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Finding Joy in a Great Plate of Grandma's Mac & Cheese

I don’t know that my mom loved to cook as much as she dug the reactions she got from her standout meals. A daughter of the South, Bettye was renowned for her southern dishes, and her macaroni and cheese was the stuff of legend. People heard she was whipping up a pan, and they’d get into car accidents and break stuff and whatnot trying to get in line for a heaping serving before it was all gone. It wasn’t an easy dish to make back then; the grocery stores didn’t have those glorious pre-shredded bags of cheese, so she had to scrape countless blocks of sharp and mild cheddar over her beat-up hand-held shredder to get the right amount of cheese she needed for ginormous pans of mac and cheese, which should explain why she wasn’t a fan of the cooking part.

As a kid, I didn’t quite get my mom’s foot dragging in the kitchen; I’d beg her to let me help, and on the days when she’d hand over a block of cheese for me to shred, I’d handle it with great glee. I loved helping out in the kitchen! But as a mom charged with cooking three squares for a family of five most days of the week, I kinda get it now. After the writing and the chores and the homework help and the after-school activities, I barely want to think through what to cook, let alone stand over a hot stove. It’s plain exhausting.

Which is why I’m training my girls how to handle themselves in the kitchen. Oh, it’s not a game: I’ve had Mari and Lila cracking eggs, seasoning chicken, slicing fruit (with kid-friendly knives), and buttering biscuits practically from the moment they were able to walk themselves into the kitchen. And for the past three years, I’ve enrolled them in summer camps at a nearby children’s cooking school, Young Chef’s Academy, so that they can up the ante on their kitchen skills. There, they’ve learned how to make homemade pasta, chili, grilled shrimp skewers, peach cobbler, epanadas -- the dinner list goes on and on. And when they weren’t practicing their summer camp dishes, I was propping them up on the step stool so they could witness how to steam collards, flour fish, roll meatballs, flip pancakes -- all of it -- just like my mom taught me.

Admittedly, I’ve been teaching them how to cook for selfish reasons. I’m thinking that by the time they hit their teens, my girls should be able to whip up a dinner sans much help from me. I’m looking forward to the day that I can just show up to the kitchen and fix myself a hot plate cooked by someone else, and then push away from the table and go on about my business while someone else cleans up the dishes. (Insert Denene with a look of euphoria on her face here.)

What I didn’t expect, though, was the pure joy we’d get out of slaving over the stove together. The girls like to cook, but they love all the creating and stirring and laughing and singing and dancing we do as we work to get dinner finished. I mean, we have a good time, okay?

And, yeah, I guess I can admit that giving my girls an appreciation for their grandmother’s recipes, and especially spending time with my babies in the kitchen, makes me love cooking a little more, too -- even on days when a call to the Chinese restaurant would just make mama feel a wee bit better.

For sure, I’m hoping my girls’ love of cooking will stick, even on days when they’d much prefer someone else do it. And especially on the days when they’ll set up the step stool and let their own children learn a few of my best recipes, handed down to me from my mom.

Nothing, after all, warms the heart like a great plate of Gamma Bettye’s mac and cheese.

And through that magical confection of cheese and macaroni elbows and flour and butter and milk, we all live, and laugh, and learn.

To see recipes from Mari and Lila’s online cookbook, visit their Home Made Love pages on MyBrownBaby