I come from a family that has mastered the art of the production. So when I found myself at the grocery store after a long day of classes with an even longer list on a highlighter colored sticky note I could help but inhale a deep breath of anxiety, I am nothing like my mother. I realized I have no idea how to cook a meal for actual people.
I traced my memory back to the shuffle of the kitchen when my mom threw dinner parties for her and her friends, and well, my mom could pull it off better than anyone I’ve ever met. I must have picked up something. I had forty-five minutes to complete the shopping for the perfect meal in time to meet my sister back at Crissey Hall, Kalamazoo College.
When I think about the perfect meal my mind first came to comfort food, however the comfort food I think of has nothing to do with the comfort food in the cafeteria.
Mac n Cheese, a comfort food staple, has been ruined by the cafeteria. The noodles flavorless saturated with some strange cheese glop just doesn’t have the same appeal as Mac N Cheese made with actual cheese. So, that’s what I set out to do, ease my friends nearing exam stress with the perfect comfort food.
The menu planned was my mom’s baked Mac n cheese with a breaded top, green beans, and for dessert, Funfetti cupcakes.
Into my cart went Gruyere cheese, pecorino Romano cheese, and sharp white cheddar cheese, soft white bread, vanilla frosting, and pounds of elbow macaroni. I snatched other necessities for a meal off of the neatly organized shelves. I traced back and forth through the fluorescent lighting of Harding’s.
I unloaded my plastic bags on the table of the Crissey Hall Kitchen while my roommate Tess carried down skillets, salt, and a mixing bowl, Jordan arrived with cayenne pepper, and black pepper.
I have never wished that I could have more arms as much as I did then. I needed one to shoo Tess away from the stove, another to whisk the hot milk with the butter, and another to toss the bread in a buttered mixture while grating the three blocks of cheese.
I realized I didn’t have any cupcake papers. Something once as trivial as cupcake papers then seemed like I had forgotten something as integral to cooking as say, one of the two arms that I actually do have. Tess ran upstairs only to bring down a flimsy silicon cake pan, it then looked as if dessert would consist of funfetti cake instead.
My sister Grace arrived from my hometown with a casserole tin and a cheese grater. I was in business. I had two ovens blazing, noodles cooking, and milk, butter, flour and cheese hardening into a cheese sauce.
“But I’m hungry now,” Tess said, “Let me help.”
Breaking my own rule that I would cook the entire meal myself, I handed over the whisk.
Eric and Morgan arrived next.
The kitchen was hot but my friends kept the conversation going over the modest mouse CD I had playing quietly. They were laughing about how horribly a Developmental Psychology exam had gone, they were talking about the first jobs they ever had. It started to feel less like a stressful production and more like comfort. I put the cake in the oven.
The cheese sauce wouldn’t thicken, but it was something that we could laugh at. Jordan told a story about how once I had broiled a tin of banana bread by accident. Eric explained how overrated perfect is, we were all friends, it was fine.
The cheese sauce became a whole with the noodles and was poured into the buttered casserole dish. I didn’t even spill, but I held my breath the whole time. I felt like a kid playing the game of operation. I layered the buttered, torn bread over the top of the noodles.
The pan was heavy like good comfort food should be, and the oven was warm as I slid the Mac n cheese into its open mouth.
The cake was ready to come out of the other oven and I set it on the cold burner to breathe.
I set my eyes on steaming the green beans next. I had already clipped the ends and I carefully placed them on the steamer above the boiling pot of water. The lip had to rest on top of the beans slender stalks, as there wasn’t as much room in the pot as I had planned. Lifting the lid to check on their tender green stalks led to instant steam burn.
“Shit,” I said.
“I’m willing to lie to you and tell you that the food is good,” Grace said.
That’s what sisters are for.
Next I had to figure out how to get the cake in all of its confetti colored glory out of the cake pan.
“Flip it,” was being yelled throughout the Crissey basement kitchen, and I’ve never been one to not take a dare, and so I did it. The no stick silicon had decided to take a few chunks prisoner, but the cake on a whole flipped. I used the whole can of frosting, apart from what fingers had already swiped from the jar.
What I couldn’t forget is that cake tastes like cake no matter what shape it’s in.
I am not my mother. Not yet, anyways.
Modest mouse had switched to The Mountain Goats and the smells from the baked Mac N Cheese were starting to gush out from the oven.
It was done.
I had to use huge hunks of cardboard to manage to slide the heavy casserole dish out into the kitchen. Sometimes college students have to improvise. The bread on top was golden brown and the cheese sauce had decided to thicken to its desired consistency.
Maddy and Erin, two of my other roommates arrived in perfect time with their forks.
We were all ready to eat.
It was a Friday night so there were talks of evening plans, but other than that it was silent and appreciative.
There is something about eating together that is such a unifying experience. We felt happy because we didn’t slide our plates along a conveyor belt in order for food to be splashed across the blue surface. We had privacy in the otherwise empty kitchen.
Even though I was the only one who had shopped, grated cheese, and attempted to create a production of comfort food, everyone had taken part in the creation of the meal just by being there.
And that, just like the taste of the sharp cheddar and the buttered and crunchy bread, the salted green beans, and the sweet, frosted, slightly sad looking cake was completely perfect.