People of a certain age might remember a distinctly late-nineties and early-aughts culinary fad: the fancy mac and cheese. It involved taking a cheap, slightly embarrassing, nostalgia-laced standby of industrialized 20th-century food, and mixing in a couple of common-denominator markers of luxury, like lobster meat or truffle oil. (Yes — the truffled-lobster mac and cheese was a thing. I lived to tell the tale.)
As veteran cheesemonger and food writer Gordon Edgar shows in his Zocalo essay, macaroni and cheese is an American staple with a history that stretches back to colonial times. As such, it repeatedly finds itself in contested territory. Who does it belong to? How (and through whose labor) did it become, well, mac and cheese? And how far can you stretch and — Food-Network-speak alert — “elevate” it before it stops being itself?
Being a judge at a macaroni and cheese competition in San Francisco taught me a lot about American food. The competitors were mostly chefs, and the audience—the online tickets sold out in minutes—was soaking up the chance to be at a “Top Chef” kind of event, but more urban and cool. The judges included a food writer, an award-winning grilled-cheese-maker, and me, a cheesemonger.
We awarded the win to a chef who made mac and cheese with an aged Vermont cheddar. The audience, however, chose another contestant. When he arrived at the winner’s circle, he made a stunning announcement: His main ingredient was Velveeta.
Amazement! Shock! Betrayal! The audience clutched their ironic canned beer but didn’t quite know how to react. Was it a hoax? A working-class prank against elitism in food? Was this contest somehow rigged by Kraft? In the end it turned out to just be a financial decision by the chef: In great American tradition, he bought the cheapest protein possible.