Our daughter Melissa’s beloved hails from the Carolinas in the deep South (many non-U.S. southerners do not understand why the Carolinas can be ‘The Deep South’ when Florida is not! Culture and history, my friends.), and has been our guest at Thanksgiving dinner on occasion. Our family tradition is for each Thanksgiving guest to make one requested addition to the list of dishes for the meal, and Geoff’s is always the same; macaroni and cheese. And should you be so fortunate as to spend a Thanksgiving as a dinner guest of a Southern family, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll be served mac and cheese as well – it’s a strong Southern tradition.
I can remember, when first learning of this ‘tradition’, of thinking how strange it was to have macaroni and cheese at the Thanksgiving table – but such thinking is to miss an understanding of the southern psyche. How best can one give thanks for one’s good fortune and well-being? To a southerner, the answer is to celebrate with those foods which not only bring one comfort, but which are rich beyond the norm. For anyone familiar with Southern cooking, it’s not new news that the food of the South is most often both a comfort food and rich as well. But few of those southern delights can be ramped up to an especial level of richness and utter comfort as can mac and cheese.
And that, my friends, is why it is found so often on the Thanksgiving tables of the South. And, by the way, another strong tradition on southern Thanksgiving tables is for the major attraction to be a cured and smoked ham rather than a turkey. I’m not talking here of a ‘city ham’, those soft, wet, pink hunks of cryovac wrapped pork which have been mechanically injected with up to 15% or more salty/sweet fluids – a real dry cured country ham needs first a long, slow cooking in water, usually followed by some time in the oven prior to showing up on the table. Even then, it often is an acquired taste for those not raised in a southern family, and is almost never eaten without going through a multi-day soaking, boiling, and roasting. Yup, it’s a chore, and the major reason why the traditional southern country ham is reserved for the holidays.
Recently, I noticed a build up of cheese remnants in the deli drawer of the fridge – humm … what cheesy delight could be made with our cache? The first thing to jump into my mind was mac and cheese, not too unique or original, but firmly pasted there via a recent article I perused in Saveur magazine, one of the few U.S. food magazines for which I’d still willingly pay regular subscription price. The issue honed in on various comfort foods, and of necessity, mac and cheese was a featured article, ‘Elbow Room’, including recipes for four different types.
And I also remembered that among those four mac and cheese recipes was one named, Southern Style Macaroni and Cheese which immediately grabbed me – not so much because of its southern roots, but because it was contributed by Edna Lewis, one of my favorite of all southern cookbook authors. I have three of Ms. Lewis’ wonderful books, and they are among those I’d not sell ever. No question then, it was Edna Lewis’ mac and cheese that I’d make.
So, is there a difference between a southern style mac and cheese, and all others? Well, it may be a bit presumptuous of me to make too much of generalized observations, however my own experiences have left me with a feeling that southern mac and cheese is always a wet affair – as opposed to the more solid types that are often served cut into squares, some with a cheese sauce poured over at serving time – I much prefer the very wet, saucy stuff which must be spooned out at serving time, and this is what I’ve become familiar with in the South.
An additional characteristic of southern macaroni and cheese is the abundance of chewy, cheesy goodness baked into the top layer of pasta – and without a doubt, when Ms. Lewis reserves half of her cheese for the top of her baking dish, she is looking to maximize that chewy deliciousness. Interestingly, Beth Kracklauer, the article’s author suggests that too much browning (as in the beautiful Saveur photo of Ms. Lewis’ version at this post’s top) will lead to a breakdown in the saucy texture of the mac and cheese. I think she may be correct, as you can see, there’s quite a difference between my iteration, and the one in the Saveur photo, which was graciously ‘lent’ for my post. My pan is certainly ‘saucy’, but there is a suggestion it is on its way to a more solid texture, which is very apparent in the Saveur version and photo – and my pan has not, in my opinion, developed as much ‘browning’ as I’d really like. Humm …, I’ll work on that.
One final thought- the type of pasta you choose will make a big difference in the character of your final product. The classic in America is, of course, elbow macaroni – but no one need be restricted by such convention. In fact, I’ve often found that the use of a larger size pasta is more to my liking, since the larger pasta absorbs less of the sauce -which I want more of- so I often use a large type. The particular pasta I used here was done so purely by accident, but with beautiful result. I used a DeCecco, Festonati, #22, which as you can see is a pretty damn big pasta – I had it around because when I see DeCecco selling for less than $1 a lb, I buy it, no matter what shape it is. Fortunately, this one worked super well in this dish, since its large, hollow shape was perfect for capturing lots of cheesy sauce. But the very best thing about this particular pasta was its wonderful chewy bite after it was baked – I loved it. If you try this recipe, don’t neglect to follow the instruction to only cook the pasta halfway done – I think that’s exactly why it had such a beautiful texture when done.
I do hope you’ll get an opportunity to give this wonderful representation of southern mac and cheese a try – yes, it’s super rich, and super over-the-top luxurious, but it’s also super delicious too. Save it for a special occasion, and make it extra special.