The Tantalizing, Great-Smelling, Good-for-You, You’d-Better-Eat-It, Dreadful, Memorable “Cheesy Mac”

By Afton H. Stuart

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    Every family has them—little sayings or anecdotes that are passed on with relish, laughter, or tears from one generation to the next.

    Great-grandmother Elizabeth, a shipwright’s daughter, attributed her long life to the fact that she was “never too busy to bring my stern to port on a chair,” and Great-aunt Caddie described someone as “pale as a dishrag!”

    The family also relates with glee a story about my great-great-grandfather during the Mormon trek westward in 1848. It seems that when the herd-boys brought the cows into camp at night, poor great-great-grandfather (dentist, sulfur-match maker, and city-bred scholar), try as he would, could never identify his own cows but always had to have them pointed out to him. And it is told that when he repaired his leaking roof at Winter Quarters in Iowa, he began laying the shingles at the top of the roof rather than at the bottom, with the result that when the next rain came, water poured in on his hapless family.

    Great-great-grandfather is known as well, however, for making Brigham Young’s Sunday-best false teeth (of gold, no less), and for the words of a hymn that we still sing.

    These endearing phrases and stories have become just as much a part of our family as our ancestors themselves, and are remembered gladly—sometimes with a smile, and sometimes with a sigh when we realize that behind the humor there are real people who endured many things with courage and commitment. My sighs become deep and heartfelt, however, when I realize that one day I, too, must take my place among my honored ancestors in the memories of generations to come—not for any noble deeds, but alas! only for “Cheesy Mac.”

    It began with the best of intentions. I saw the recipe in the newspaper, and it sounded both tasty and inexpensive. (Nine years of school for Darrel, my husband, plus a move to Nevada, had given me a sharp eye for a thrifty dish.) I found that I had all the necessary ingredients in the house, so I set about to prepare this tantalizing new meal. I cooked the macaroni and drained it, then fried the onions to transparent tenderness. I shredded firm Swiss cheese into a large bowl containing the tomato sauce, added the onions and herbs, and folded in the macaroni. Lovely! Now only the cottage cheese remained to be added. I stirred it with a careful hand into the other ingredients and stood back. Earlier I had visualized the sharp color contrasts of red and white and had decided that with a green vegetable and a lettuce salad I would have a passable and attractive meal.

    Now I had to admit that the effect was not quite what I had expected. My beautiful bright-red sauce had turned a strange whitish-pink, with the bits of cheese, cottage cheese, and macaroni floating in it like unidentifiable foreign objects. Heavens!—what would my family think?

    Well, maybe the taste would make up for it, I concluded as I grabbed a spoon. Yes, the taste was tangy, oniony, herby, just as I had imagined. We would eat it, and with relish. With only minor trepidation I poured the concoction into two casserole dishes, sprinkled more Swiss cheese on top of each, then thrust one into the hot oven and the second into the refrigerator to serve as the main attraction at tomorrow night’s meal, when my husband would be home from the experimental farm at Winnemucca.

    The dish baked as I called Ellen, our oldest daughter, to set the table. She gave the air an appreciative sniff when she walked through the kitchen. “Mmm, Mom, something smells good!”

    “Yes,” I replied in my brightest tones, “it’s a new recipe I’m trying. Lots of good things in it.”

    As we gathered around the table, I removed the casserole from the oven and set it down with a flourish. The children, whose happy chatter had brightened the atmosphere, suddenly became very quiet, all of them staring, horrified, at the steaming dish before them.

    My fervent hope that the appearance of the casserole would be improved in the baking dissolved right along with my appetite. The cheese I had sprinkled on top was a wonderful golden brown, but odd curdled-appearing pinkish sauce had bubbled up through it, and here and there a white round of macaroni or a blob of cottage cheese peeped through. My brave smile was sinking fast.

    David, the eldest, pointed wide-eyed at the casserole. “What …” he asked in measured syllables, “is … THAT?”

    I babbled. “It’s called Cheesy Mac. It’s got lovely tomato sauce and onions and herbs. It tastes very good. You’ll see, when you eat it.”

    “Mom,” he replied slowly, “it looks like someone has already eaten it!”

    “David, that’s not nice,” I scolded. But in view of his remark and the anguished looks on the other faces turned up to mine, I thought it would be best to say the blessing on the food myself, even though it wasn’t my turn.

    “Mama, do I have to eat it?” asked Harold, our big-eyed five-year-old, who was usually my most cooperative child.

    “Yes, dear,” I replied firmly. “You know what the rule is at our house.”

    Obedient to the rule, each child took a small helping and forced down a bite or two. Anne, the littlest, watched her brothers and sister and then spat out the spoonful I gave her. I helped myself to a good-sized portion and praised its virtues. But my comments were answered with a chorus of groans.

    Dinner went a little better the next night. My husband was kind enough to eat two helpings of Cheesy Mac, but I saw the large bites he was taking, and how fast he swallowed. Afterward I looked ruefully at the leftovers, and when no one was looking I put them down the garbage disposal. Enough was enough. The recipe I buried under the papers in the wastebasket. “That,” I thought, “is the end of that.”

    I couldn’t have been more wrong.

    The Cheesy Mac episode occurred more than fifteen years ago, but even now it haunts me. I never know when it will come, but it is often after I have prepared a tasty but thrifty meal. One of our young people will look around and say, “Well, at least it wasn’t Cheesy Mac!” or, “Do you remember Cheesy Mac?” That’s all it takes. There will be smiles, followed by giggles, then by shouts of laughter as one or another of the family recounts in detail the ghastly appearance of that ancient fiasco. I have to join in the merriment.

    David is most often the antagonist. He can’t resist such a good tease. I had hoped that when this handsome eldest son of mine was away from home for two years as a missionary he might forget about it, but he hadn’t been home a week when he put his hand on my shoulder and with an impish gleam in his eye said, “Mom, do you remember Cheesy Mac?”

    Someday, I’m sure, I will be busy working around the kitchen preparing a meal for my grandchildren and one of them will look up at me with anxious eyes. “Grandma,” he will question, “you aren’t fixing Cheesy Mac, are you?” And years later, as I totter slowly about making a little snack for my great-granddaughter, she, too, will look up at me and say, “This isn’t Cheesy Mac, is it, Grandma?”

    I am resigned to it. Other progenitors will be known and deservedly revered for crossing the plains, facing natural disasters with courage high, accomplishing great deeds against impossible odds. I, only I, will be remembered for Cheesy Mac.

    Illustrated by Dennis Millard

    Show References

    • Afton H. Stuart, mother of five, is Relief Society food specialist in her Logan, Utah, ward.