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November 29, 2006

Grandpa’s Macaroni and the Mystery of Brown


There are ways to honor your ancestors. One is the time-honored tradition of the estate sale. Another is to keep alive their memory through the things they ate and the things they cooked.


This is especially true around the holidays, when families get together and memories are shared. It is appropriate to think once or twice of those so rudely prevented from attending by death.


As far as I know, my grandfather never cooked his macaroni casserole in my presence. But I have seen the recipe written out in longhand, the ink fading and the yellow paper creased to the point of falling apart. We keep his memory alive by converting ink to pixels.


He grew up in a more innocent age, when the link between grease and clogged arteries was still a mystery. So our story begins with the first chapter, called A Pound of Browned Ground Beef.


Like many stories, the story really starts with a flashback, to three eggs boiling on the stove.  These, you may make well ahead of time, and provide them enough time to cool to a temperature perfectly suited to slicing.


The first chapter really starts with a large, chopped onion, sautéed in olive oil and garlic. When the onion has softened – releasing its onion-y goodness – add the meat and also a generous handful of sliced mushrooms.


Here, a word about the complexities of the color brown. Do not let it fool you into thinking that it is a simple color. It is a slippery thing. The meat browns, and releases its flavor. But, brown will not be locked down. The mushrooms will also brown, but will absorb. A slippery color, that brown.


Chew on the complexities of brown another time. It is time to turn the page to the second chapter, which we will call Boiled Macaroni. It is a simple enough process – boil water, add macaroni for about 8-10 minutes.


As they converse, it will be time to introduce the browned ground meat and browned mushrooms to the rest of the family – a large can of crushed tomatoes, a can of tomato paste, a teaspoon each of sugar and salt and also half a teaspoon of black pepper. Mix them, bind them together with a wooden spoon. Give each ingredient the opportunity to size up the others.


The temptation becomes powerful to substitute.  Here, perhaps the thought strikes you to brown slices of Italian sausage. Or, perhaps the thought struck you at the beginning to substitute bulk sausage for ground beef.


Creativity is a powerful tool for good.  Here, it would be wrong to endorse altering someone’s original idea. It is a cheap, passive way to claim it as your own.


However, it can be reported that upon cooking this recipe, slices of Italian sausage were indeed browned and added; and at no time did the spectral face of my grandfather appear, hovering above me and frowning in disapproval. Make of that what you will.


We have arrived at the third chapter, known to some as The Grand Introduction. It is as simple as mixing the macaroni and meat sauce. At this point, you could declare yourself finished. Yet, you forget your flashback. The eggs – how could you have been so careless?


After preheating the oven to 350 degrees – a foreshadowing of things to come – turn the meat sauce into a roasting pan.  Atop that goes a layer of cottage cheese, and atop that goes a layer of shredded cheddar cheese. Lay the egg slices on top, and you will have reached the crucial fourth chapter, Into the Oven.


It is the climax, and it should last about 20 minutes – long enough to melt the cheese into a top tier of fatty goodness.


Move now into denouement, and pull the pan from the oven. Allow it to cool. In about 20 minutes, you will be able to author your own epilogue, of people sitting around a table patting full bellies while somewhere the spirit of a retired police officer and avid fisherman wonders how his grandchildren ever got to be so goofy.


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