There is quietly dreadful about mac and cheese.
On the face of it, it is strange – and easy to make fun of. Each box, slathered artfully with orange-gold, is colored a judiciously contrasting blue that could have invented itself. For the low, low price of $1.69, you are rewarded with nuclear-orange instant dinner primarily consumed by children. Who hasn’t rolled their eyes and joked about the calories when they eat an entire box in college?
But at the same time, I do not hate it. I could not hate it. Each box and steaming bowl is a miracle; nearly 1000 vitamin-enriched calories for 14 minutes of minimum-wage work – a calculus evident to anyone in a grocery store thinking of easy ways to make ends meet while staying under-budget. I’m by the pasta aisle, I see the boxes: two easy meals for a few dollars? That should serve us very well in 8-10 days when the fresh ingredients have run out.
Memories come to mind of my friends’ parents sitting down at the TV with their own servings after making the box for us. My own family would have it with a hotdog and canned fruit for a full-course meal. I still buy it every few months, out of utility and (luxuriously) often simple curiosity. I would feel joy if someone offered it to me, and never judge them. Just be sure to sprinkle some extra shredded cheese on it, to spice things up.
It is, of course, also fun to be served mac and cheese as a kid. When the world is new and you haven’t had many foods, it tastes especially damned good, as it’s meant to. But when you’re an adult, you buy the box yourself. You buy it because you need – or probably need – something cheap and tasty. Something to make after work when you’re tired, and the dishes need doing because your apartment doesn’t have a washer and you’re busy, and you only want to clean one pot to make it with – then just eat it out of that. So you make the pasta, something you grew up with because your parents made it for the same reason, and you drain it and put it back in the pot, put in the powder and a dash of milk, and then you cut a few tablespoons of butter in. It’s a lot of butter, right? You stir, and it melts into pernicious lumps, heated enough by the faintly-warm pasta and sides of the pot, but not quite enough that you need to really stir to get it incorporated. While you’re stirring, you remember this is a nonstick pot, and you remember how you didn’t always use wooden utensils and wonder what’s flaked off of it and into your body. Why do I even use this anymore? I can never remember to buy kitchen stuff at the store, and when I do, I remember what I have at home. Why is this even allowed? Why didn’t anyone tell me before when it really should be common knowledge? Why am I eating mac and cheese at all when I can just make normal pasta instead, or even like a real meal? Why does anybody eat this, and why do we all have to make it ourselves, alone? Where did this box come from and where is it going to go? Do I even want to eat this anymore?
There’s a movie called Mandy that came out a few years ago, and I watched it last week. After even only a drink or two, I’m prone to terrible, feverish hangovers that last a majority of the next day, and it was on one of those days that I started to feel normal – still quite dry, but now able to stomach stuff – and interested in doing something with my time off. I heard tell about this movie that opens with King Crimson’s “Starless” – which is a favorite of mine – and that it was psychedelic and gnarly. I never watch gnarly horror, but I guess it seemed appropriate after feverishly trying to sleep, overthinking with my wires crossed, even in my dreams.
A roiling greater portion of the movie passes, surreal, yet lucid. Dreadful, slow, sometimes unwatchable ugly violence occurs. The main character has suffered a terrible, questionably-paranormal, harrowing tragedy and is left for a moment dazed and confused before he’s able to process any of it. Stumbling into his house from the back yard – limping and grievously wounded, hands still dripping and bumpy and purple from being bound to the fence with barbed-wire – he wanders into his living room. Before going into the bathroom, drinking, and absolutely dissolving with the weight of what just happened, he pauses for a moment to look at the television, glowing innocently, unnaturally blue in its place, inside, where it has been ignored for this whole affair.
My mind is already reeling. The majority of this movie is slow and impending, a building crescendo of horror. Terrible, deeply human acts of want and hatred have played out, terrible waves of more-than-once-in-a-lifetime pain, cosmic horror, un-processable evil, horrible luck. There is zero possibility that whatever is on this TV will feel like the same reality as the fire and blood of this starless violence.
On the TV plays a mac and cheese commercial. The whiplash crack honestly breaks my dehydrated brain.
It’s one of those 80’s/90’s food commercials, although in parody. The hyper-weird, mega-exaggerated style is brought up to eleven for the moment, this ad for Cheddar Goblin Mac and Cheese, featuring a discomfortingly rendered goblin puppet rising out of a pile of gooey noodles to regurgitate the stuff over two delightfully horrified screaming kids. The film cuts back a few times to the celestially-dazed main character, physically unable to process what is in front of him, although he is entranced by it. It does, honestly, really, disturb me to my core.
