Journey into designer mac & cheese and vending machine food, and get an upset stomach just reading the menu.

I’m going to do in my blog life exactly what I do in real life: ignore (St.) Valentine’s Day, a minor Christian holiday with pagan roots that has developed into an annual ritual in which human beings buy unneeded luxuries to publicly profess a formal and commercialized version of love.  No holiday represents the commercialization of emotion quite like Valentine’s Day, especially for those who exchange hard-earned cash for pieces of stone set in various metal configurations for display on visible parts of the body of the beloved.  Oops, I guess I did say a little something about this commemoration of false and second-hand sentiment.

Let’s turn instead to the culinary nightmare I endured on an overnight to Boston last Friday to read poetry as part of the monthly Chapter & Verse reading series.  Don’t get me wrong—the food I actually ate was delicious, as it usually is when I make one of my frequent trips to Boston. But the food I read about and encountered in my hotel—that was an incredible array of bad nutrition and bad taste.

It started in the little monthly “What’s happening in City X” publication of ads and ad-like stories that you can usually find in most hotels in major cities.  One of the food stories was a comparison of tricked-out versions of macaroni and cheese that you can get at mid-range and upscale Boston restaurants.  First we start with the reference point, which was not the well of nostalgia that comes from thinking about from-scratch macaroni and Velveeta or mild-and-orange cheddar that I loved when my mother served it as a kid.  No, as the headline of the article proclaims, “Not Your Average Kraft,” the reference point was a boxed food product that, like all processed food (including my now-despised Velveeta), is laden with chemicals, extenders and salt. 

All of the mac & cheeses in the article were over-the-top concoctions loaded with calories and probably salt that combined two or more flavors that tended to blur—at least in my imagination, which is pretty good when it comes to food—into a mélange of salty and sweet.  Mixing ingredients in interesting combinations is the essence of interesting cuisine, but these recipes all suffered from too much of everything.  Some examples:

  • Small bits of fried chicken embedded in a Velveeta-style cheese sauce covering the macaroni.  I’m guessing that every one of these bites of chicken is completely covered with deep fried batter.
  • In a three-cheese sauce (meaning there are probably also extenders) in which swim chunks of ham and roasted jalapeño, all poured over shells.
  • A Gouda Mornay sauce (that means a cream sauce, which likely also means lots of extenders and substitutes) with crispy Italian bacon fondling elbow macaroni.
  • Macaroni coated with a béchamel sauce (again, more cream and cream substitutes) enhanced with two types of cheeses and truffle oil (in case you don’t have enough fat) and topped with crushed Ritz crackers, sea salt and thyme.

You can spot the common theme in all these (and the unmentioned) recipes of this article in virtually every fast-food and upscale chain restaurant ad you see on TV these days.  The key word is excess:

  • Excess in flavors that meld into a wash of salty sweet
  • Excess of the fried
  • Excess of calories
  • Excess of salt

I guess that’s why they call them food products.

The message that sells all of these recipes is part of the hidden ideology of American consumerism:  remaining in or longing for childhood.  Every family has its own “comfort food,” but what Kraft and so many of its competitors have done since about 1960 is to connect the nostalgia to processed mac & cheese to create another reason to buy the product.  It’s not just convenient and cheap, it also gives your children a childhood memory similar to your own…and helps you to remember your own.  To a large degree, then, the very feeling of comfort that you are supposed to get from mac & cheese has 1) been instilled in many by the great American dream machine, as opposed to being the natural outcome of childhood experience; and 2) serves as yet another way to puerilized adults, that is, keep them thinking, acting, buying (and voting) as children.  It’s this third-party perversion of nostalgia that these restaurants play upon in offering their upscale versions of this “American classic.” 

Now to the other part of my culinary nightmare, and we don’t have to spend much time analyzing this one, since it is, as educated Romans used to say, res ipsa loquitar, a thing that proves itself.

Brace yourself, those OpEdge readers who try to eat nutritiously and keep their weight at a healthy level:   In one of the vending-machine-and-icemaker nooks in the hallway of the hotel was a Tombstone Deep Dish Pizza vending machine that dispensed already hot food products.  The offerings included no pizza, but did run the gamut from the fat-and-salt-laden to the fat-and-salt-laden:

  • Fries
  • Chicken bits (battered and fried)
  • Chicken strips (again, battered and fried)
  • Chicken taquitos (chicken bits in a wrap)

Your humble writer did not partake.

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