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At the library not too long ago, I came across Fix Me a Plate, a glorious dip into family recipes by Fort Worthian Scotty Scott from the blog Cook Drank Eat. I wondered why I didn’t notice before that he had compiled some of his blogospheric favorites all in one place. Turns out it made NPR’s Top 10 cookbooks of 2022! Flipping through for some seasonal change-of-pace recipes, I found his mama’s recipe for mac ’n’ cheese. “Almost Mama’s Mac and Cheese” calls for butter, garlic, four cups of shredded Colby jack cheese, and … two cans of cheddar cheese soup, along with a couple eggs. Apparently, in the revision of Mama’s recipe, a time-consuming roux can be subbed with canned soup and eggs.

Macaroni with cheese became popular when Thomas Jefferson allegedly brought home a pasta maker from Europe in the late 18th century. Specifically, the originators of the American version were the enslaved Africans in Jefferson’s kitchen, and James Hemmings gets credit for improving the recipe. As he accompanied Jefferson on the latter’s travels, Hemmings was trained by a French chef. While Hemmings was a free, wage-earning man in Paris, Jefferson allegedly bargained for Hemmings’ freedom back in the states. By teaching another enslaved man (his brother Peter Hemmings) to make the French recipes that Jefferson loved, Hemmings became a free U.S. citizen.

We’re talking about this now because in some cultures, especially West African, gold-colored foods are thought to bring prosperity and are enjoyed on New Year’s Eve or Day, and what’s more golden than mac ’n’ cheese? Or decadent?

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I don’t remember if my mac ’n’ cheese recipe came from Martha Stewart or my mom’s big red ’60s Betty Crocker cookbook. The stuff I make starts with a roux that turns into a béchamel sauce with an unholy amount of pre-shredded cheese and pasta so al dente that someone could break a tooth. I bake all that until it bubbles. At this point, I’m not even measuring much because I’ve done it before and I kind of know it by feel. One of my college roommates taught me her New Orleans-style version, which included Cajun spice and easy-melt cheese (because we were in college and poor). Nobody I knew used eggs.

When I have questions about food authenticity, I call Deah Berry Mitchell, contributing writer for the Dallas Morning News, historian, and owner of Soul of DFW Tours and the new multimedia Nostalgia:Black (Facebook.com/NostalgiaBlackApp). Mitchell’s Cornbread & Collard Greens: How West African Cuisine and Slavery Influenced Soul Food confirms the Hemmings story, which doesn’t have a happy ending — he committed suicide after ultimately regaining his freedom here and becoming a professional chef in Baltimore.

Courtesy Amazon.com

“James Hemmings is the founding father of American cuisine,” Mitchell told me. “Foods that we hold near and dear were brought into the Americas and modified by James Hemmings, including ice cream, French fries, and crème brûlée.”

And as far as the eggs go, Mitchell says they’re not an unusual addition. “A lot of us prefer the more traditionally firm, baked texture. Afro-Caribbeans call it ‘macaroni pie.’ ”

The key, according to Mitchell: a super-cheesy, browned crust on top with a gooey consistency in the center.

Macaroni and cheese may have been a treat among the wealthy Anglos in Hemmings’ time, but it also became a dish for poor people of all nationalities. Any government food subsidy includes pasta because it’s cheap. The rations also usually included a large block of American or perhaps processed cheese. Ironically, the blue box of Kraft mac ’n’ cheese was a post-Depression era invention and a way to feed a family with just a tablespoon of butter and a tiny bit of milk. A macaroni and cheese that started with a roux was a luxury.

Still hungry for another perspective, I chatted with Katrina Carpenter, possibly the best cook I know. The co-proprietor of Carpenter’s Café (which should re-open in its revamped space in 2023), Carpenter has probably forgotten more about all kinds of soul food-style cooking than I will ever learn. I showed her Scott’s book, and, like me, she was a little puzzled by the inclusion of soup and eggs.

“I think it depends how you enjoy it,” she said. “I don’t like it as a casserole. It has to be creamy.”

Carpenter also starts her version with a roux and says that she uses up to five cheeses. “I switch it up based on who I’m serving.”

While the types of cheese vary, Carpenter also owns up to a little secret starter. She says she uses the sharp Kraft Old English cheese spread as a base, then shreds white sharp cheddar, Havarti, or muenster and definitely parmesan “because I like the bite in my mac ’n’ cheese.”

Carpenter combines the variety of cheeses with real cream and says that she will boil her standard-size elbow noodles (none of that large macaroni for her) in water and chicken stock to up the flavor.

And as far as my raised eyebrows about those cans of cheese soup: Carpenter and Mitchell cautioned me against being snobby. Both women said that my beloved Mexican shredded cheese blend from Costco is coated with an anti-caking ingredient that makes it harder for the cheese to melt. They told me to suck it up and shred my own cheese.

Although the way Carpenter makes her version is fairly spendy, she says it doesn’t have to be that way. “A lot of people use canned soup in recipes to substitute for something else.”

Mitchell says many of us get “overwhelmed” in the kitchen, adding that she actually appreciates Scott’s approachability in using foods and techniques that aren’t intimidating. “His food looks good and tastes great, and he has a range of dishes from top-level, highly experienced to something more approachable.”

And it’s true that Scott’s book offers an enthusiastic tone with limited judgment. While I couldn’t get a hold of him by press time, it’s plain that the self-taught chef has thought this through.

On his blog, his lobster “mac and cheese” involves a roux, truffle butter, regular butter, and raclette and gouda cheeses along with the lobster, so if you’re looking to fancify your prosperity-bringing mac for New Year’s Eve or Day, go to CookDrankEat.com.

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