(by Ne’Untae Brown)
T’was the night before Thanksgiving, and I awoke from sleep at 2 a.m. to the aroma of greens, sweet cornbread, and oven-cooked baked beans with lots of brown sugar. I walked downstairs into the kitchen to find the greatest cook in the world, my own personal chef: my mother.
My mama ruled in the kitchen, at our home in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, next to a huge grass field where I spent a lot of time playing kickball, football, and baseball, and waiting to be fed. I was only an occasional helping hand, grabbing spices out of the cabinet or eggs from the fridge. But on this night, my unexpected presence was a relief, so I washed my hands and got to work. My favorite task was gutting the turkey, which might sound unusual, but I always wanted to be a nurse, so I pretended that I was performing surgery. After placing the neck bone in the deep pot with the seasoned kale and collards, I suddenly had the idea to attempt my mama’s macaroni and cheese, made famous among family and friends for its lusciousness.
Keep in mind, 11-year-old me had never made a meal in my life, nothing more skilled than pouring cereal in a bowl or adding hot water to ramen noodles, but, for some reason I thought I was Gordon Ramsey that night. Better yet, I thought I was Nicole Lynn Brown herself. Mama and I do not look alike, I mean, at all—I’m the spitting image of my father—but I act exactly like my mama. Growing up, I admired absolutely everything about her—the way she dressed, the way she wore her hair, even her handwriting. (I kid you not, my mama has the best handwriting in the world.) But that was as a child. Once I hit my teenage years, we began to bump heads a lot. I just didn’t like her during that period, and she didn’t like me (she told me so herself one day while she was doing my hair). When it came to boys and talking to her about sex, I couldn’t. She was so strict. As soon as I turned 18, I went and got a scorpion tattooed on my lower back. She was beyond pissed about that tramp stamp.
My mom is actually pretty chill, except for holding grudges. That’s my mama all day long. She’ll hold a grudge forever. And over the stupidest things. I couldn’t get with that so, it was a trait I happily fought against. The strongest thing I got from her gene pool is that both of us are homebodies. The only time I leave the house is for work or a vacation. And despite all of the bickering during my teenage years, we remained close.
On the Thanksgiving Eve I’m remembering, I was convinced that we could do a mind meld. What could go wrong? I’d watched her prepare the same meal for 11 years. I got this!
So, boom, I gathered up cheese, milk, and eggs, and salted the water in the stockpot, just below the rim. I placed the pot on the gas stove and watched it come to a boil. I poured the elbow macaroni into the boiling water and held onto the pot handle with my left hand, protected by an oven mitt, stirring to prevent the noodles from sticking. After a few minutes of stirring (and receiving a free steam facial from the boiling water), I smelled something burning.
I turned to my mother and asked, “Do you smell that?” She looked concerned, but checked her greens, cornbread, turkey, and baked beans. Everything seemed fine. Continuing my stirring, I said with greater alarm, “Ma, something in this kitchen is on fire. You can’t smell that?”
“Boo,” she said, using my nickname, “you’re tripping. I just checked everything.”
“I know my nose works just fi....” Before I could finish the sentence, I realized what was burning. It was me. The oven mitt on my left hand was on fire. It was a little too big for my young hand, and the part where my fingertips should have been slipped under the pot. Fortunately, a run to the sink doused the flames, and my hand was just fine afterwards. I can’t say the same about the oven mitt.
That was my first and last attempt at making my mother’s macaroni and cheese, but it’s still my favorite—at holidays or any time. (Re: the recipe, I’m going to be honest with you, a lot of black people don’t really measure their seasoning. We kind of just sprinkle it on our food until our ancestors whisper in our ear, “That’s enough, my child.”) The legend of the mitt, mac and cheese has become as much a holiday tradition in our family as the turkey.
Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb. elbow macaroni 1 1/2 c. milk 1/2 c. heavy cream 1 c. Colby cheese, shredded
1 c. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded 2 c. mozzarella cheese, shredded 6 – 8 oz. Velveeta cheese, shredded
1 c. cheddar cheese shredded
2 eggs, beaten
Lawry Seasoned Salt and paprika, to taste 2 eggs, beaten
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook macaroni according to package directions. Drain.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine macaroni with remaining ingredients.
Pour into an extra-large deep metal pan (21 x 13 x 3) and bake for 20 – 30 minutes.
Remove from the oven and and stir.
Return to the oven and continue baking, repeat the stirring until desired level of baked cheesy goodness is reached, about 45 minutes.