Those of you who know me well know that I enjoy cooking. I truly enjoy it, very much so. I find it relaxing and fun. I am not a fancy cook -- I don’t make fruffy dinners out of ingredients that can only be found in specialty shops (and I hate it when cooking shows say things like “You can find argan tree oil at open-air markets in Morocco, but if you aren’t planning a trip there any time soon, walnut oil works great, too!”). Nor, however, do I cook with some of the ingredients that are considered staples in many American homes. Things like corn flakes as a topping for a casserole, condensed mushroom soup, or meat of any kind in a can. Eggs get deviled -- ham never should. And if it is, should not be sealed in a can, impervious to natural or man-made destruction for all time.
Another food I have never cooked with is Velveeta, which is not cheese, but rather “processed cheese food.” Is it food for my cheese, like cat food is food for my cat? No. Food that is like cheese, I guess. I have never understood that phrase. But it never mattered, because Velveeta never crossed my threshold.
Why am I telling you about Velveeta? Well, I wanted to make this particular macaroni and cheese that I have enjoyed at my brother-in-law's sister's house at Christmas-time. They are Italian and do the “Seven Fishes” thing on Christmas Eve, although it’s usually only 3 or four fishes. But they also serve macaroni and cheese made with spaghetti instead of elbows or those other squiggly noodles you sometimes find in macaroni and cheese. There is no corn flake topping, just the crunchy wonderfulness of cheese-baked spaghetti, and it is amazingly good. I wanted some of that last night. Macaroni and cheese made with spaghetti. Yes sir.
I called my sister and she verbalized the recipe for me since it isn’t written down anywhere. She told me she never made it, but that her sister-in-law told her what it was once. It went something like this: “Cook the spaghetti to al dente since it is going in the oven anyway. Then you chunk up some Velveeta and put half in a pot with milk…” and that was point at which I stopped listening. Velveeta? We used to use Velveeta as bait at Pay Pond, the place where trout were jam-packed stocked in this little pond and you paid the owner for all the fish you caught. This was long before I learned how to fly fish, so we would roll up balls of Velveeta, put it on the hook of our spinning rod, cast out and whammo! We had trout for dinner. But I had never cooked with it, and I had certainly never actually eaten Velveeta…or had I?
And wait a minute, are you telling me that these people, these Italians whose fresh-caught fried flounder melted in your mouth, whose clams posillipo tasted like heaven, these people used processed cheese food? In a casserole that also contained spaghetti they made that day from flour and egg that was formed into a dough, then forced through a machine that was clamped to the end of the table, making long strips of fresh pasta? After all that, they were topping it with Velveeta?
Well, I wanted me some of that macaroni and cheese, so off to the store I went. I didn’t even know where to look for Velveeta. I went first to the dairy aisle because it is cheese, after all. Nope, it wasn't there. So I went to the cheese case where the fancier cheeses are kept. Oh God, no, please don’t let it be there. Nope, it wasn't there, either. Finally, I asked a clerk, even though I didn’t want this 17-year old to know that I was actually cooking with Velveeta “Excuse me, but where can I find Velveeta? Not that I am cooking with it, mind you. I need for my daughter’s science fair project.” Wow. It was scary how the lie just escaped from my lips as easily as "super-size it, please" normally does. Especially since I don’t even have children. But I was too embarrassed to let anyone know I was purchasing food that I considered white trashy. Or bait. “Um, yeah, aisle 8,” he replied without even looking up from his phone as he busily sent text messages with his right hand while he stocked tuna fish where the baking powder should go with his left hand. “Aisle 8?” I thought to myself? There are no refrigerator cases there. No, indeed.
I arrived in aisle 8 and there it was: A full array of Velveeta processed cheese food, in various sizes ranging from personal cheese food snack to polygamist-compound-family sized 5 gallon tub. After my initial shock over the amount of shelf space it commanded, I gathered my wits and reached for the 8-ounce brick. It was then that my eyes fell on the price for this product, this orange-colored food that didn’t need to be refrigerated until after opening and had an expiration date of August 31, 2009: The price was $7.99! For Velveeta? For trout bait? Are you kidding me?
I put it in the basket along with the spaghetti, then quickly paid and fled the scene before anyone could see me or the contents of my environmentally incorrect plastic shopping bag. At home I followed the directions, at least up until the part where I stopped listening. After assembling the cooked spaghetti, Velveeta, milk, real actual cheddar and Parmesan cheeses (thank God for that at least!), I put it in the oven until it was done. I don’t remember how long it was actually in the oven because I was busy licking the Velveeta wrapper.
When the top looked like it did on Christmas Eve, I removed it from the oven and let it sit for a minute to allow the cheese food to absorb back in to the pasta. Then I cut into it and served it up. And it was...delicious.
Yeah. Velveeta is now a staple in my home too. But don’t tell my gay boyfriends. They would be appalled. It’ll be our little secret, okay? Wanna come over for dinner? We’re having macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole and Underwood deviled ham toast points.
Copyright (c) 2009 Leslie R Becker