When I was about 10, my family visited my grandfather’s sisters on the Eastern Shore. We picked up Aunt Elva from her tumbledown farmhouse, where she kept ducklings in the sunroom and chickens in the dining room, and drove to Aunt Louise and Uncle Earl’s tidy rancher. If Elva’s house was a disaster, Louise’s was the reconstruction. It was a snug, neat rancher with tan siding, surrounded both by a trimmed lawn over which dragonflies flitted and a huge pond filled with bellowing bullfrogs.
When we went into Aunt Louise’s dining room for lunch, alongside the bowl of potato salad, the glass dish of sweet pickles and the plate of lunchmeat slices rolled tight like permanent waves, was a casserole of macaroni and cheese. A picky child, I immediately fled the table with a pickle and a glass of root beer and took up residence outside on the front porch swing.
My mother was used to my odd eating habits and didn’t worry about me going hungry. But Aunt Louise must have felt sorry for the strange skinny kid I was. At some point, she came out of the house with a plate of yellow elbow macaroni.
The dish was a revelation. It was creamy, like melted ice cream, and unpunctuated by extras like ham or tomatoes. Its pale golden sauce held just a bit of tang. I had never eaten it before, and I was hooked. “What is this?” I asked my mother. And even more shocking, “I like it. Can we make it at home?” I ate seconds, and my mother breathed a sigh of relief that there was something else her strange child would eat.
From then on, we made macaroni and cheese at our house, but it was never the same. Although my mother is a good cook, her mac and cheese wasn’t even close to Aunt Louise’s— probably why she’d never made it at home before our visit. Mom started from scratch, but her casserole tended to dryness and the orange stripes of Cracker Barrel cheddar across the top did not improve the texture. As an adolescent, I toyed with the Kraft box version, but grew out of that quickly. (I revisited it in grad school, and instantly remembered why it was unsuitable when I opened that foil pack of gritty orange powder.)
Hopes were raised when an old boyfriend brought his South Carolina-born wife to Maryland, and she served a dinner that included mac and cheese. Miriam’s casserole was rich and custardy, thanks to the addition of several eggs, but it still didn’t match Aunt Louise’s version.
Today I make macaroni and cheese according to my much-stained and dog-eared copy of “The Good Housekeeping Illustrated” cookbook— except that I don’t add onions, and I do double the dry mustard. Sometimes I get lazy and “forget” to sauté bread crumbs for the topping and dump dry bread crumbs straight from my freezer stash (or the grocery store container) atop the casserole because they’re going to get brown and crispy anyway, right? And while the gourmet side of me urges me to buy really good cheddar, I’m pretty sure Aunt Louise was using grocery store basic. Heck, maybe it was Velveeta.
My macaroni and cheese ends up being tangy and softly creamy with that bread crumb crunch on the top, and I make it whenever I have a craving for its silky texture and snappy bite. Although I may have come late to the glories of macaroni and cheese, now I’m a true believer.
My grandfather’s siblings were never close, so I only met Aunt Louise that one time. At some point, she and her husband moved to Delaware; then her husband moved somewhere else without her. My mother heard that she died several years ago. But I often wonder about the strange randomness of that memory. Whenever I stand at my stove stirring cheese into white sauce, I think of my Aunt Louise, a metal glider on the front porch of a tan house and the summer drone of bullfrogs and dragonflies.