How exaggerated is this cheddar goblin? If not for the particularly ridiculous brand name and subtle presentational touches on the puppet, it’s the same kinda shit I saw on the TV in my very early childhood, albeit with cartoons or bad CG. Older millennials will talk about any weird commercial every once and a while at work or on podcasts, and then on youtube, in grainy quality, whatever I see looks just like this. Bright colors, screaming children, fucking weird camera angles and a corporate voice – all crammed into an extra-sensational thirty second spot. Sometimes it has hip-hop. Immaculate, avant-garde surrealist bullshit produced with Money, all for a commercial about mac and cheese? A level of reality-divorced hyper-stimulant television that would absolutely stupify a medieval peasant? Any human that didn’t know about it already? All for selling a box of orange, fatty carbs. These things are so out of reality it makes my head spin, so hard, that however many minutes of horror built and built up in this movie beforehand – just to contrast with this bizarro commercial – makes me feel like the commercial is the psychedelic horror – not the movie!
Did the movie understand this? The main actor – played by Nicholas Cage – stands in a daze when the spot is over. He weakly mumbles “cheddar goblin” and walks off to the next scene where he will scream in grief and pain and hatred about the moviestuff. Is this bit just for laughs? Comic relief? Does it know how horrifying it makes commercials or ads or corporate “fun” look, on a secondary level to the joke? The primary level? Surely it’s not just me?
This is, in essence, the horror of mac and cheese. It is, actually, entirely normal – something tons of people eat every day for normal reasons, advertised in ways that have slowly formed like things normally do. And yet, it is totally divorced from reality. The human experience knows food, but it cannot have predicted mac and cheese in all its totality, which sits at the center of a web of non-reality that zombie capitalism has produced. Poverty and necessity make us need cheap mac and cheese, fatty and orange and labeled “made with real cheese”. This the intersection of what our economic and food systems have produced. People are tired and poor and need to eat, but we live trapped in a system where more effort is put in presenting good than making it widely available, and every blazing blue box on store shelves or virtual ads reminds us of that.
The only thing that made it really stand out was the dated-ness, the changing tastes from a world that warps too fast.
When I was a kid, my parents would drive us on the Kansas turnpike for whatever work or family reasons that people have for doing so. So far outside the cities, the McDonald’s’ out there are older – then still decorated in the vestiges of a dying world. To my eyes, the yellow lighting, white-with-confetti decorated walls, and garish greens and purples of the ugly lumpy mascots all were alien. I had never seen them before, and, at least, never remembered them back home.
I understood the greens and purples for sure, which were the color of my winter coats and boots my parents had from the 90s. But who were these strange creatures? Ronald himself commanded attention on contemporary TV adverts (although his popularity was waning, in both my mind and in reality) but the Hamburglar? The purple guy? The strange, colorful decorations on the walls? It seemed as desperate and fake as perhaps it was, as a colorful appendage of some ubiquitous cheeseburger shop in plastic asphalt hell. And it felt dated; in the space after 9/11 and before smartphones, today’s minimal corporate images hadn’t yet taken form, but the older ones were dead. I have similar memories of cheap, drywall school wings just off the base of brick and steel, where adults talk under yellow light with jazz cups and cheap coffee. When the Money was smaller, they got by with colors and cheap plastic. Now things are changing, but it’s an ugly metamorphosis, belying the desperation and artificiality of it all. I just had to grow up in the small-town rotting corpse of the pre-millenium beast before the coming age of stainless steel and slick, subdued, sarcastic seriousness.
The mac and cheese is done, in the pot. I don’t want to eat it out of the pot so I get a bowl, and think in the back of my mind of how much butter and how much salt is in here. How positively alien this orange stuff looks, and how silly it would look next to a creek or in a swathe of tall-grass. At least I didn’t make the microwave kind. How weird is it that we microwave a cup of plastic, eat out the orange interior, then throw the thing into the ocean? They still sell it in stores.
The noodles aren’t unlike anything else on my shelf after all the fresh stuff is gone. Box noodles without the cheese, canned soup, frozen veggie burgers. They’re all wrapped in plastic, relatively cheap, generally filled with something to a degree they shouldn’t be, and weird as hell when you think about it. I’ve had to spend so much time and effort to learn where a lot even comes from. But there’s something especially disquieting about the Kraft.
When I’m done, the rest is in the pot. I don’t eat it all anymore, and my partner isn’t home. It’s stodgy and stiff- coagulated – and I think about my arteries for a second. If it is after Mandy, I think about the cheddar goblin and plastic and gasoline. I think how it is not so different in its qualities from regular food as in its relationships, as the fruiting body of carcinogenic capital. I think about this insidious food I have brought into my home and into my heart, unwittingly – literally, even – so utterly abstracted from natural reason. I do not love it. I do not hate it. I dread it.
Featured image is “Plant” by Remedios Varo