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.

MacCheese_1975 Ad

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.

Jamonilla

Tulip, Tulip, jamonilla  / Deliciosa, siempre fresca / Tu la comes con el pan
Y la comes con arroz. / Tulip, Tulip, va con todo. / ¡Es el resuelvelo todo!
[Tulip, Tulip, lunchmeat / Delicious, always fresh / You can eat it with bread
And you can eat it with rice. / Tulip, Tulip, goes with everything / It’s the solve it all!]

The lyrics above are my remembered version of an 80s (or 90s) commercial for Tulip’s canned luncheon meat, jamonilla. It came back to mind after attending “The Empire of Spam” kitchen workshop a few months back, at the ASFS/AFHVS/CAFS* Annual Conference hosted by the Culinaria Research Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough.  The workshop focused on Spam as part of the Pacific culinary imaginary – discussing our perceptions about Spam while tasting it at the same time.

Empire of Spam Kitchen Workshop facilitated by (right to left): Hi’llei Hobart (New York University), Adrian De Leon (University of Toronto) and Josh Levy (Univerity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). 

Spam musibi (grilled Spam over a block of rice wrapped with nori drief seaweed). In our version, we doubled the Spam.

Much has been written about Spam (click here for a brief history). During almost eight decades of existence, the brand has gone from a soldiers’ staple during World War II to a culinary mainstay in the Asian Pacific and Hawaii (including the annual Hawaiian festival celebrating Spam -the Spam Jam festival). While celebrated today, the popularity of Spam in the region in marked by US military occupation. These are the same forces that also brought similar canned meats to Puerto Rico.

The influence of canned meats is seen in dishes like arroz con salchichas (rice with Vienna sausages), corned beef (also known as “carne beef”) and the classic party staple, “sandwichitos de mezcla“:

colores03-300x300

Sandwiches de Mezcla – Photo by Panaderia Facciola. 

Yet, dishes like these are only a part of the culinary repertoire. More often than not, they are the go-to food in times of scarcity, a “resuelvelo todo”, as Tulip’s jingle states. To my knowledge, among the many festivals celebrated in the island throughout the year, there is no equivalent to the Spam Jam Festival in Puerto Rico. And this is not for a lack of food-related festivals! Just in the next four weeks festivals around the island will celebrate  breadfruit, longaniza, jueyes (land crabs), and molleja (sweetbread), to name a few.

The connections between Hawaii and Puerto Rico have been intriguing me for some time. Our shared, but unequal love for canned meat is another piece of this growing puzzle that started with the Borinkis’ pasteles. We are connected by a shared  insular geography and a history of US military occupation which has altered both archipelagos’ food systems, increasing the reliance on processed food sources like jamonilla. Why one is more salient in one place versus the other is still a question that remains to be answered, potentially involving a comparative look at the histories shaping the different ethnic (and food) identities in these two contexts. In the meantime, I’ll close with some “food for thought” – “Mom’s Puerto Rican Spam Flan”, a dish featured in the 2014 Spam Jam Festival that continues to connect these islands through Spam:

Mom’s Puerto Rican SPAM Flan from Buenos Antojitos. #SpamJam @spambrand @waikikispamjam @beachcomberhi (at Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber Resort)

Photo by jknakas1 (tumblr) from the 2014 Spam Jam Festival. 

 

Do you have any Spam or Tulip thoughts, memories or recipes to share? 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
*The acronyms stand for three academic societies: The Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS).