Thomas Jefferson was mad for it, Kraft Foods made a killing off it, and it was Kurt Cobain’s favourite food; the humble, cheesy goodness of mac & cheese sure has universal appeal. The traditional diet of poverty-stricken students, Southerners, fussy children and card-carrying members of Comfort Eaters Anonymous, slowly mac and cheese has shaken off its low rent status and moved into some prime real estate.
Its cult following has seen it rise and rise, to the point where we now have restaurants dedicated entirely to its creation. Oh yes, mac & cheese is enjoying a hell of a renaissance. But why are we collectively giving the saintly, clean-eating trend a firm middle-finger in favour of a food that possesses zero nutritional value? This triple threat of cheese, white carbs, and (depending on how it’s made) near-nuclear levels of preservatives, is a pocket full of kryptonite for Paleo warriors. Despite this, mac & cheese-infused franken-foods can be found all over America, and on a recent three month stint travelling there, I noticed so many examples I just had to start profiling them. What started as a jokey curiosity soon became an obsessive quest and soon enough I found myself hell bent on revelling in as much mac & cheese glory as possible. I indulged my need for a mac-attack in almost every state I visited (Nevada, I’m comin’ to getcha next time). Here’s the highlight reel:
Mac & cheese burgers
This mac & cheese burger represented a major turning point in my journey. Found at Hamburger Mary’s in the Swedish-tinged suburb of Andersonville, Chicago, I had been contemplating my recent slide from eating “sometimes foods” more often than “everyday foods”. My digestive system was clearly at a tipping point after spending two months on the road in America. Having spent considerable time in the steamy arms of Tennessee, I was sure that blood no longer pumped through my veins but a warm river of barbecue rib juice, gravy and whiskey. It was at this point that I decided my health was already going to hell in a hand-basket, so I ordered the beastly mac & cheese burger, and washed it down with a side of standard-issue, Tater Tots and a pint of locally-brewed organic golden ale.
But this wasn’t my first dalliance with a mac & cheese burger. Oh yes, I’d tasted the savoury glory of blackened meat on molten cheese & macaroni the year before in Hawaii, where I tucked into one at the great American establishment known as The Cheesecake Factory. After watching my friends descend into a pit of never-ending menu options, I settled on ordering the mac & cheese burger, not giving their seemingly steroid-abetted, ranch-drenched “salads” a second thought. It arrived to a chorus of “You’re never going to eat all that” and left me in puddle of post-burger-eating sweats and regrets. I did finish the sucker, but I know that’s nothing to be proud of.
Mac & cheese pizza
Staying in Airbnb accommodation has its pitfalls (awkward shared bathroom exchanges, lost keys, angry pets) but it also has its perks. One invaluable benefit I noticed was Airbnb hosts will always give you great local food tips, saving you from the indignity of sitting at a table for one at Applebee’s on a Friday night. In Chicago, my host David must have had a sixth sense because he told me about a stoner pizza place that sells mac & cheese pizza by the slice. An unprompted, mac-related tip off such as this is truly a gift from above, which ended up paying serious dividends. Wrigleyville’s Dimo’s serves all sorts of winning slices, but The Mac is a true triumph. I found myself returning daily for some dirty carb-on-carb action.
Deep fried mac
Before heading to Portland, Oregon, I’d staked out a place called Mac! located on Mississippi Avenue. Coming from Australia, internet reconnaissance is the everything when it comes to planning mac & cheese-related adventures. After recovering from seeing the words “mac & cheese burrito” on the menu, I opted for something light, choosing the dainty, deep-fried mac & cheese balls, which didn’t disappoint.
Mac & cheese toasties
Los Angeles may be the home of the red carpet starvation diet, but even the people of Hollywood needs a mac & cheese fix every now and then. Enter: The Melt. Located in the heart of Hollywood, the Melt menu features a mac & cheese toasted sandwich, sausage soup and pickle combo that is darn hard to pass up. Some folk would be embarrassed to order such a thing, but when it comes to food, I happily live without shame.
No longer confined to living in paper boxes on supermarket shelfs, mac & cheese is now enjoying centre stage on restaurant menus. In the restaurant world, a lot of Mac Daddy chefs are out there concocting mac & cheese dishes from premium ingredients. From S’mac in New York to Vermont’s Cheesetique, mac & cheese is being embellished with top-shelf ingredients like white truffles, bacon, olives, figs, pancetta, lobster and artisan cheeses. From depression-era budget buster to restaurant darling, there’s some circle of life action right there.
I’m clearly not alone in my appreciation of and ardent affection for mac & cheese. I think the attraction lies in its unique brand of oh-so-bad-for-you, goodness. We’re constantly bombarded with superfood news, diet trends and conflicting advice (are eggs good or bad for you these days?), sometimes it’s nice to just go ‘the hell with it, I’m eating something that tastes like heaven’.
By the end of my stint in the States, I was left wondering, ‘are there any foods that America hasn’t managed to marry mac & cheese with’? Coincidently, I was also left with a sizable reduction in my cardio fitness, so perhaps I took my quest a little far. I plan to find out where America is at with the whole mac & cheese resurgence when I return next year. Hopefully I’ll be there to celebrate National Mac and Cheese Day on July 14th. America, I command you to continue to yield me your lardy, creamy, carby concoctions!