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I am a terrible-ish cook, but a terrific eater. 

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Forty-something or not, I’m still at the proverbial kids table when it comes to cooking. On a recent visit to my mother’s house, I thought I was really doing something when I prepared a roasted acorn squash dish with turmeric-spiced chickpeas, dressed with a yogurt sauce, fragrant herbs, and pomegranate seeds (which are such a miracle!). Doing something because my South Carolina-born mother loves to try new things, and also because I’d be cooking dinner for the parent who prepared thousands of dinners, snacks, and school lunches packed in my Tupperware lunchbox over the course of my life. 

Watching my messy efforts in the kitchen and my imperfect knife skills, my mother promptly called her favorite barbecue joint and ordered a rack of ribs. 

But my mother gives me hope that one day I will be a better and more intuitive cook. Maybe I’ll become a practitioner of, as cookbook author and TV host Vertamae Grosvenor called it, “vibration cooking”—where you know from the feeling that the recipe is right and tight. 

My mother is known in our family as a masterful home cook with a diverse and tasty repertoire. Everyone coveted her contributions to our all-family cookouts at a cousin’s mountain vacation home, which we called pigouts. She also once almost-poisoned my Aunt Dot with her clam dip—and there was a recent Thanksgiving mishap with that Southern abomination called ambrosia.

But when I think of her cooking, it’s the kielbasa and cabbage; cobblers and collards; shrimp fried rice; fried chicken that leaves a slight salty sting on your lips; Salisbury steak; steamed bok choy; beautiful fruit salads; banana pudding (“I discovered how to freeze it,” she crowed to me earlier this year); and one of my sister’s favorite dishes, macaroni and cheese. 

When I called to ask for one of our family recipes, my mom, Betty Greenlee of Black Mountain, North Carolina, shared this narrative recipe of her custardy, cheesy pasta dish. Though you can vary ingredients to be creamier or more pasta-rich, it’s hard to mess up. And that’s part of my definition of comfort food: it’s not just the pleasurable experience of consuming something rich and satisfying; it’s also comfortable to make, a forgiving recipe that makes it easy to succeed. 

Mrs. Betty’s macaroni-and-cheese

One 12-ounce box of pasta, large shells or elbow macaroni (use at least half or all, depending on number of servings you want)
Two 6-ounce bags of pre-shredded cheese—because nobody wants to spend all day shredding cheese! (One sharp and one mild, preferred)
A cup of whole milk
One whole stick of butter, unsalted (we never said this was healthy)
1 egg 
1 tablespoon of flour
Enough Ritz or other crackers (maybe Saltines) to make a nice crust (you be the judge—we trust you)
1 teaspoon on mustard (regular old yellow mustard, no need to get fancy)
Salt to taste

I boil the pasta [according to the box’s directions]. And if you’re just cooking for yourself, you don’t need to use the whole box of pasta. Maybe half. And it’s good to salt the water when you’re boiling. It just tastes better.

When it finishes boiling, usually about 8 or 10 minutes, drain the pasta, but you reserve half of the liquids in case you need to thin the mac and cheese. Then you melt the stick of butter and half of the cheese in the milk. After it’s melted, turn your heat off and combine flour, with the half a cup of water and egg. You can add a teaspoon of mustard to give it a little more color or taste. 

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Then you put half your cooked noodles in a dish (spray it with Pam before), and pour the melted cheese and butter over the pasta. 

Sprinkle more unmelted cheese on top of that. Now if you’re cooking just for you, I’d use half the amount of cheese because this makes a lot—but still use the one egg, the flour, and a little water, and mix it in good. You don’t want to see little flakes of flour in your mac and cheese. 

Add another layer of pasta, and then add the crushed crackers on top of that and a little more cheese, depending on preference. 

Then put it in the oven at 375. I like to cover mine with Reynold’s Wrap for about 30 minutes and then take it off while it finishes cooking (maybe another 15 minutes) so it will brown a little bit. It won’t take long because the pasta is already cooked. And that’s all I do. 

Best served hot or warm—and with ham, candied yams, and potato salad also on the plate.

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Cynthia R. Greenlee

Cynthia R. Greenlee is a historian, editor, and writer based in North Carolina. She’s co-editor of the forthcoming anthology, “The Echoing Ida Collection,” of black women and nonbinary writers on reproductive and social justice. She’s also the winner of a 2020 James Beard Foundation Award for excellence in food writing.