[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]
I went to elementary school in an old mansion on the North side of Red Mountain overlooking Birmingham. It was donated to the Dominicans and the nuns converted the first two floors into classrooms and such with the third a convent dormitory. A few times a year two or three grades at a time gathered in a largish reception area bounded by the chapel, the library, and a classroom that housed the second grade for a while before swapping to house the fourth. It only had one easily coverable window so it was an ideal makeshift movie theater. The nuns set up an old reel to reel projector in back and showed us ninety-fifth run movies on a tripod mounted roll-down screen. The best seats were on the stairs.
After the movie we ran around the playground whacking each other with sticks as sword stand ins after watching Ivanhoe, arguing about who hit or missed with imaginary arrows after The Adventures of Robin Hood, and really arguing about who got to be Steve McQueen’s Captain Hilts (the coolest Cooler King ever) after The Great Escape. The movies were so old James Garner may have been the only actor who was still alive when we saw him on that tiny screen, but we didn’t know that. We were not learning and that was what mattered.
Ivanhoe got me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how cool being a knight must have been. My friends and I made shields with three layers of cut up cardboard boxes and duct tape. They held up pretty well against our stolen real estate stake and duct tape swords. At one point we tried bicycle jousting with brooms, but somebody got hurt and threatened to tell. Even when I was too old to run around the neighborhood thwacking stuff I still daydreamed about travelling back in time to the age of chivalry. For a year or so all my Dungeon and Dragon characters were named Ivanhoe or Ivanhoe II, Ivanhoe III, etc.
I didn’t dream entirely of the past. I was often a Jedi or a Starfleet captain, but knights and old castles figured prominently in my fantasy life.
As an urbane and worldly teenager, I had the good sense to keep my nerdier fascinations to myself and wear a Led Zeppelin t-shirt (but not with a blue jean jacket because that identified you with the pot heads and got you kicked out of school even when your parents donated heavily, as several learned.) Somewhere around tenth grade or so I started reading P.J. O’Rourke. He was funny and irreverent and wrote like a guy that was going to wear a blue jean jacket no matter what that crusty old dean did.
I can’t remember which book it was in and can only find the quote online without context beyond authorship, but I do remember reading this from O’Rourke:
“In general, life is better than it has ever been, and if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: Dentistry.”
It was hard to think about an armored hero cooly leveling a lance to impale an oncoming rider knowing that the same hero likely lived in mortal fear of biting into an apple. In one sentence O’Rourke forever tainted my fantastic visions of medieval valor (D&D was still okay because we always had a cleric around and cleric > dentist.) I still had Kirk and Han.
The past gets too big a share of the oohs and aahs because we wistfully conjure times of innocence and simplicity without admitting the truth. Our seemingly complicated times are infinitely more innocent and simple that any we had the good fortune of being born after.
If we want to be warm, we turn up the thermostat. Hungry? Drive to your local food selling palace and complain to an apologetic manager that the tropical fruit on display is not labeled to reflect whatever currently chic growing practice you read about on the supercomputer you carry in your pocket. Cut yourself on a wine bottle foil? Squeeze a little anti-biotic ointment on it. You’ve had a tough day. Why don’t you relax in a hot bath.
Back in the past you’d have to brave wolves, bears, or wild pigs to collect the firewood you’d huddle around after spending who knows how long trying to get it lit, plant seeds months before and pray that the gods don’t send aphids, gophers, or locust to ruin all your hard work and if you were lucky enough to get a bit of meat it’s because you hunted, killed, and butchered it, hope those same gods don’t decide you earned a finger cut infection, and if you need to go down to the river to bathe bring guards, especially if you’re a woman, lest a raiding party from Clan Calder take you away.
This is nominally a post about macaroni and cheese. I was making just that while thinking how Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of the dish. He had a pasta machine sent from Naples to Paris and from there on to Monticello. It was a hell of an ordeal to make compared to now. He needed “a particular sort of flour called Semola” to make the paste which went into box ABC and was pressed through holes by screw DEF which was turned by inserting a key into hole K that went through part F and eventually he started importing dried pasta from Sicily because there was a wooden frame LLM which implies parts G,H,I, and J assuming that labels stop at M. This makes I,K,E, and A look like child’s play.
Now we swing by the nearest market, buy a blue box, boil some water, and stir. It’s easy. If you like to cook it’s maddeningly easy.
I’m rarely satisfied messing up a single pan so the following mac and cheese recipe suits me fine. It’s fun and not nearly so hard as all the slots and screwing and wishing that somebody had invented a phone so you could call Italy that Jefferson’s way requires but it is an older method. Think of it like modern camping. Spend some time doing things the way they had to do them way back in Eisenhower days. It’s invigorating; puts you back in touch with a pre-credit card era when power steering was a thing of fanciful stories and an Ampex VRT-1000 VCR could be yours for a mere $50,000. Once you try it, you’ll have trouble going back to the ease of the box. Sorry about that. Things were so much simpler now.
Mac & Cheese
- 1lb dried macaroni or penne
- 8 oz sharp cheddar, grated
- 3 tbsps unsalted butter
- 3 tbsps all purpose flour
- whole milk as needed
- cayenne pepper, optional
- salt to taste
Start by making a roux. Put the butter and flour in a saucepan over medium heat and stir, mixing the two together as the butter melts.
When the mixture starts to look like wet sand add a few glugs of milk and stir.
It’ll get smooth and then clumpy. When the mixture starts to clump, add more milk.
Do it again and again until while smooth it’s just thick enough to coat the back of a metal spoon. Congratulations. You’ve made Béchamel, one of the five mother sauces of classic French cooking.
Reduce to a medium low heat and start stirring in the cheese little by little until it’s all in and the sauce is smooth. Now you have taken a basic Béchamel and made a Mornay sauce.
Salt to taste and remove from heat.
I like to add a little powdered cayenne or Tabasco. Up to you.
Cook the macaroni in salted water as directed, drain, and then combine with the Mornay. If the sauce sat long enough to cool give it a minute over low heat before combining. You may have to stir in a splash of milk if it got too thick.
This mac & cheese is great on it’s own or as a side and clean up is awful. Seriously, that cheese sauce is going to make its claim as a permanent feature on the walls of your pans. Soaking makes it easier, but not by much. Sorry, but as the best chefs know you have to suffer for your craft.