Comfort food

PHOTO: Katherine Johnson, Flickr CC-BY

One of the simplest American foods perhaps best reflects our culture: Macaroni and cheese. Though not all mac and cheese is the same, most people in our country are familiar with some version of it. Those differences also reflect the diversity of the United States.

Why is mac and cheese such a good example of American food? Well, it’s based on elbow macaroni, a very cheap and widely available pasta. Its other primary ingredients include not one, not two, but three dairy products: milk, butter and, of course, cheese. No country consumes as much dairy as we do.

We also like to boil and cut up hot dogs to mix into the dish. And many of the popular brands, like Kraft, use a dehydrated powdered cheese of uncertain chemical composition. If you can name all the ingredients in store bought mac and cheese with hot dogs — my favorite meal of all time — you are much more than a discerning consumer, you’re a highly capable laboratory scientist.

These foods require a vast agricultural industry just to properly supply stores across the country. Unless you keep your own cow and mill your own wheat, mac and cheese requires an army of farmers, workers, drivers, and energy to produce. Our whole economy is based on every step of this system not only working properly, but profitably. Like it or not, this is distinctly American.

But let’s not be dismayed; mac and cheese is also delicious, inadvisably caloric by weight. It’s supposed to be a side dish served with healthier foods, but many families — including mine — have always treated it like a main course.

Despite the hidden complexity of mac and cheese, it’s often seen as a meal accessible to low income people. That’s one of the reasons I grew so fond of it during my teenage years when my family was having a hard time and my sisters and I were often on our own for dinner. And yet, the need for fresh dairy products also makes mac and cheese unattainable for people struggling with deeper food insecurity.

Even mac and cheese, the greatest of American meals, comes with income inequalities — yet more evidence of how American it really is. 

As great as mac and cheese is, and you will not sway me from that position, we have to do something about the availability of food for people who need it. The government has its role, and so do companies that employ workers in this country. But even when those responsibilities are marred by political dysfunction and greed, we can still do something about the problem ourselves.

Next Thursday, Jan. 27, I’ll be co-hosting a special live broadcast web program for Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Grand Rapids. Because of COVID-19, the food bank will be doing a virtual celebrity chef competition. Amateur cooks in Grand Rapids and Brainerd will compete to raise funds to help feed people across our region. Part of the fun, of course, is that these so-called chefs are not professionals. Anything could happen. 

What will the chefs be cooking? Mac and cheese, of course, using only ingredients that can be found at the food bank.

You can get a free ticket and see the show at You can vote on your favorite local celebrity chef with your pledge of support to the food bank.

Second Harvest North Central Food Bank serves Itasca, Aitken, and Crow Wing counties. Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank serves most of the central and eastern Iron Range communities. They supply food distribution hubs across the region, including the Quad Cities Food Bank in Mountain Iron and Salvation Army in Hibbing. You can find out how to support or use their programs at

It’s true that abject hunger remains rare in the United States, but food insecurity is very common. Most of its victims are children and senior citizens. Knowing where your next meal will come from is one of the most important assurances a human being can have. A secure source of food allows people to work, attend school, and take care of children with vastly reduced stress and far better outcomes. And it is such a simple thing for us to give.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


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