A few days ago we got a box of Ward’s Berry Farm vegetables delivered with our weekly Crescent Ridge milk. When I opened it and saw three bags of green gold — arugula, pea greens, lettuce — I almost wept with joy. I immediately ate a salad the size of my head. It was so good. I felt the vitamins coursing through my veins. I thought about powerlifting something. I mean, I didn’t, but I thought about it.
Today I ate a giant bowl of mac and cheese and some ice cream, straight from the carton. Nobody else likes the peppermint stick but me.
Some days are all Yeah, Salad! And some days are very Console Me With Carbs. I know we’re not supposed to eat our feelings, but hey man, it’s a pandemic out there. Sometimes I look at the chocolate chip cookie and think: If I’m dead tomorrow, my ghost will hover, stuck with longing on this plane, still eyeing that cookie. If I’m dead tomorrow, I will regret not having eaten it. Then I eat the cookie, and I don’t regret it, so there you go. Clearly the right choice.
I think we’ve moved past comfort food at this point. We’re on to coping food. When I’m not uncomfortably aware of living through history in a bad way on a daily basis, my tastes tend toward the spicy, the intensely acidic, the lighter and brighter end of the food spectrum. Now, suddenly, I want chili with tortilla chips and sour cream; thick, crusty slices of grandma pizza; pasta in all of its glorious incarnations; cereal. I never eat cereal. I’m not the only one: My husband recently procured a package of what he’s referring to as his “COVID-19 Oreos.” If he’s going to go out, he’s going to do it with Double Stuf.
I just saw a Facebook video in which a woman told me to “binge better” on a date wrapped in a romaine leaf, and I am sorry, but fudge that, like, to the ends of the earth. I also keep getting ads for weight-loss solutions in my social-media feed, like “Hey girrrrl, hear you’re quarantined. What better way to spend the time than self-flagellating all by your lonesome, emerging in however many months so svelte no one recognizes you!” There is no virtue in self-denial. That isn’t “being good.” And it’s certainly not being good to yourself.
Here is the thing: We talk about eating our feelings like it’s bad, and it can be, but I don’t believe it to be inherently so, even in more ordinary times. Balance is important. Nutrition is important. But food is a resonant substance. It ties us to childhood, to nurturing, to love. That can be deeply complicated, but it can also be quite simple. There is some legitimate comfort to be found there. And pleasure. Pleasure is good. Pleasure is worth entertaining.
This macaroni and cheese recipe, from Martha Stewart, is one of the most pleasure-giving I know: coping food extraordinaire. When there’s a potluck or a tailgate or a birthday, it is the dish everyone requests. I’ve made it so many times I could do it in my sleep, and I probably have once or twice, back when my son was an infant.
The original recipe calls for buttery bread crumbs on top. I never include them, but if you’d like to, take 6 slices of good white bread, remove crusts, and tear into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces. Place in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons unsalted butter. Pour the melted butter into the bowl with the bread and toss. Reserve and sprinkle over the top of the casserole, after adding the cheeses, before putting in the oven to bake. If you’re an add-in kind of person, you can also stir in blanched broccoli, cubed ham, sauteed sausage, and so on. I generally don’t bother with add-ins, skip the spices to accommodate kids, and (generally) use Parmesan as my second cheese because it’s what I’m more likely to have on hand.
Macaroni and Cheese 101
1 pound elbow macaroni (or whatever smaller pasta shape you like)
5 1/2 cups milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 ground nutmeg (optional)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (optional)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
4 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar cheese
2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyere or 1 1/4 cups (about 5 ounces) grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese.
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cover a large pot of salted water and bring to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions, on the lower end of the time range. Drain in a colander.
2. Warm the milk in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Melt the butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When the butter bubbles, add the flour. Cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes, until the flour starts to smell lightly toasty.
3. While stirring, slowly pour in the hot milk a little at a time to keep mixture smooth. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick, 8-12 minutes.
4. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt; nutmeg, black pepper, and cayenne pepper (if using); 3 cups cheddar cheese; and 1 1/2 cups Gruyere (or 1 cup Pecorino or Parmesan). Stir the pasta into the cheese sauce.
5. Transfer the mixture to a 3-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar and 1/2 cup Gruyere (or 1/4 cup Pecorino or Parmesan) over the top. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. If it’s not getting as brown as you like, you can finish it under the broiler. Let cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then serve.
Adapted from “The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics,” by the editors of Martha Stewart Living.
Thinking of you, good people.