by Vicki Drybrough from Port Alberni, BC
Oct 22, 11
I don't know about you, but when I think of comfort food, the kind that can be slathered like sunscreen over wounded egos, homesickness and disappointment, the sort that evokes home and hearth and safety, there is only one food I think of and that’s macaroni and cheese. Not the stuff in the box, the real thing.
My mother's macaroni and cheese was plain -- just elbow noodles and a medium cheese sauce mixed together, topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked in the oven till golden and bubbling. It was one of my favourite meals, until the summer, as a university student, I worked at a lodge on Gabriola Island where Bertie Turner introduced me to a whole new kind of macaroni and cheese.
Every Wednesday, guests were given a picnic lunch and encouraged to go exploring. While they set off, the staff would congregate in the huge log lounge and do a thorough cleaning, including polishing the hardwood floors. At lunchtime we'd troop into the kitchen to sit around the long, rustic table, laughing and joking as if we were a large, boisterous European family. Lunch was always the same on Wednesdays: a crisp green salad and Bertie's wonderful macaroni and cheese. She baked it in a wide shallow pan and cut it into squares for serving. The bottom layer was caramelized onions, and then the quiche-like, cheesy middle, topped with thinly sliced beefsteak tomatoes and sprinkled with buttery crumbs. From that summer on, I was convinced that my mother didn't know anything about macaroni and cheese. Bertie's was the best in the world.
As an adult, I spent years, without success, trying to reproduce Bertie's macaroni and cheese. I think I felt if I could match the flavour and texture of hers, I would feel as happy and carefree as I did that long ago summer. Driven by a desire to produce an even “better" version, the ultimate comfort meal, there were times I included many add-ins. But while they might have been tasty and even nutritious, I never achieved the effect I was hoping for.
And then one autumn evening, when the smoke from the chimneys was rising straight up into the crisp still air, the sky brightened and an enormous orange moon pushed its way above the trees and hung heavy and ripe in front of me. And I was transported to another autumn evening. The full moon rising above the treetops and me, riding on my father's shoulders, so high that I felt I could reach out and touch it. Reach out and touch the moon and the spiky treetops and the little frost sparkles that seemed to be falling through the air everywhere.
It was the only time I ever rode on my father's shoulders. He was a distant man, never playful or affectionate like my friends' fathers. Whenever he looked at me, I saw disapproval rather than love in his eyes. It felt like he was always correcting me. But that evening I was coming home from the hospital. I had had a routine operation that had gone wrong, and I'd had to stay longer than planned. All the way home he had kept his big calloused hand over mine, as if he were making sure I was safe. It felt strange, but in a nice way. When we got out of the car I was amazed when he hoisted me onto his shoulders. I was so high I felt as if I was flying. I spread my arms wide. I felt as wild as the owls I'd seen swooping out of the forest. Head back, I gazed up at the stars before turning to see the moon's enormous orange face smiling back at me. Down the long path to the house my father carried me, without a word, and I loved him more with every step. I could feel him smiling in the dark and I knew that he loved me too.
When we sat down at the table, my mother took a dish of macaroni and cheese out of the oven, all golden and crispy on top with creamy sauce bubbling through it here and there. I savoured every bite, scraping my fork over my plate to capture every crumb, every bit of creamy sauce, aware all the while of the new closeness of my father.
As the memory of that long ago night faded I turned and went into my house to prepare macaroni and cheese the way my mother used to make it. Nothing fancy: just elbow macaroni and a medium cheese sauce with buttered crumbs on top.
“Macaroni and cheese,” said my husband as I set it on the table. “What kind is it?”
“The good kind,” I said, smiling through the window at the moon.