There were a lot of crappy foods in my childhood meal rotations – cereals with way too much sugar, cheap meats, odd sandwich combinations, and frozen dinners – but I never ate macaroni and cheese until I was in my 40s. To this day, I have only eaten mac and cheese a few times.

It’s not because I am a food snob or anything – far from it. I grew up eating a lot of mediocre foodstuffs. In the 1960s, my brother and I ate beanie weenies almost every Sunday night while watching “Bonanza” or “Ed Sullivan.” We also ate canned, whop-them-on-the-counter sweet rolls many, many mornings. To this day, those canned sweet rolls are guilty pleasures for both of us.

Our mother used to make mayonnaise and lettuce sandwiches. That’s it, just mayonnaise, lettuce, white bread, and maybe salt and pepper. I don’t know the origin of the mayonnaise and lettuce sandwich, but we were fed them on occasion. I haven’t eaten a mayonnaise and lettuce sandwich in over 50 years. I can’t think of anything blander than spreading white bread with mayo and finishing it with iceberg lettuce. I can also remember eating white bread sandwiches spread with butter and sugar. It’s not that we didn’t have meat in the house – I think we did – but that was just what we were fed on occasion. When we weren’t eating those sandwiches, I was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I ate them all of the time. With so much peanut butter and jelly in the house, I don’t know why anyone would ever opt for mayo and lettuce or butter and sugar. I still eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The late great New Orleans restaurant matron Ella Brennan once said, “You know why kids love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Because peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are good.”

TV dinners were also a big part of our childhood. In the 1960s they were awful.

We ate Hamburger Helper and all manner of crummy food, but we never ate mac and cheese. I don’t know why. All of my friends ate it, but my mother never bought it. Maybe mac and cheese was an item in which she chose to plant her flag and take her stand.

I eat a lot of pasta these days. I own an Italian restaurant and it comes with the territory. Before the year is out, I will have spent two months in Italy. Pasta is almost a required foodstuff over there. Though, whether through the restaurant or the trips to Italy, mac and cheese won’t be on the agenda.

Save the emails. I get it. You love mac and cheese. I’m not saying mac and cheese is bad. I’m just saying we never ate mac and cheese.

We do serve upgraded versions of mac and cheese at a couple of our restaurants – one with lobster and one with crawfish. Those are wildly popular dishes at our restaurants.

Our restaurant, The Midtowner is a breakfast and lunch-only spot. Except on Friday and Saturday nights, when we turn it into a catfish house, and serve thin-fried catfish, all of the typical fixin’s, and family-style vegetables such as fried okra, baked beans and collard greens. On Saturday nights we add mac and cheese to the mix. People love it.

One of the biggest culinary mistakes I ever made was with mac and cheese. My second book was a book that included Southern staples and Deep South comfort food. I needed a recipe for mac and cheese, and turned that recipe development over to one of my chefs. She came up with a very good recipe. The problem came when my secretary was transcribing the recipe. She listed “condensed” milk in the recipe instead of “evaporated” milk. Folks, if you want truly awful mac and cheese, make it with sweetened condensed milk. Unfortunately, no on caught the mistake and it made it into the first printing of the book.

I corrected it by the second printing, but there were still 10,000 books out there that used sweetened condensed milk in the cheese sauce. People were furious.

One night we were hosting a church group at our home. It was a group of parents and they were all bringing their children. I had the chefs at the restaurant make most of the food I was going to serve that night. For the kids, I told one of the chefs, “Just make the mac and cheese out of the second book.” Unfortunately, the copy that was in the restaurant office was one of the first editions I hadn’t corrected.

About midway through the grownups’ dinner I walked into the breakfast room where the kids’ table was and expected to bask in the glow of adulating children with full bellies and glowing reviews. What ensued was nothing short of a food riot. Seriously, little kids can be brutally honest. Had they been armed with pellet guns I would have been toast.

So, what did we learn here today, kids? There’s nothing you can do to a mayonnaise and lettuce sandwich to make it legit. Sugar and butter on a sandwich are no way to treat two pieces of bread. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches rock. And never use sweetened condensed milk in your mac and cheese.

ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find his recipe for Banana Pudding at robertstjohn.

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus