The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. — G.K. Chesterton
It was not an invitation — it was a challenge. It didn’t say “Mac and Cheese Party,” it said, “Mac and Cheese Off.” According to the notice, this was a “mac off/mac down,” which meant we really had to bring it.
Unlike me, David is not a competitive person. He gets no pleasure from feeling better than anyone else; he wasn’t in this for the glory. He is, however, a perfectionist. Whether adjusting the lighting in our home prior to a friend’s visit or selecting the ideal tone for one of his photographic creations, David does not desist in his efforts until he has convinced himself that he has done his very best. For the perpetually impatient (i.e., me), such dedication can be crazy-making. But as much as I huff and puff while my partner is attending to details, I am often delighted with the fruits of his labor.
Once we’d officially accepted the cheese challenge by RSVP-ing, we set about researching recipes. After typing “mac cheese contest winner” in to Google, David came across the link for the national Tillamook Macaroni & Cheese Recipe Contest. He reviewed ingredients and procedures; I gauged each recipe’s potential by keeping track of which images of the finished product inspired the most salivation. The process worked — in the end, we had both narrowed it down to the same two recipes. Because we assumed a good portion of the 20-odd challengers were sifting through the same batch of contest winners, David and I decided to take the best bits of the two recipes we liked and then tweak the combo in our own way to avoid any possibility of committing the ultimate party faux pas — bringing the same dish as someone else.
Despite my being about as adept at cooking as I am at quantum physics, I decided I wanted to assist my man in his cheesy undertaking. In my attempt to open the carton of heavy whipping cream, I’d mangled the top so much that David had to rip it open from the other side. While David handled the shredding of four kinds of cheeses, I managed to get a small carton of whole milk open. While David diced onions, minced garlic, shelled shrimp, chopped jalapenos, and rendered fat from imported Hungarian bacon until it was dense and crispy, I measured half a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. We were a team.
We’d been instructed to deliver our creative contribution hot, so as soon as David had whisked the heavy glass baking dish from the oven, we were on the road. He’d set the molten mac on a metal tray so that it wouldn’t melt through his thighs as he held it on his lap in the car. After parking, I laughed at the comical sight of David running across the busy urban street wearing giant red chili pepper oven mitts and carrying a steaming casserole.
Shortly after entering the contemporary loft-style building that had been designed and decorated by our artist and architect hosts, David and I were handed a ginger beer cocktail in a glass that had been rimmed with Pop Rocks. David placed our contest entry in the oven, along with three others, to keep it warm until the moment of tasting. We enjoyed conversation with other guests until a dozen or so of the competitors’ best had been placed side by side on a long counter, at which point our hostess explained the rules.
Beside each dish was a small bowl, into which guests were to drop either a gold-painted piece of bowtie pasta or a black-painted macaroni shell. Every person received three gold, one black, and was told to choose three favorites and one least favorite. At the end of the night, there would not only be a winner — there would also be a loser.
David and I were astonished that no one else had come across any of the recipes we’d reviewed during our research. Each dish was an original take on the classic comfort food. Some had even named their creations. The “Hot Bastard” lived up to its spicy moniker, and the “Mock and Cheese” surprised and delighted with its bold absence of macaroni and its inclusion of Ritz crackers and chunks of sweet pineapple. One plate contained salmon, another mushrooms, and many had some kind of crunchy breadcrumb topping. Because most stuck to rigatoni or elbow macaroni, the wagon wheel pasta quickly grabbed a visual edge. One woman brought a “deconstructed” mac and cheese; we were invited to skewer large pieces of rigatoni on long, thin forks and dip them into the liquid cheese bubbling in a fondue pot. My favorite was the hot dog wrapped in bacon and sprinkled with Kraft macaroni and cheese. It tasted like my childhood, only better. David’s favorite, the “Mac and Cheesecake,” offered the best of both worlds with real macaroni in rapturous homemade cheesecake and a crust made from vanilla wafers.
A few more dishes arrived, and as the evening wore on, gold and black macaroni were deposited in favor or aversion. I considered dropping a black shell in the bowl next to the salmon mac and cheese because I don’t much care for fish, but then that didn’t seem fair. In the end, I broke the rules and pocketed the condemnatory shell. David, however, had no problem picking a loser. Clearly, he wasn’t alone — but for one ironic gold piece of pasta, the bowl beside a submission I had overlooked was filled entirely with black.
I was on the verge of slipping into a cheese coma when Ame, our hostess, called the room of 30 or so guests to attention and announced it was time to reveal the winners. But first, the loser. Ame grabbed what appeared to be a plastic Gatorade bottle, only the orangey-yellow liquid inside was oddly opaque. She held it up for all to see. The label read, “Mac and Cheeseade.” People cheered and laughed; a few groaned. Though it was the most postmodern and avant-garde of all the cheese-inspired entries, it was also the only one to trigger my gag reflex. I was not alone.
Just as I was thinking of how nasty it would be to sip the stuff, Ame declared that before the loser could claim her consolation prize, everyone sitting on the sofas surrounding the coffee table had to take a swig of the ghastly goo (which, we were told, was made using the powder packets from two boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and some kind of liquid that was rumored to be alcohol, though no one seemed quite sure). David was quick to stand before the bottle reached the couch upon which we sat. The blood vessels in my brain must have been clogged with cheese, because the next thing I knew, the bottle was in my hands and, in an uncharacteristic show of solidarity, I was taking a little sip.
Noting the look on my face, a combination of baby-eating-broccoli and woman-encountering-dead-body, Gretchen gave me a bottle of ginger beer; in return, I passed her the unholy concoction. Like children swapping spit or blood to become symbolic siblings, everyone sitting obeyed Ame and touched their lips to the Mac and Cheeseade. When the ritual had been completed, the mad scientist behind the emetic potion was awarded several boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and made to sit on a whoopee cushion.
Everyone cheered as the fourth, third, and second places were awarded dried macaroni and glitter-decorated “medals.” With hands and voices, people simulated a drum roll, and Ame solemnly raised the kindergarten-style medallion for the winner. Before this night, my idea of a good mac ’n’ cheese had been Velveeta shells or Kraft’s thick and creamy. As Ame approached me with the first-place medallion and an iridescent bag containing fine cheese and sparkling wine, I couldn’t help but feel proud. Sure, all I did was measure a few things and stir in the shrimp, but I had helped create something that people liked.
Okay, so it had nothing to do with that. I’d rather stub my toe than touch raw food. Sure, I take pleasure in bringing joy to others, but the real reason I was happy was because I was on the winning team. I jumped up with Queen’s “We Are the Champions” playing in my head, and accepted my award with a teary heartfelt speech. Then I popped open the sparkling wine and shared the spoils with my vanquished opponents. Meanwhile, David, content that he had done his best, simply smiled, allowing me to bask in the glory.