Finding the (real) recipe for mom’s macaroni and cheese

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

This week I started reading “Stuffed,” a food memoir by Patricia Volk. The book is a tribute to Volk’s family members and the food they made her growing up. Each chapter, which is named after a special type of food, is about a different family member. One of the things I love about the book is how Volk captures the way that food connects us to others. Food, she reminds us, is an integral part of our relationships. We go out to eat with our spouses, we cook meals for our kids, we share recipes with friends …

Food triggers memories of childhood, major events in our life, and the loved ones we hold dear. I can’t look at butterscotch chips without thinking of my maternal grandma, for instance. We used to make butterscotch cookies together a lot when I was a kid. Baking with Grandma was especially fun because I could break the rules; she always let me eat a handful (or two, or three) of the butterscotch chips and lick the spoon without worrying about how messy I got.

Spaghetti with peas reminds me of my dad because it’s the one meal he consistently cooked after my mom died. Coffee ice cream reminds me of a guy I used to date, and lemon loaves remind me of another guy I dated. After my relationship with these guys fizzled out, I found myself craving the food that reminded me of them, thinking it would help me feel closer to what I had lost.

Mac and cheese reminds me of my mom. She made the world’s best mac and cheese, or so I thought as a little kid. My paternal grandma, “Gramz,” has tried replicating it throughout the years, but it never tasted quite the same. Turns out, Gramz had been using the wrong recipe. We discovered this at Christmastime after my maternal grandma pointed out that Mom’s recipe came from my great-grandmother, not from the generic mac & cheese recipe we had been following. My grandma just mailed me the handwritten recipe, so today I decided to make it. It doesn’t taste nearly as good as Mom’s, probably because she improvised it, making minor changes here and there that didn’t make it onto the recipe card.

The look, taste and smell of the mac and cheese I made still remind me of her, though. Someday, when I write a memoir about my mom, you can be sure mac and cheese will be mentioned in it. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to perfect it.

Here’s the recipe if you want to try it:


–1/2 lb Elbow macaroni

–2 cups grated cheese (American)

–1 cup hot milk

–1 cup buttered breadcrumbs (This seemed like way too much. I’d probably use a half a cup next time.)


–Cook macaroni until tender.

–Place a layer of grated cheese in a buttered baking dish, then a layer of macaroni. Alternate until the dish is filled.

–Season with salt and pepper.

–Pour hot milk over the mac and cheese, then cover it with the buttered breadcrumbs.

–Cover the dish and bake for 30 minutes at 350.