The long and short of Mac and Cheese

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Feature, Kitchen Table Talk

My mother, raised in a small West Tennessee town that she left, then returned to as a young widow, was a trendsetter.

She would say that such a statement is ridiculous. I will let the facts speak for themselves.

Mom, who died in 1990 at the young age of 65, discovered buttermilk/ranch dressing as something more than a salad topping. Long before Hidden Valley bottled it, they made a seasoning packet that you mixed with buttermilk and mayonnaise. We always had buttermilk on hand when I was a child, and mother loved the dressing, even when she had to order the Hidden Valley packets by mail.

And she didn’t just put it on salads. She would put it on our baked potatoes, dip carrots in it and sometimes coat her chicken in the powder before frying.

By the time the Nebraska cowboy who invented the dressing sold the company (for $8 million) to the Clorox company in 1973, and everyone started going crazy for it, the dressing was ho-hum, been-there-done-that at the Gardner home in Lexington, Tenn.

Mother also was serving my brother and me “cheese dip” – which was what is now known as chili con queso – long before it became popular. She “discovered” it when she got her first microwave and began melting her beloved Velveeta cheese and mixing it with “hot dog chili,” meaning it had no beans. Tortilla chips weren’t readily available, but mom would offer Fritos and toast points for us to use to slurp up the delicious stuff.

She put Coca-Cola in cakes before the Coca-Cola cake became popular, “hid” the fact that she was using a cake mix for the bake-sale cake by adding pudding mix and sour cream to the batter and always made mac and cheese with long macaroni.

See? Trendsetter.

Macaroni and cheese was a staple for Thanksgiving when I was a child. Mother always made it, layering the long macaroni in a deep baking dish with Velveeta cheese and shredded sharp cheddar. She would pour salt-and-peppered milk over the whole thing and bake it slowly.  Next to her cornbread dressing, it was my favorite Thanksgiving dish.

When I started cooking Thanksgiving dishes myself in Knoxville, I couldn’t find long macaroni anywhere. Mother would buy it for me in West Tennessee and either bring it or ship it to me.

Eventually, she could no longer find it on the shelves in Lexington, either. Her friendly neighborhood grocer managed to get it for her as a special order for a few years, but then that became impossible, too.

Neither of us liked the dish as well when we were forced to substitute large elbow macaroni. I never stopped looking for my beloved long macaroni.

This year, I hit pay dirt. Not in the grocery store, but with an internet search that yielded results for the first time. First to pop up was a dish called Long Macaroni and Cheese, which I clicked on so fast it made the internet shudder. My hopes were dashed as the chef demonstrating the recipe started speaking Hindi.

The second listing was for Long Macaroni and Salmon, a recipe from the Catelli company. More research followed. I found a way to order the pasta.

Catelli long macaroni

As I anxiously awaited the arrival of my package of long macaroni from Canada this week, I said a silent prayer that my husband wouldn’t find out the most expensive dish at our Thanksgiving dinner this year is macaroni and cheese, made with Velveeta.

But what can I say? I’m the daughter of a trendsetter …


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