Audrey likes Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
Believe me when I tell you that I am appalled. It's not like I've never eaten it (it's fine), it's not like the other children have not gone through this phase, it's just that mac-and-cheese is one of my favorite comfort foods. I make pretty good--no wait, I'm going to brag here--I make really very good mac-n-cheese from scratch. The only time it has ever turned on me is when I tried to bake it. With the crusty little breadcrumbly top? Disaster. The person who ate it said it was fine, but my regular mac-n-cheese...it's just so much better.
Creamy. Cheesy. It's like a hug from the stovetop, and should be eaten right from the pot. (Not that I've ever done that, of course.) I start by making a roux, with butter and flour...and I use 2% milk, or whole milk if I feel dangerous. Then I put in just enough medium or sharp cheddar, about 1-2 cups, depending on how much sauce I've made to begin with...and I mix it up with the pasta immediately after the pasta is done. It is probably the only thing I make that I won't leave the kitchen while I am in the midst of--why ruin the lovely sauce to break up a fight--and the kids love it. I vary the shapes, sometimes shells, sometimes radiatore, penne, rotini, or campanelle, but I think it's best with the elbows. I like the large ones, cooked to just al dente (not mush).
It seems ridiculous to be so picky about something as mundane as mac-n-cheese, but it's worth it, even if my husband doesn't eat it. My best friend moans when I tell her I'm making it, because it's her favorite too. I have another who teased me mercilessly one day, (hoity voice) "Oh, I'm grating the cheese for mac-n-cheese....don't you know that mac-n-cheese comes from the blue box? Your kids are so spoiled."
It always comes down to the blue box.
As I stood there today, coaxing the orange powder into a sauce-like state, I was transported back to these kids I babysat when I was in college.
You see, the act of making this mac-n-cheese never fails to remind me of the shame of being fired from one of my first jobs. Not even being fired, mind you, just never called again.
I had a childhood friend who was doing the sorority circle thing in college and she called me one day, telling me about this nice family who needed an occasional babysitter. She was too busy to do it. She knew I liked kids and needed the money. I was a little embarrassed that my social life/standing were such that I was not out gallivanting on campus leaving college boys in my wake, but I was a serious student, with a serious boyfriend (who lived out of town, I had all kinds of free time). Play Mommy to some little ones and get paid for it? Why not?
I've always been good with kids. I get it from my Mom, who is the baby-whisperer in our family. But I was still a little nervous to sit for a family I didn't know, with children who could be the brattiest children around, for all I knew.
My initial conversation with the Mom (was her name Maureen?) went well. She knew I didn't have a car, so she came to pick me up the first afternoon I spent with her boys.
She had an amazing house, an older one, with wood floors and a very "This Old House" feel about it. There was a playhouse in the backyard by the swings. It was the kind of house I envisioned myself living in some day. I got kinda a granola-vibe from her, like she had hippie blood running through her veins...and I wasn't far off. She was organic apples before they were cool.
And the boys, they were adorable beyond belief. Cute, pale with freckles; big, almost violet eyes; pointy (but not too pointy) chins; perfect rosebud mouths--they were breathtaking. My ovaries started the "youneedoneofthese" beats in triple time.
While the older one did prove to be a little bit of a challenge (he was smart, and a crafty bugger) we got along great. I remember following Maureen around the house, she with the luminous skin and barely-there makeup (yes, she wore Birkenstocks), as she pointed out that she'd made something for lunch, that the kids could eat soon. Wow, I thought, impressed that she'd done the work for me.
It was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. And to boost it, she'd stirred cottage cheese into it. Clever. I'd never would have thought of that. She did it so the kids could get extra calcium, I think, if I remember correctly. I was to busy getting over her bathroom, her Kiss My Face toiletries, to really remember why she said she did it. (I'd never heard of Kiss My Face, never seen it in stores, but if I could boast skin like that, I'd certainly attempt to hunt it down.)
The kids and I had a good afternoon. I started babysitting for her pretty regularly, once or twice a week. One week, she asked if I was available on a Friday night. Her husband was away, and she was going to go out with a girlfriend.
Sigh. Yes. I was free on Friday night.
I played with the kids, we ate our mac-n-cheese, but as the evening got later, closer to eight (nine?), I got antsy to watch my show. It was Miami Vice time. Hmm. They're little. It won't affect them. The baby is almost asleep, anyway. "Conor," I said to my young charge (he couldn't have been more than 4 years old)--"I'm going to watch this tv show. Okay?" I started watching it, then had a thought that maybe that might not be such a good idea. "Um," I thought out loud, "Do you think your Mom will mind if you watch too?"
Now, I was what, 18? Who has perfect sense at that age? He would be falling asleep soon anyway, hopefully, I justified to myself.
We were about fifteen, twenty minutes into the show when his Mom got home and came in with her girlfriend. It was all sunshine and happiness, "Did you have a good time? The kids were angels, as usual"...and then a staccato burst of gunshots came from the tv.
Maureen's brows came together as she looked over at her boys, particularly the older one, and the brief look of glee that crossed his face. It was not a brief look of glee that crossed her face in return, but rather a questioning, slightly irritated one. "Ah, um," I stammered, "I was just watching Miami Vice," I explained, and I know I made some excuse for why I was doing so while the children were up, like it was a new episode or something (ha, life in the prehistoric pre-DVR/TiVo world) but I could tell she wasn't pleased with me.
She exchanged a knowing look with her girlfriend while I felt a little on-the-spot. It's not like I was caught there with my boyfriend in her house, making out on the couch while her children stuck forks into light sockets. But... I still had a feeling this would be my last time with the boys.
Maureen dropped me off at home that night, and the "you're setting a bad example" hung between us in the car, an unspoken sandbag. I never heard from her again. Ever. I cringe a little when I think of that. Even now that I'm a Mom, and I restrict my own children's tv watching, so I do sympathize, I understand; but on a scale of 1 to 10, I feel it's a .5. It was a minor transgression. It shouldn't matter anymore.
Yet part of me still can't help but feel like a chagrined teenager when I am stirring that orange powder into the limp macaroni (there is no way to cook those straight tubes al dente--it's raw, or overcooked, and that's that). Dumped. Fired. Over Don Johnson?
"Mommy, whatcha makin'?" Ryan bursts into the kitchen, and stands on tiptoe next to me. "Mac-n-cheese," I reply. "Is it the box kind or your kind?" he asks, angling around me to look on the counter. "My kind," I gesture to the pile of cheese. "Yessss!!!" he exclaims, smile on his face, as he goes to announce it to the other kids. I hear Audrey complain just as I hear the boys say, "You love us, Mom."
It turns out that I am not such a bad example afterall.