Friday, November 25, 2011

Pat Robertson on Macaroni and Cheese: Is That A Stupid Thing?

I'm perplexed by Pat Robertson's response to Condoleeza Rice's observation that her family always ate macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving dinner.  Robertson asked Rice if this mysterious dish is "a black thing."

Unless his perplexity has to do with the shortening of the dish's name to "mac and cheese" (which, I have to admit, grates on my own sensibilities, and which is a relatively new cultural development that is now well-nigh universal), I have to wonder if Robertson's response to Rice is disingenuous.  Robertson is a native Virginian, after all, and macaroni and cheese is a Southern thing.  It's a long, long Southern tradition in both black and white Southern families.  

Thomas Jefferson loved macaroni so much that in 1789, he commissioned a macaroni-making machine to be made for him in Italy, and guests at Monticello after that time persistently reported that he served macaroni dressed in various ways at his table there.  And one of the first recipes for macaroni and cheese, if not the first, in an American cookbook is Mary Randolph's from her 1824 The Virginia Housewife--a collection of recipes published in 1824 but gathered in the final decades of the 18th century.

Macaroni and cheese has been around forever in the American South.  Few family gatherings of either white or black Southern families are every without a dish of macaroni and cheese on the table.  It's the ultimate comfort food, often brought by neighbors and friends to families when someone has died.  A picnic with fried chicken, potato salad, and other traditional Southern summertime dishes to be eaten outside would be unthinkable without a casserole of macaroni and cheese on the table.

Macaroni and cheese is what you fix when your husband is away from home and you don't want to cook anything elaborate, but you do want to indulge one of your secret wicked fancies for a dish that is all about unctuous butter and cheese pairing intimately with pillowy soft pasta and milk, the quintessential child's comfort drink, laced with nutmeg and a pinch of cayenne pepper.  A dish you can eat all by yourself and can have all to yourself, when cooked in guilty solitude and consumed with equally guilty delight . . . . Just you and that cheese, and you and that macaroni.

I'm surprised that Mr. Roberston appears to know nothing at all of these cultural traditions, as a native Virginian whose ancestry includes, if I'm not mistaken, President Benjamin Harrison, who, while he was born in Ohio, stems from a notable first family of Virginia.  Someone needs to take this man's education in hand, it seems to me, and to do so quickly.  

If Robertson is clueless about macaroni and cheese, perhaps he's not aware that the first thanksgiving in Anglo America was celebrated in his native state of Virginia several years before the Pilgrims arrived in the colonies?  The Virginia settlers were holding a Thanksgiving celebration as early as 1607, and in 1619, two years before the Puritans are said to have invented the American Thanksgiving celebration, the company that settled settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Virginia had decreed, "We ordain that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for the plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

What the folks who dominate the airwaves and fill our heads with "information" appear not to know would fill many books.  If they'd only choose to start reading a bit and stop talking quite so much all of our heads might be in far better places . . . . 

And I can assure Rev. Robertson from well-tried experience that nothing goes better with a good book than a hot helping of rich macaroni and cheese chased down with a glass of ice-cold tea.  He might try it.  He might well find he likes it, no matter what pigmentation happens to predominate in the hand that fixes these delicious foods of his native Southland.

The graphic is Jefferson's 1789 order for a macaroni machine.

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