In Search of Lost Food – Childhood Mac ‘n Cheese

//Written by Joy Cho//

Recently in my HUM class, we read an excerpt from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. A spontaneous sip of tea and bite of a madeleine cookie strike Proust in a profound way, and the initial trigger of the taste leads him to unearth broad memories and pinpoint what brought on this whole poignant episode: his aunt’s tea and madeleine that he drank and ate in the past.

Proust died almost a century ago, but he sure knew what he was talking about. Food is not just about the taste, texture, or presentation. Sure, those aspects are important, but what’s even more valuable are the deep, ingrained memories that are rooted in a particular meal or food. The reminiscences may invoke pleasure, nostalgia, or even annoyance or pain, but it’s amazing how one food can trigger something in the brain that takes you back to a specific day, place, or memory. The interrelation between food and memory is interesting to me, and is what led me to devote a column to writing about it. My memories won’t be everyone else’s, but it is my hope that food will spark something worthy of remembrance in everyone.

A couple weeks ago, I was craving something warm, hearty, creamy, and rich. What food meets these criteria better than mac ‘n cheese? So, at GT Fish & Oyster, while everyone did their restaurant menu thing, I ordered the lobster mac ‘n cheese. And no, I didn’t regret it.

Lobster mac 'n cheese

Lobster Mac ‘n Cheese at GT Fish and Oyster
Photo by Joy Cho

It was cheesy, warm, and filling. I can say, without shame, that I finished the whole bowl of lobster-speckled, creamy deliciousness, with several generous drizzles of hot sauce. As a child, I ate a fair amount of the classic mac ‘n cheese, but not so much that it wasn’t a treat. The Kraft version, with the powdery orange “cheese,” still makes me smile when I see it in stores. I used to do the whole ketchup-and-mac thing, mixing it until it turned a pale pink color, and eat it in small bites while still hot. Some may find the combination distasteful or strange, but it is one of the most poignant food memories I have from my childhood. Something about the savory and slightly sweet combo was so comforting and warming. It was all the better when I would grab my bowl, plop down on the couch, and watch Clifford or Arthur (I didn’t have cable, but let’s be honest, these were the best and most wholesome kids shows) while involuntarily spooning the (fake) cheesy, tubular noodles into my little girl mouth. It was literally the best; I felt happy and secure in my bubble of a world.

I ate mac ‘n cheese with ketchup for the first time in years just recently in the dining hall. Okay, so I graduated from the mixing thing, but it was still the same: the warm, comforting feelings came flooding back immediately. I reveled in each bite, and smiled like a small child again. For a couple minutes, I wasn’t a first-year college student with two papers to write and a midterm to study for; I was back on that worn leather couch, without a care in the world, staring at the tube while eating mac ‘n cheese mixed with ketchup. Sure, it came from a box, but my mom and grandma added that special something that made it taste like so much more than brittle macaroni and bright orange cheese powder. For a few moments in Bartlett Dining Hall, I was seven again, and I loved it.

It’s crazy how something as ordinary as mac ‘n cheese can have such meaning and profound depth. For me, it’s the epitome of love, comfort, warmth, and security. It’s representative of those times when I didn’t care about whether the food came from a box or not, or whether anyone would cringe at my pink, creamy mixture. I’m brought back to a period of innocence, gratitude, and contentment that only a child experiences.

Whether it’s “gourmet” lobster mac at a River North restaurant, or a humble bowl of mac ‘n cheese from the dining hall, I feel so much satisfaction from both, and from the memories evoked by them. It’s still as delicious, as warming, and as real. I don’t think my craving for mac ‘n cheese will be quenched any time soon. And you know what – I’m totally fine with that.

“Childhood Mac ‘n Cheese” is the first entry of Joy’s new column “In Search of Lost Food.” New column articles will be published every Wednesday.  

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