There are so many things I feel like writing about this month. But I must continuously remind myself that this is a food column. Food. Not politics. Not social injustice. Not environmental activism. Not healthcare reform. Food.
And yet, if you are a loyal reader (I know at least three of you are), you have surely come across all of these topics in my column before. Sure, food is a critical element of life that must be made accessible to all. And yes, my industry is swollen with problems — pitiful wages, lack of decent healthcare, no medical leave, epidemic misogyny. We must stand up to all of this, and we do. There have been some great strides against this mess in the past few years. But I think the bigger point is that artists, culinary or otherwise, have the power to grab the attention of the masses, and with such power comes a duty. I’m not suggesting that I am a great artist. Just that I have a platform. So, I intend to use it.
With that in mind, I will use this food column to point out injustice when I see it. And sadly, I see a lot of it. We are being inundated with propaganda from all sides, so it behooves us to sift out what is real, and what is fake. But that isn’t always easy, because the fake stuff is often more appealing.
Velveeta, for instance, might be attractive to less-educated cheese connoisseurs. It is creamy and smooth and is utilized in many All-American dishes that are often described as “safe” and “comfortable.” And its bright orange color is certainly eye-catching. But it isn’t cheese. It’s “cheese food” and is so highly processed that it doesn’t require refrigeration, which is never good. The same is true with cheese in a can, and the stuff they extrude onto your nachos at the ballpark. But please, don’t be lured by its viscosity. It is evil. And while it is an unabashedly American product, it will not serve us well, nutritionally. It also makes us the laughingstock of the International Cheese Community.
Similarly, oat bran once promised to Make Your Diet Great Again. Every conceivable product jumped on the bandwagon, and Americans were led blindly into an all-out high-fiber war. Products without the oat bran label were deemed unhealthy and were shunned by consumers. What they didn’t mention is that adding oat bran to your Cap’n Crunch did not Drain the Swamp of other nutritionally corrupt effects. There was still a ton of sugar and preservatives. Sadly, we didn’t learn from this, and we repeatedly fall for the outrageous claims, whether they be in the guise of whole-grain, all-natural or sugar-free. A sugar-free, whole-grain Oreo will still make you fat. No slogan will ever change that.
Low-fat foods are also dangerous. Paranoid, reactionary organizations warned of the dangers of fat. They told us that it was bad, and that we should ban it from our diets. But there were consequences of such a ban. Anxiety over the dangers of fat led to a plethora of products containing processed fat. But they failed to warn us that, although these foods had reduced levels of cholesterol, they contained processed fat replacements which had their own problems and led to extreme weight gain and chronic disease. That there is evil in fat, it turns out, was an alternative fact. But alternative facts, no matter how ridiculous, can lead to panic and, as a result, those products that already felt marginalized by their fat content suffered even more. What we must realize is that fat is good for us. We need fat in our diet to keep our communities strong. Some of the most deliciously healthful foods are those with fat. Our country was built with the help of fat, and it is fat that makes America strong. Diversity in our diet is imperative for national health.
If our leaders can’t remember where we failed in the past, perhaps they should take a look at the history of grocers’ shelves.
Velveeta-Free, Low-Fiber, High-Fat Mac ’n’ Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is generally considered to be a comfort food, a foodie term I find exceedingly annoying. Translated into plainspeak, comfort food is a fattening, high-carb, nap-inducing food that you generally turn to when it’s time to eat your feelings. FYI —I’m currently having a lot of feelings.
1 pound macaroni noodles (or try shells, bow-ties or ziti)
4 tablespoons butter, divided
½ yellow onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
½ teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons flour
1½ cup milk
¾ pound Italian fontina, Gouda or Muenster cheese, grated
½ pound yellow or white cheddar cheese, grated
2 cups bread crumbs
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence, or dried thyme
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the macaroni and stir, bringing it back to the boil. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the noodles are half-cooked. Drain noodles, cover with cold water to stop the cooking and set aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery and thyme, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are tender and translucent. Add the flour and stir until all is well coated, then cook another minute until the flour begins to brown. Add the milk slowly, stirring out any lumps as you go. Cook until the sauce is thick, then strain into a large baking dish, and discard the vegetables. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste, then add the cheese and stir until mostly melted.
3. Add the macaroni, and stir until well coated. Mix the breadcrumbs with Parmesan and herbes. Spread the mac evenly in baking dish and top with crumbs. Dot the top with remaining butter, then bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.