My father-in-law passed away last week. He'd only partially recovered from a stroke in March and when it became obvious his life wasn't the shit it once was, we hoped he wouldn't linger too long in a truly crappy state of being, while at the same time we dreaded his final moments.
He is our first parent to go. We've mourned our great-grandparents and our grandparents. The generational gap softened the blow, because we couldn't quite connect their deaths to our mortality. They were old. In our memories, they were always old. A parent is too close for comfort. We remember their young faces, their middle-aged faces, and – the shock -- when old takes over like a malicious, rogue photoshop program, pinching their eyes at the corners, spotting their skin with copper coins, adding a crumpled tissue overlay.
Preparing for the funeral, I drive to the farmer's market and buy everything in sight, indiscriminately, and I have no explanation for the five pounds of green peanuts in my buggy. I don't think anyone has ever attended a funeral and thought – You know what would be great right now? Some boiled peanuts.
While I wonder it if would be appropriate to serve the boiled peanuts, my husband wonders if it would be appropriate to take pictures. It has been a long time since everyone has gathered and the opportunity for a family portrait might not happen again for a long while. I remind him that until the late 70's my family had our dead delivered to our living room, where the body would lie in full view all day and night and that I have many group photos of us crowded around an open casket. My favorite is quite recent: Nannie's lifeless, spackled face at the center with my cousins Jess and Laurianne leaning in. Laurianne has black mascara tears marking her cheeks like gang "kill" tatts, and both of them are smiling reflexively, tremulously.
My husband agrees that people clustered around an urn won't be as ghastly as that, and he packs his camera, while I pack up casseroles and pound cakes. I decide the boiled peanuts are too festive and leave them at home.
Later that night, wrung-out and fitful, we lie awake and plan our own far-off funerals. Befitting his quiet demeanor (and utter lack of imagination), my husband says he wants to be cremated, an intimate service, the ashes scattered on the waters where he sails his boat.
My plans are more elaborate and contingent upon my appearance at the time of my death. If I die before I have willfully let myself go, while I might still be described (under advantageous lighting) as "attractive," I want to donate my body to medicine. I am not extraordinarily vain, but I am relatively certain that within medical schools there must be a higher value placed upon better-looking cadavers, and I'm competitive enough and proud enough that I don't want to be grouped at the bottom with a hoary, misshapen specimen the students have nicknamed "Cletus."
At best, I have ten years to bequeath an attractive cadaver and I hope to last a bit longer, so I've made alternate plans. There is a green cemetery at the upper end of the county, where you can tip your raw, unpackaged loved one into a hole, shovel dirt on top and plant something to mark the spot. I want blackberry bushes. I want tables set up under the trees and covered with my vintage tablecloths. I want mustard greens, macaroni and cheese, yellow squash, okra and tomatoes, mashed rutabagas, cornbread, a keg of good beer and a bag of oysters if the month contains an "r." One table is to be filled entirely with cakes and pies. I want a live band that contains at least one banjo player. Dogs are expressly invited.
When the keg is empty and everyone is overstuffed and sweaty from dancing, they'll leave with a damp brown bag filled with boiled peanuts, and weeks, months, even years later, they'll find a peanut shell in the oddest place and maybe they'll think of me and believe I might be thinking of them as well.
This is the macaroni and cheese I want. I made it for my father-in-law's funeral -- thinking of him every step of the way; it's perfectly acceptable to cry into the sauce -- and for all the others I've lost for as long as I've been cooking. Obviously, if I'm under shrubbery, I will have to trust someone else to make it for me. If you want your dish back, you should put a strip of medical tape on the bottom and write your name across it. I still find dishes marked with my grandmother's tape. Or these days you can buy disposable 13 x 9 aluminum pans.
Fit-for-a-Funeral Mac and Cheese
1 lb elbow macaroni (cooked al dente, according to package directions, being careful not to overcook because it will get softer as it bakes. And be sure to liberally salt the water.)
1/3 cup sweet onion finely diced
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup flour
1 and 1/2 cup vegetable stock or chicken stock
4 cups whole milk
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp ground yellow mustard
1 or 2 tsp Crystal hot sauce (or other mild hot sauce)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
8 oz extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
8 oz fontina cheese, grated (or any other good melting cheese you like)
Kosher salt to taste
1 cup crushed crackers or bread crumbs
3 Tbsp butter melted
In a large sauce pan (big enough to accommodate the sauce and a pound of elbow macaroni), melt the butter and cook the onion until it is soft but not brown.
Add the flour and stir for two or three minutes to cook the raw flour. Add the stock slowly and whisk so that it doesn't get lumpy. Add the milk and whisk over medium heat until it thickens. Add the Worcestershire sauce, ground mustard, hot sauce, garlic powder and both cheeses and stir until the cheese is melted.
Taste for salt and mix in the cooked macaroni. The sauce will still be a little loose and it will look like there is too much of it, but the macaroni will soak it up as it bakes. Pour into a 13 x 9 inch pan. (The disposable pans can be flimsy, so put it on a cookie sheet while you fill and bake it.)
Mix together the crackers or bread crumbs and butter and sprinkle over the top. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, or until bubbly. If the top isn't brown enough, you can broil the top for a little bit to make it crunchy.
To freeze: refrigerate the dish and once it is throughly cold you can cut it into rectangles, wrap in plastic wrap and then in foil.