Making macaroni and cheese in Beijing: The homemade childhood that wasn't

A mom believes she made her children homemade macaroni and cheese growing up, but they only remember the Kraft stuff. Now she asks whether she seasoned their childhood like Jacques Pépin or Sandra Lee.

Associated Press
Was it homemade macaroni and cheese or the stuff from Kraft that her kids ate? Was their childhood full of Sandra Lee shortcuts?

My family had a birthday dinner the other night.

“What do you want for your dinner?” I asked my husband.

“Surprise me,” he answered.

So I concocted a delicious dinner: baked sea bass, homemade macaroni and cheese, green beans sautéed with garlic, salad, bread, and individual cheesecake cups topped by blueberries for dessert. The dinner was a big hit, but the biggest hit was the macaroni and cheese, in which I followed a simple recipe that involved cheddar cheese, Monterey Jack cheese, heavy cream, and elbow macaroni — all of these things both available and pricey in Beijing.

My grown children, who both happen to live in China, could not praise the dish enough.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had this before,” said my son Daniel.

“I remember having this over at Lisa’s house,” said my daughter Joanna.

Wait a minute: I’m sure I remembered making homemade mac and cheese for dinner at least a couple of times during my offspring’s childhood. My husband loyally said he thought he remembered that too.

“Nope, all I remember is Kraft mac and cheese out of the box,” my son said.

As a working mother who also managed to volunteer at school and have my own life not intimately connected to parenthood at the same time, I know I was guilty of a few quickie dinners of mac and cheese and hot dogs from time to time. I guess I figured if I threw in baby carrots, the nutrition couldn’t be all that bad.

But was I entertaining a fantasy of what my children’s childhood was actually like? Was it not the Norman Rockwell idyll of traditional family dinners, arts and crafts extravaganzas on snow days, trips to the beach in the summer, and homemade birthday cakes each year? Is the blurriness of my memory just a cover for what might be more of a slapdash level of parenting that was just good enough but not enough to win me Mother of the Year?

The good news is that both 20-something children today are accomplished, smart, happy people who are on track to do some very interesting things with their lives. But the other side is that now that I search my memory, I seem to remember tears, arguments, homework that didn’t get finished in time, adolescent sullenness, and all the other humdrum pieces of family life.

Just, apparently, no homemade mac and cheese.

But it couldn’t have been all bad. The other day, my daughter, who is a teacher, was telling her high school students about a family tradition that clearly made a big impression. Every Friday we’d have family game night and play Monopoly or Clue or Risk or cards.

And it’s true that although there were a few evenings that ended with somebody storming off in a snit, overall it was lots of fun, until the kids got old enough to have more interesting plans on a Friday night. And the apparent lack of macaroni and cheese didn’t seem to cause any long term harm.

In fact, it made the dish on a chilly February evening in 2013 all the more satisfying.

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