Mac n’ Cheese: Comfort & convenience in a box

The year was 1937. Kraft Company boxed one of the tastiest and simplest dishes: Macaroni and Cheese. I grew up with the blue Kraft box in the kitchen. As an extremely picky eater, it was one of the few foods I would enjoy, forgoing pork, arroz con gandules, pasteles and other Puerto Rican traditional dishes I have since incorporated into my eating repertoire. Lately, I have been thinking about this early childhood memory, as I engage migration and dietary acculturation in my ongoing research. On days I work from home, I sometimes  find myself going back to this childhood staple. I sit at my computer, eating this dish while writing about dietary transitions and global preferences for processed foods.

MacCheese_JeffersonThe original macaroni and cheese dates back to the late 13th century. An early recipe was found in the cookbook, Liber de Coquina. The dish, de lasanis, consisted of lasagna sheets, cut into squares, cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese and dried spices (See Latin version and a modern day interpretation here). Centuries later, the dish arrived to the United States thanks to Thomas Jefferson after a trip to Italy. The story goes that Jefferson brought back a pasta machine, serving the pasta with cheese during an 1800s state dinner. Scholars at Monticello documented Jefferson’s recipe here. As noted by this group and others, most likely Jefferson was not the first to make macaroni and cheese in the United States, but he helped disseminate the dish  during his time in office.

Kraft Mac and Cheese was a product of the Great Depression, as a meal that could “serve four for 19 cents”, ready in 9 minutes:

MacCheese_OldBox

Such wonderful concoction would not have been possible without key innovations. James L. Kraft patented processed cheese technology in 1916. Heated and melted regular cheese is mixed with emulsifying fats, preventing the otherwise perishable food from spoiling. This technology gave us Velveeta, and, later on, the bright orange powder in Kraft Mac n’ Cheese – thanks to “spray-drying” technology. Invented in 1872 by Samuel Percy, the technology allowed for the “prevention of the destructive chemical change [by] bringing fluid into a state of minute division” (Cited here). Liquid, such as melted cheese, is sprayed and blasted with hot air, leaving solid, dry particles. Aside from powdered cheese, the technology gave way to powder eggs and milk, feeding the army and the population at large (See more here).

Nowadays, the simple Mac n’ Cheese have been re-taken by chefs in high-end restaurants. The technologies that allowed for these innovations are viewed in negative light, tied to processed (“fake”) foods, as seen in this blog excerpt below,

Sadly, and far more commonly, processed cheese powder in a box has become a household staple; a replacement in war times, for the authentic comfort of the original. This can be blamed on Kraft Foods, whom first packaged it in 1937, and represents the dissolved culture of food, due to mass homogenization and factory processing that began (and forgot to end), during the 30’s and 40’s. (Source: here)

While it is hard to deny our disconnection from food and cooking, there is a role for these products in today’s society. Food innovations maligned today, such as “TV dinners”, frozen foods, and canned and boxed meals, allowed many women to care for their families, while also being able to enter the workforce. Still today, they are allies for working parents, as well as those of us working from home in need of a quick lunch. These were not everyday foods, but they may serve as a lifeline when hunger and time fail to coincide.

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Food companies, like Kraft,  have done well capitalizing on our need and desire for convenience. Food marketing has convinced many of us that we do not have to spend too much time in the kitchen, if any at all. At the same time, attaching a negative moral value to consuming these foods disregard real time and income scarcities families face today. After all, we all have to negotiate  between health, convenience, and taste (among other things), at least three times a day.

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Habichuelas Colora’s: Red beans through time and space

Next to white rice / it looks like coral / sitting next to snow
Hills of starch / border / The burnt sienna / of irony
Azusenas being chased by / the terra cotta feathers /of a rooster
There is a lava flow / through the smoking / white mounds
India red / spills on ivory
Ochre cannon balls / falling / next to blanc pebbles
Red beans and milk / make burgundy wine
Violet pouring / from the eggshell / tinge of the plate.

“Red Beans”, by Victor Hernández Cruz, from Maraca: New and Selected Poems 1966-2000

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Red beans – habichuelas colora’s – are a staple, important dish in Puerto Rican cuisine. The dish, the name, differentiates our beans (our habichuelas) from most of the other Latin American beans (their frijoles). These beans are part of our culinary memory, making a strong connection between our palates and home, the moment the “terra cotta feathers”, the “ochre cannon balls” are savored alongside rice. In short, red beans are part of Puerto Rican traditional cuisine.

Now, while we often think of tradition as a concept fixed in time and space, traditions are constantly changing, moving with people across borders and generations. Does the moving nature of tradition translates in our plates? How is a simple dish like red beans written and recorded across time and space?

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There are close to 100 books published on Puerto Rican cuisine. The first one, El Cocinero Puerto-Riqueño, was published anonymously in 1859. This book shows us that in these early days, the habichuelas were frijoles. It is in Cocina Criolla, the still iconic book of Puerto Rican cuisine, that the classic habichuelas rojas are presented. The non-specified spices in El Cocinero are expanded in Cocina Criolla, with the sofrito. The recipe becomes meatier, complementing lard with other animal fats coming from tocino and ham.

A few years later, and miles from Puerto Rico, the habichuelas rojas are transformed into Basic Beans in the Nuyorican kitchen, as written by Oswald Rivera in Puerto Rican Cuisine in America: Nuyorican and Bodega Recipes. Contrary to other Puerto Rican cookbooks written in the US (mainland), Puerto Rican Cuisine in America seems to establish a Nuyorican cuisine, separate from the island. As part of this, the Nuyorican identity is described, in opposition to the insular Puerto Rican identity:

“A Nuyorican most likely attends a public school or parochial school, plays stickball in schoolyards throughout the city, listens to Salsa music at home or in social clubs located anywhere from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn, enjoys baseball, probably speaks English first, Spanish second, and the Spanish he or she does know is usually an amalgam of Americanisms combined with the traditional Spanish verbs, the Spanglish of East Harlem” (p. ix).

Moreover, it also distinguishes a Nuyorican cuisine as one that “combines elements of traditional Puerto Rican cooking with infusions of new ideas and new ways of doing things inspired by the new urban environment of New York.”

How are the habichuelas colora’s translated in this new home? They become simply beans. They lost their distinguishing red color. The pumpkin is replaced with potato (although this recipe is followed by one for white beans with pumpkin). Tocino and ham are replaced by a bouillon cube. Olive oil replaced lard.

Beans are an important healthy component of Puerto Rican diets. The journey of the Puerto Rican habichuelas colora’s demonstrate how this traditional dish has moved across time AND space. Some changes seen from Cocina Criolla to Puerto Rican Cuisine in America fit recommendations by dietitians, including the use of olive oil and diminishing the use of animal products. Yet, beans are just one piece of a larger, traditional foodway that needs to be understood in its moving and changing nature. These changes and how they are perceived and interpreted are part of the bigger understanding of food systems, eating behavior and its nutritional outcomes.

Related post: Convenience, Modernity and Beans