I assume everyone has a secret shame food they eat alone, late at night, over the sink or in the glowing spotlight of the open refrigerator. Left alone with a container of sour cream, I will eat spoonful after glorious spoonful with nothing but a little Tapatío drizzled on top. But on the rare occasion I take my shame eating to the couch, nothing pairs better with my secret shame show (SECRET'S OUT: Gilmore Girls, always rented from Video Isle) than taking down an entire box of mac 'n' cheese—the first half eaten politely, from a bowl, the remaining half spooned savagely, straight out of the pot.
Of course, homemade is usually best. I've constructed many of Martha Stewart's Gruyère, white cheddar, and pecorino affairs, crowned with hand-cut croutons, and an ultra creamy stove-top mac with Petit Basque and roasted garlic appeared on my Thanksgiving table. But like every child of the '80s, I was raised on the Blue Box. My mother was a health-food hypocrite: She firmly denied us sugary cereals, but occasionally offered us a squeeze of Hershey's syrup in our cereal milk. She shunned Chef Boyardee, but bought us buckets of KFC when my dad went out of town. For whatever mysterious mom reason, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese made the cut.
On recent trips to the Ballard Safeway, I've watched the boxed mac 'n' cheese selection expand like boiling macaroni. There are now many varieties of kosher, gluten-free, and organic mac 'n' cheese. There are noodles shaped like cows, bunnies, dragons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and SpongeBob SquarePants. There are white cheddar shells, biohazard-orange whole-grain elbows, and chipotle- and herb-flavored sauces. Don't even get me started on the fancy-pants rich-people mac, which comes with a deluxe gooey-cheese pouch. The health-food-hypocrite moms of today have big decisions to make.
Oh, and speaking of my mom, I don't live with her anymore. SO SHE CAN'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO! If she could, she would have stopped me from making eight boxes of processed macaroni and cheese in one night, plus two more boxes the night before. She would have warned me that the inside of my mouth would be coated in a plasticky slick of rehydrated cheese powder, that after Box Six my pulse would quicken and I'd start to get the Yellow #5 sweats. She might have predicted that I'd collapse onto the couch, limp and whining, "No more! No more orange!" while my boyfriend joyfully proclaimed he was "in heaven." And the next morning, with a smug smirk, she'd look from my puffy face to my protruding belly and tell me, "Told you so."
But let's go back to a happier time, when I innocently poured two boxes of pasta into those first two pots of boiling water. First up, Horizon Classic Mac, from the folks who sell organic milk. This went up against a box that I pitied, that I had low to no hope for, Annie's Gluten-Free Rice Pasta and Cheddar. Any trustafarian stoner worth his weight in Phish ticket stubs will tell you that Annie's has the boxed mac on lock, but as I watched the water turn a foamy, opaque white, I scoffed at the gummy rice noodles that continued to cook long after the Horizon was drained, dressed, and bowled. "You'll never amount to anything!" I berated my dreadlocked noodle son. But boy did I feel sheepish when those gummy noodles expanded into plump, slightly toothsome tubes that tasted tangy and suitably cheesy after a treatment of butter and cheese powder. As for the Horizon, its thin, ultra mild sauce simply produced orange-colored macaroni. Win: Annie's Gluten-Free.
The next round was kosher versus kosher, both discovered in the Jewish section while buying two-for-one $4 matzo ball mix. The Israeli Osem Rings & Cheese lured me with its toasted(!), Cheerio-sized pasta rings, but my boyfriend couldn't tolerate the clumps of salty cheese powder that refused to smooth into a sauce. He preferred the Wacky Mac, a mix of pinwheel, spiral, and penne pasta in a mild, but pleasantly acidic, sauce. Win: You didn't eat any pork or shellfish!
And then shit got real: The Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Round. The fish-shaped cheese crackers found in kids' lunches are now available in pasta form, and you can choose to abuse your sweet, innocent taste buds with Original, Cheesy Pizza, Nacho Cheese, or Butter Parmesan flavor. The folks at Pepperidge Farm have lovingly mixed free-range, locally harvested chemicals with a hefty bushel of seasonal sodium to create four flavors of macaroni and cheese that will make you feel feelings like Sadness and Anger and I-Want-to-Give-Up. It will make you try to abort your mac mission and nearly miss out on the majestic unicorn that is the $6.99 box of mac 'n' cheese. Win: No one. Go to your room, Goldfish Mac & Cheese!
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE $6.99 BOX OF MACARONI AND CHEESE. I almost didn't buy it, thinking it was not 99-cents enough and not shameful enough, but thank heavens I did because it was just the boost I needed to get back into the game. Sabatino Pronto Truffle Mac & Cheese is brought to us by the fine, food-loving people of Italy. Clearly strangers to our trashy, cheesy treasure, the folks of Sabatino even came up with a unique preparation: The cooking water is never drained from the pot; instead, it becomes the base of a velvety, truffle-scented, mushroom-studded sauce that clings to the rigatoni like stonewashed Italian jeans. Plus, there is a ton of it.
It really wasn't fair putting the beautiful Italian up against Kraft's Chipotle & Cheese, but, surprisingly, our little underdog held its own. Like with the gluten-free mac, I had major doubts about this version—doubts like "Well, this looks gross." But, somehow, the fact that it tasted like a packet of taco seasoning mixed with nacho cheese worked, plus the pasta was plumper and more textured than the standard Kraft Mac. Winner: Everyone! You're so international!
By now it was 11 p.m., I was chugging water and completely ready to throw in the neon-orange-stained towel. But it just didn't seem right to do a mac 'n' cheese taste test without including the OGs: the classic Blue Box, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner versus Annie's Organic Shells & Real Aged Cheddar. And guys, I was just as surprised with the results as you are! Kraft introduced its macaroni and cheese as Kraft Dinner in 1937, and the original stands the test of time. Not only did it beat Annie's, with its fuller flavor and sturdier sauce, it beat out every other fluorescent-orange, less-than-$6.99 mac 'n' cheese I tasted.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have several troughs of leftover macaroni and cheese to attend to. Which I will be eating cold, curtains drawn, on the couch.