Friday, July 14, 2017

macaroni & cheese with my mother

I'm wishing a Happy Birthday to my mom today--which we have always known was Bastille Day--but it turns out that July 14 is also National Macaroni & Cheese Day.  Fancy that! 

It also turns out that there was a lot to learn about macaroni & cheese, especially the mass-produced kind that I grew up with (hey! it's a coupla years older than my mom, even!), and I will regale you with some interesting tidbits about its distinctive color before we get to my poem, which--as do all autobiographical poems--probably contains some powdery lumps of veritable untruth.

Industrial food coloring

Colby cheese colored with annatto

Annatto is used currently to impart a yellow or orange color to many industrialized and semi-industrialized foods. In the European Union, it is identified by the E number E160b.  Annatto has been a traditional colorant for Gloucester cheese since the 16th century. During the summer, the high levels of carotene in the grass would have given the milk an orange tint which was carried through into the cheese. This orange hue came to be regarded as an indicator of the best cheese, spurring producers of inferior cheese to use annatto in order to replicate it. The custom of adding annatto then spread to other parts of the UK, for cheeses such as Chesire and Red Leicester, as well as colored cheddar made in Scotland.[10][11] Many cheddars are produced in both white and red (orange) varieties, with the latter being more popular despite the only difference between the two being the presence of annatto as a coloring.[12] That practice has extended to many modern processed cheese products, such as American cheese and Velveeta.

A Threat

“Buy Sugar Pops or die!”
My brother, taller now, held a kitchen knife
to my mother’s throat.
He didn’t mean it, would never have hurt her,
but he was right:
my mother did not buy Sugar Pops, Coca-Cola,
or Twinkies. 
The closest we got to popular grocery products
was Kool-Aid,
lemonade flavor only, the thin packet only,
without added sugar.  She mixed it with less
than called for.
But I think, I hope I remember that we did have
Kraft Macaroni and Cheese,
prepared with the amounts of butter and milk
specified on the blue box.

Yellow-orange for years, until in 1993 Crayola
actually named an orange-yellow crayon
“macaroni and cheese.”
That color was how we knew we were getting
the real deal—
a real deal that my own kids were denied,
Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 having fallen into
rightful disfavor.
They ate the pale substitute, Annie’s Organic
Shells and Cheese, and they were
not fooled.
They knew the real stuff was inorganic orange,
and if Trader Joe’s had not found a way
to replicate the Kraft color using annatto,
it would now be me
with a knife to my throat, my tall son snarling,
“Buy Kraft Mac and Cheese or die!”

©HM 2017

I want to thank my brother, Mark Mordhorst, who has a better memory than I, and Catherine Flynn, for pointing me in the direction of an exercise by Rita Dove in The Practice of Poetry, which sent me down this path! 

The round-up today is with Tabatha, who had the genius idea of celebrating this day with mac&cheese poems!


  1. I love where this path took you, Heidi! I suppose it isn't surprising that we get so passionate over food. It does keep us going, after all. Thank you for including the information about annatto. I've never heard of it before, although I've clearly eaten plenty of it!

  2. Yes, Heidi, thank you for the info about annatto. It's funny how we fake ourselves out like that (preferring cheese with annatto, probably thinking it tastes better). I love
    "That color was how we knew we were getting
    the real deal—"

  3. P.S. Happy birthday to your mom!

  4. Too funny. Give me ho-ho's or give me death! There are just some packaged foods that are part of my childhood that will never be as good as they were then. (Except for Reese's peanut butter cups, which are always good.)

    1. Agree 100%. S'mores have totally lost their charm, for example, but RPBCs, never.

    2. And Devil Dogs are now fake chocolate cardboard with window putty textured sugar goop filling!

  5. Thanks for the back stories/history lesson. How could I have not been aware that there was a crayon color named macaroni and cheese? Probably because I've taught 4/5th grades and we've graduated from crayons and use mature colored pencils.

    I hope Kat reads this. She expressed horror at that unnatural color of American cheese. The whole mac and cheese phenomenon, seen through her eyes, is nothing short of weird.

    Happy Birthday to your mom! Now she can swing French or American for her celebration, although why would she give up croissants in favor of mac and cheese?! :-) Love your tribute. Wondering which are the powdery lumps of untruth!

    1. Haha. I am absolutely gobsmacked to hear that someone would add colouring to achieve that waxy plastic (crayon-coloured) off-putting orange cheese! 20 years later and I can still see those aisles of orange cheeses – feeling stupefied (and somewhat giggly) that there was no ‘normal’ cheese. Cheese is a lovely butter-yellow creamy colour. Our macaroni cheese is traditionally creamy-mellow, smooth and easy on the palate. The bright yellow/orange versions of Mac&Cheese I've seen this weekend are making me think of mature, pungent cheese.

      It’s funny the images and sensations that words and pictures create. I’ve always been a little leary of Kool-Aid too, when I read it in books – because it sounds a lot like coolant – and I wouldn’t want to drink that!

      But all that aside, I think I may mother a lot like your mum. Hoping she has had a lovely birthday!

  6. I know what you mean about that poor substitute we fed our kids, I always felt guilty and went for the blue on occasion to prove that that wasn't such a meanie after all.

  7. Who knew that orange color originally came from carotene in the grass? I was horrified when we moved to the midwest and the cheddar turned orange!
    Love where your memory took you. Your poor mama, threatened by the knife! I too had a boxless childhood, as did my deprived young 'uns.

  8. Heidi, I see that you used the Rita Dove model for a relative poem with death interwoven. Is the background color your token of avocado green. At any rate, I enjoyed your poem and the initial information load to understand a term I never heard of. Yeah for Trader Joe's!

  9. Happy Birthday to your Mom, Heidi.

  10. I love the teacher in you! The facts about the color of cheese are interesting....and funny now that we know them and distance our selves and our children from those icky chemicals! I need to find that exercise in the Practice of Poetry. You all are getting some good writing out of it!

  11. Happy Birthday to your mom! And what a terrific combination of facts and family dynamics - goes together like, well, you know....

  12. Fun!
    Appreciations for sharing about Rita Dove and THE PRACTICE of POETRY.
    And birthday mac-n-cheese to your Mom!!!

  13. Happy Birthday, Heidi's mom. Thanks for bringing her into this world to delight us with her poetry. In this poem, I was placed right there in the kitchen with you and your brother. When I was an early bride, my husband would have been the one with the knife. I think we argued more those first few years about how to make the macaroni & cheese than about anything else. I somehow didn't stir it with each added ingredient so that it was perfect. Yes, we used the box kind, and only Kraft would do. These memories of mac&cheese have sure stirred up in me.

  14. Who knew? Thanks for sharing the info. about the color. Your poem is too fun, Heidi. I also love the inclusion of the retro box of mac-n-cheese!

  15. Thank you for sharing the fruits (or is it the cheese) of your research? I never knew about annetto.

  16. I first read "annetto" as "amaretto"--imagine a almond-flavored mac and cheese. Hmmm...nah!

  17. I love learning the history of the color being an indicator of higher quality that was then corrupted! Fun poem!

  18. My 3-yr-old prefers the box, but my 7-yr-old son doesn't care how it's made, as long as he gets to eat it! Fun poem, Heidi...and thanks for the history lesson! (Although here in New England, white Vermont cheddar is definitely more popular than that yellow annato-colored stuff!)

  19. Great history there in your poem and preamble to it Heidi, and a funny poem too! I don't remember if we ever had mac and cheese growing up, but my kids also always had a substitute and fortunately, they really didn't complain


Thanks for joining in the wild rumpus!