In Missouri, you never know what January will bring. One day temperatures rise into the 50s, rain falls all night, and creeks run high.  A day later, temperatures dive, and the soggy ground freezes solid. The only way to stay upright outdoors is with ski poles, golf shoes, or Yaktrak traction cleats attached to your snow boots. 

by Cathy Salter

Last week, the Midwest experienced a severe winter weather event. Schools, universities, and churches announced cancellations early in anticipation of treacherous icy road conditions.  As weathercasters predicted, rain turned to sleet, snow fell on top of the ice, and then back to sleet.  As winds blew, ice encased tree branches creaked and moaned overhead and below, crystalline limbs along our frozen mulch pathway bent under the weight almost to the ground.   

Driving was out of the question.  Having once hit a patch of black ice while driving into an approaching winter storm, the thought of driving on icy roads absolutely terrifies me.  Recalling that moment reminds me of a scene from the film version of Michael Ondaatjee’s novel, The English Patient. Katherine and Count Almasy take haven in a truck when a sudden desert sandstorm is about to envelop the world around them.  

“This isn’t good, is it?” says Katherine.  “No, it is not,” Almasy responds, wiping the sand from his face.  “Shall we be all right?” Katherine asks with a tone of concern.  “Yes.” Almasy answers.  “Yes.  Absolutely.”  To which Katherine responds, “Yes is a comfort.  Absolutely is not.”

Our recent ice event also reminded me of a time decades ago when my father was caught in a snowstorm while driving home.   He and a few other stranded motorists ended up spending the night at a farmhouse just off the highway.  Luckily for all, the house had a well-stocked freezer.  While mother worried at home about Dad’s whereabouts, he was enjoying a generous table filled with down-home, warm-your-innards, comfort food shared with a circle of new friends.

When winter came a calling last week, Kit built warm fires in our Buck Stove, and we devoured Louise Penny novels from her brilliant Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series. Set in the small village of Three Pines south of Montreal (but not on the map), Canadian winters can be as brutal as the latest murder. But inside the village bistro, there is always a warm fire, flakey croissants from the local bakery, and an array of comforting dishes on the menu to nourish the soul.  Hungry for such a dish, I searched my childhood memories for the perfect comfort food, guaranteed to melt in your mouth and warm the spirit.  Finally, it came to me—my mother’s Macaroni and Cheese.  Made from scratch, the creamy creation from her 1963 The Good Housekeeping Cookbook.   It is similar to one in a 1995 cookbook entitled Diner—described as a down-home collection of recipes celebrating the best of casual American cooking.  The following is a blend of the two—

Old-Fashioned Macaroni and Cheese

Preparing the Macaroni:  Add 1 teaspoon salt and 2 1/2cups of elbow macaroni to rapidly boiling water for 5-7 minutes.  Drain, rinse to remove excess starch, and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Set aside. 

 The Sauce:  In a saucepan over medium-low, heat 3 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons flour, whisking until bubbly and golden.  Gradually add 2 1/2 cups milk, simmer until smooth and slightly thickened for 3-4 minutes.  Add 1 3/4 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese to the milk, remove from heat, and add 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, and 1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley.  Pour sauce over macaroni, mix, and transfer to a buttered baking dish.  

Topping:  Blend 3/4 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs and 1 teaspoon unsalted butter cut into tiny pieces.  Sprinkle evenly over the macaroni and dot with butter.

Bake:  20-25 minutes at 375° until bubbly.  

(Serves 4)

It’s dark now and quite cold outside.  Inside, a fire is blazing in the Buck Stove and friends have just arrived to share Sunday supper.  In the kitchen, a Macaroni and Cheese casserole is baking up a storm. Old fashioned comfort food for the spirit this frigid January night. 

Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.