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Eatymology: Macaroni and Cheese

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Eatymology: Macaroni and Cheese
Written by Emily Storrow | Photos by Savanna Sturkie

Macaroni and Cheese

[ma-kə-‘rō-nē ən(d) chēz]
n: A cheese and noodle casserole integral to African American holiday tables

The influence of Southern food is fluid and far-reaching. It stretches beyond the region’s borders as soul food—dishes that originated with enslaved Southerners and were carried north and west during the Great Migration. Among these, macaroni and cheese has hallowed status—especially on the Thanksgiving table. “It was a specialty,” says Atlanta chef Deborah VanTrece. “We didn’t get it unless it was a Sunday or a holiday.” VanTrece was raised in Kansas City, Missouri, on the food her Arkansas-born grandmother and Louisiana-born grandfather remembered as they left the South, which evolved at the hands of the younger generations in a new land. That meant gumbo, fried chicken, ham hocks, and fried fish (typically served with spaghetti) and, of course, mac and cheese.

She champions those familiar plates at her restaurant, Twisted Soul. And in true soul food fashion, her cooking is yet another evolution: VanTrece injects her family’s recipes with her personal experiences and international travels (she was a flight attendant for thirty- three years before finding her home in the kitchen). Her mac and cheese follows suit. “My aunt Lucille, she made the best—even though everyone else was following the same recipe,” VanTrece says. Indeed, families traditionally had their own recipe, but they shared a unifying ingredient. “Processed cheese,” she says. “The people who got it were welfare recipients. If you weren’t on welfare, you were trying to get the cheese. Everyone knew it made the best macaroni and cheese known to mankind.” So while VanTrece has added her own touch to her family’s recipe—sharp cheddar, cream cheese—one thing stays the same: “It’s going to start with the closest thing I can find to commodity cheese.”

Deborah VanTrece’s Macaroni and Cheese