxed version can replicate–is when the creamy cheese sauce gets absorbed into the pasta, giving the pasta itself a creamy texture. (This is also the key to a good Fettucine Alfredo.)

Add-ons and go-withs are up to you. Broccoli, bacon, etc. Some people put ketchup on top. When I was a kid I loved this, but I can’t stand it as an adult. I think it’s best with a thin layer of fresh-ground pepper on top, which complements the flavor surprisingly well.

IMG_4210

I can’t overemphasize how simple and affordable this is. There are only five ingredients, and they’re real basics: pasta, butter, flour, milk, cheese. It’s also amazingly cheap. The recipe above uses about $0.75 worth of pasta, maybe $1.75 of cheese (unless you go really fancy), and a few extra pennies’ worth of butter, flour, and milk. Total cost is $3.50 at most. This will make a main dish for four people, or a side dish with leftovers.

One last tip: if you like to bake your mac and cheese, or if you want to make a big batch ahead of time for reheating, increase the sauce recipe by 25% or even 50% compared to the pasta. When it is baked or reheated, mac and cheese tends to dry out and lose its creamy texture. The extra sauce counteracts this effect. Also, as I said above, use a creamy cheese that won’t break when microwaved.

If you do this, you can even make large batches of mac and cheese ahead of time, freeze them, and thaw and reheat when needed. Which strikes me as a better time-saving convenience than making it out of a box.