One cheap eat we rediscovered was macaroni and cheese. It'd always been a favorite of mine—blame childhood memories or what have you—but it’s not something we normally made while living in Chicago. We had been eating a lot of ramen noodles, so I figured if I was already reverting to my high school and college diet, why not throw in mac and cheese as well?
The first night I decided to demonstrate my culinary abilities by cooking a meal from a box, I stumbled over the directions. Not that I'm an imbecile; they were in Spanish and the pictogram was not entirely clear. There was one crucial step that seemed to be missing: Drain.
There was an incident when I was nine or ten years old—we'll call it the Macaroni and Cheese Incident—that my mother still gleefully shares over holiday meals and other family get-togethers. I had taken it upon myself to prepare the deliciously cheesy goodness, carefully measuring the water (who measures the water?) then watching closely as it boiled. I stirred the noodles so they wouldn't stick to the bottom of the pan. I added the milk and butter, stirred some more, then the coup de grace: the cheese.
But something was amiss.
The pasta had the orangey-yellow color it was supposed to, but it didn’t look the same as when my mom or sister made it.
I called my mom from the other room. Maybe she could help me solve this mystery.
"Did you drain it?"
I looked at her, the blank expression on my face answering her question.
She picked up the box and pointed to those five letters I'd overlooked. There it was. D-r-a-i-n. Oops.
We drained the macaroni (can’t include the cheese as it went down the drain with the water) then stared at the noodles as if an answer would rise from the depths of the non-stick pan.
"I'll eat it. I don’t care if the cheese isn’t there." I insisted.
I don't recall how much I actually digested, but I had a point to prove.
Since that day, my mother salivates at the chance to share that story with anyone who will listen. I remind her that I was very young—and what was I doing trying to cook at that age anyway? But she ignores me and teases that I've never been a whiz in the kitchen. My husband claims this, too, but I disagree with them both. I managed to get myself to age thirty—at which point he took over preparing my meals—without bouts of malnourishment or trips to the emergency room.
Now, back to the Mexican macaroni. Drain, you see, was missing from the directions.
"Can you please read these directions to me?"
He joined me in the kitchen and grabbed the box. "What? You can't read this?" He was always getting on me about practicing my Spanish and liked to challenge me whenever I asked for his help.
"I can read it, but I think it's missing a step and I want to make sure I don't screw up your gourmet meal."
He looked at the box and began to read aloud. I listened closely and heard nothing of draining. How can that be? Since that incident years ago I've always drained religiously, making sure every trace of unwanted water is shaken free from the noodles.
"Are you sure I'm not supposed to drain it?"
He looked once more but was already getting frustrated with my insistence. I can be anal at times (understatement) and it gets on his nerves (understatement). "It doesn't say anything about draining."
This can't be right. I bit my tongue and fought the urge to ask him again. I searched the box one more time. Nothing.
"Ok, I'll do what the directions say, but I want to warn you, this may not turn out right."
He smiled and touched my cheek. "That's okay, honey. I don't expect it to."
I did as instructed, pouring the cheese packet into the boiling water with trepidation. My mother's words came back to me. "Did you drain it?" No I didn't drain it because the box said not to and I made him check but he said it doesn't say to drain it. Maybe Mexicans don't really know how to make macaroni and cheese, but the company that prints the box should know how it's done, and I still don't think this is right!
The cheese dissolved into the boiling water and the entire pot took on that infamous orange hue. I watched with dread, cautiously stirring the pasta. To my surpise, the water level lowered. Not suddenly—this wasn't a science project with exploding chemicals—but slowly, so slowly you could almost miss it. When the required fifteen minutes passed, the noodles absorbed nearly all the water and it looked like… macaroni and cheese!
I dipped the spoon into the pan and took a bite. It tasted like macaroni and cheese! Eureka, I did it!
"Honey, dinner's ready."
I'm cured. I am now a master chef.