My mother is the eldest of six children—all girls—who grew up in Chicago. Each of the six had a different role and responsibility in the family; my mother’s was disciplinarian. It was a low-income household with higher-education values: Three of the six girls went to college, and I knew that college was the expectation for me too.
Mom taught and role-modeled so many life lessons that I carry with me today: a strong work ethic, the importance of character, kindness, and courage. She was a critical care nurse who demonstrated integrity and self-confidence in every fiber. As an adult, when I am facing new challenges or working on the strategy for a project, her teachings are with me, and I pass those values along to my two daughters.
Chicago could be quite insular when I was growing up, people sticking to their own neighborhoods, but my mother often suggested an “outing”—an exploration of the city. Her white-knuckled fear of flying kept her a homebody, despite her dreams of travel. Since she doesn’t go beyond her own comfort zone, she could have put boundaries on her own children, but she let us fly—literally—and did not pass on her concerns or limitations. I always had the perspective that life was beyond my neighborhood.
Although my mother’s mother was a wonderful cook—what I call modern old-fashioned, meaning stylish but grounded in tradition—Mom did not inherit her skills. When it came to cooking, Granny ruled. I often spent Saturday mornings with her while Mom was running errands or just having some “me” time. Once when I was seven years old, Granny taught me how to clean a newly caught fish. I still remember the scales flying around the kitchen sink, under Granny’s watchful eye. I asked, “What’s next?” and she said I had to clean the insides. “But there’s mushy stuff,” I protested. “That’s right,” she said, “and it must come out.”
At first, I thought I was such a big girl to spend quality time with one of my favorite people. After a while, I wanted to be a kid again, playing ball or double Dutch jump rope with my cousins. But Granny believed that girls should know how to cook. She had not been so successful with my mother—despite her efforts to learn, cooking did not come easily to Mom, and she did not find it interesting. But Granny was determined to succeed with me.
And her lessons had an impact: Although I started working in corporate America, I now do catering, and many of my recipes are from Granny’s kitchen or have her influence. My four-year-old daughter occasionally peeks into the kitchen asking, “Can I help?” quickly followed by “I’m bored” and a return to PBS Kids. My eight-year-old has no clue how to cook and no interest, but I often hear her ask, “What’s for dinner?” I can only imagine what my Granny is saying in heaven: “Did I not teach you anything?”
Kristal Damron is the owner of Reward Your Appetite Catering and the author of Entertaining and Celebrating: An Elegant Feast for Every Season. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and two daughters. She can be found at RewardYourAppetite.com, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Macaroni and Cheese
1 gal. water
2 T. kosher salt
1 lb. macaroni, penne cut
2 oz. olive oil, divided
1/2 large shallot, minced finely
28 oz. half-and-half
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. salt
1/8 t. white pepper
8 oz. sharp shredded cheddar cheese
8 oz. mild shredded cheddar cheese
8 oz. mozzarella shredded cheese
optional: 1 T. flour and 1 T. of water mixed together
2 T. unsalted butter
2 oz. minced parsley
Bring water to boil in a large stockpot, and add salt.
Cook pasta al dente.
Drain in a colander but do not rinse, reserving 1 cup of pasta water.
Drizzle pasta with 1 oz. olive oil to prevent sticking.
Heat 1 oz. olive oil over medium heat, and sauté minced shallot until softened.
Reduce heat to low, and add half-and-half very slowly.
Cook until temperature reaches 160 - 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Stir in nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
Gradually add half of each cheese while stirring.
If the cheese sauce is too thick, add some of the reserved pasta water (it will thicken as it cools).
If the cheese sauce is too thin, stir the flour and water mixture, and add it to the sauce.
Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
Stir in butter.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a large bowl, combine pasta and cheese sauce, to cover the pasta completely (you may not use all the sauce).
Pour into a 9 x 13 baking pan, spreading evenly.
Add remaining shredded cheeses on top.
Bake for approximately 30 minutes, until cheese is melted and golden brown.
Sprinkle with parsley.
Cool slightly before serving.