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Road Food: Baked Macaroni and Cheese & Rice and Lentil Salad with Cherries

18 Apr

Home is where the mac & cheese is

I recently met Lisa, Ben and Tom at Sik Gaek in Queens, one of Anthony Bourdain’s faves. Long a hidden refuge from the foodie hoi palloi, Sik Gaek was finally outed as an outer-borough destination on “No Reservations” and it has been on every white-person-who’s-obsessed-with-ethnic-cuisine’s hit list ever since. Including mine.

I relished the idea of a little DIY gogi gui fun and my armchair anthropologist curiosity was piqued at the prospect of being forced to watch my snacks roast alive — I’ve always been a carnivore who tussles with the unquestionably morbid, quite possibly morally debased implications of my eating habits. I reason that if I eat fish and meat, I should be prepared to kill it, gut it, clean it, dress it and cook it — something I’ve never shied away from doing.

When I fish, and when I’ve been on hunting outings (I’ve never successfully shot anything), we don’t light incense, hold a seance or chant for the departing, honored spirits that feed us, but we do treat the fish and animals with dignity, even solemnity, and certainly a heartfelt thankfulness. We don’t casually toss them, live, onto a little fire and calmly sip fruity mixed drinks until they stop moving.

To prepare, Ben and I met at his local watering hole, right around the corner from Sik Gaek. As usual, he ordered whiskey, on the rocks, with a bit of water, which he sipped quietly. I loudly slurped my way through two vats of lemon water and a pint of Guinness.

Generally, we are hands-down the most obstreperous characters in the room, too busy curating a scene of inhospitable grumpiness with our unified stink eye to make much time for jibber-jabber. But even we couldn’t hold a candle to the middle aged pile of crazy perched rather haphazardly on a stool by the bar. Apropos of nothing, she began shrilly regaling the room with her theory on the subtle difference between empathy and sympathy — a scholarly soliloquy that rivaled Aeschines’ sober assessment of Philip II of Macedonia.

We couldn’t stay for long — we had abalones and razor clams to butcher, watermelon soju to imbibe, mussels to crack and pop — but her speech froze everyone in silence, and as we left, she was still carrying on. I was riveted by her tirade, not just because it was juvenile and obvious, and clearly the product of an addled mind, which let’s face it, is always kind of impossible to turn away from, but also because she was so taken with the notion of empathy.

The food at Sik Gaek was novel and fun, the experience definitively lacking in sympathy, or empathy.

Our meal tasted of the briney sea from which it was recently plucked, our experience felt like a gleeful, drunken spree as harmless as it is naughty. The conch was plump and vibrant, the abalone delicate and strangely buttery, the mussels as slick as pebbles and as soft as edible silk. And it was surprisingly zen to BBQ the shellfish alive; it seemed like a fitting, convivial end for a fun-loving mollusk. The one sticking point was doneness: the BBQ was small, the flame high, the ability to control the heat negligible.

The crank’s verbal diarrhea and our “Lord of the Flies” Korean adventure have stuck with me. I haven’t been able to shake the sense that the woman had more to say, or that I just failed to decode the hidden message behind her jeremiad. Both memories percolate on road trips. Stephen and I have been taking minor little jaunts since we broke down a few months ago and finally bought a Hyundai Elantra — named Lou Ellen Marmaduke Willcox-Repsher. This past weekend, we drove to Philly, to visit an old friend and make a few foodie stops.

The trip could have been a bust; it was certainly a whirlwind, rainy affair, since we could only go for six hours on the one day the skies wept buckets. We envisioned wandering around Independence Hall, Franklin Square, the Italian Market, Fairmont Park, sampling cheese at Reading (pronounced Red-ing) Terminal Market, munching on muffins / sipping lattes at sidewalk cafes, and walking down the sidewalk eating soft Philly pretzels. Or at least that’s what I pictured. Stephen probably pictured stuffing ourselves silly on a Philly cheesesteak tasting tour.

Mother nature decided to give us a giant wet willy and disrupt both of our plans.

Cowering in the wake of her wrath, we attempted to not crash Lou Ellen, shook our fists at the cloudy skies then apologized just in case, watched our umbrellas flip inside out as we dodged sidewalk puddles and other tourists, ran into a going-out-of-business sale at Borders just because, grabbed two puny, sorry cheesesteaks wit’ onions from touristy Pat’s and even more touristy Geno’s (they both lacked good, fatty meat; the bread was sub-par and dry from Pat’s and there was too little cheese at Geno’s; both were under-seasoned) and drank Yards with one of Stephen’s oldest friends at Devon’s on Rittenhouse Square. It was a perfect day.

On the traffic-clogged, rain-soaked road home, we passed beautiful, broken down, most likely on the verge of bankruptcy farms. (Though a movement to protect small New Jersey farms is gathering steam, it still has a long way to go; to date, 33 farms and thousands of acres have been preserved). I wanted to move in to the white one with the blue shutters and the barn with the collapsed roof, have babies, buy goats, make cheese. We also passed countless shabby, gray strip malls; gleaming diners with flashing, neon signs; minivans crammed with laughing children and shiny, animated accouterments; silent, frowning elderly couples; teenagers with sunglasses and cigarettes.

I wondered what the crank’s life outside the bar is like. If she, too, takes road trips to Philly and laughs with her husband. I worried that the teenagers would turn into life-long smokers and that sunglasses weren’t helping their driving skills in the rain; I wondered if Stephen and I would stop having things to talk about; I thought about those farms, and hoped that young families still lived there, and that none of them would turn into strip malls or gleaming diners.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a billboard advertising Kraft’s.

Visions of melty, rich Macaroni and Cheese and all of the childhood, teenage and adult dinners I’ve made of it, almost always with others, danced before me as we entered the home stretch on the parkway — and that’s when it hit me. The woman was craving that intangible link that binds everyone together in a protective little web of invincibility. For some reason, she lost the ability to see it, or never learned its secret rhythms and beats; she never passes ads that make her want to call her dead Grandmother and ask her to come over for dinner.

She was the one missing the code, not me; it leaks out in gruff shoulder squeezes, grins on the street between women with toddlers, little shared eyerolls at work and kind words from strangers on the subway when you spill coffee down your brand new shirt; it’s everywhere, for everyone. It’s home.

Traveling, even for a day or two, always makes me crave home. The virtual home I’ve never wanted to flee, no matter how far I go; the little place where my tumultuous thoughts and the idea of my friends and family, living and dead, live. My virtual home often requires certain treats to keep it quiet and sated. They often come in the form of cheese.

When we got to our actual home, late, tired and zonked from driving in torrential downpours, all I wanted to do was make Macaroni and Cheese, but I had to wait until Sunday, because Penelope needed to be walked, and it was more important to stuff my actual head hole with a wedge of plain ol’ Asiago than fiddle around with pleasing my virtual home with vittles requiring roux and bechamel and dicing and chopping.

Below, find a recipe for my favorite super cheesy not too adult Macaroni and Cheese. It’s classic, bad for your cholesterol, good for your soul. There is also a recipe for Lentil and Rice Salad, a staple I started making in various forms with my friend Beth, when we backpacked around Europe together in our 20’s. Enjoy!

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