Many of you know of the orange and blue box that decorates cupboards across the country. An easy to whip up dinner/lunch/late night snack/horrifying breakfast choice that is a staple in the North American kitchen. Arguably a dietary/budget-conscience necessity for college students.A very standard meal where the only thing that changes from box to box is the price. Sold anywhere between 0.89 cents and 1.50 depending on where you buy it.
I have had Kraft Dinner many many times in my life, allowing me to self-qualify as an expert. Professional opinion? It’s good by itself, it’s good with little chopped hot dogs, it’s good with a couple dashes of cayenne hot sauce, its surprisingly good with chopped Italian sausage. It’s very difficult to desecrate the altar of boxed noodle and cheese.
Today, I want to tell you about the best Kraft Dinner I’ve ever had. The one that changed my life forever. Not a dish I made for myself, but one I had made for me. Years ago that changed KD, and me, forever.
It was a quiet day in London, Ontario. Around 2007. I believe the weather was grey, but honestly that’s because of all the weathers that London Ontario has, it has grey the most. I was at my parents house in Berkshire Dr, playing video games with my friend Christopher. It was a joyous time. We had the house to ourselves and we didn’t have to censor our enthusiasm for video games or swear words, one of the few great joys of being a teenager.
We were playing a single player game, passing the controller back and forth when we died. I can’t remember whose turn is was, but I remember it was I that asked Chris if he was hungry. We searched the cupboards for foods that fit into two categories. One, easy to achieve. Two, tasty. My household was never a snack-based house lacking in chips or crackers, aside from Costco sized boxes of Melba-toast. So after a few minutes of rummaging and we decided on Kraft Dinner. I started to get out a pot and Chris stopped me.
“Here, let me do it. I make the BEST Kraft Dinner. You go keep beating rounds in the Cerberus Cup and I’ll make it” He was showing his dedication to our endeavors, understanding that video games could not just be left unplayed in our presence for too long.
I paused. Chris and I had been friends for nearly four years at that point (Now around sixteen years, probably because of this moment) but this was my mother’s kitchen that I was trusting him with. MY Kraft dinner, in his hands. I had always been trepidatious with anyone making Kraft Dinner for me without my involvement ever since I was five years old and spent a lunch hour across the street at Michael Tomaso’s house. His mother had made Kraft Dinner that a grainy texture, convincing me for many years that she’d cooked the free hockey card that came in the box INTO the Kraft Dinner. But in the end, this was my best friend. Who could I trust if not him. And I’m sure some part of my teenage mind knew that if he messed it up, I could ridicule him for weeks. As is the basis for all male friendships at that age.
I went back to the game, and Chris went to work. I hadn’t walked him through where things were in my fridge, or what to use. I was little doubtful at his claim of ‘the best Kraft Dinner’, wondering how could that glorious dehydrated cheese ever be improved. But as I beat several more rounds Chris cooked in the kitchen, only occasionally peering out the door to offer advice or condemnation of a particularly annoying baddie.
After the box required time was up (Cook 7 to 8 min. or until tender, stirring occasionally. Drain. Do not rinse.) I looked to the doorway to kitchen from the couch. Chris was spooning the ‘Best Kraft Dinner’ in two flower embossed bowls.
“Where are the forks?” At least he knew the proper Kraft Dinner Etiquette.
He brought the bowls into the living room. He sat on the couch and I remained on the floor in front of the TV. I let the bowl sit on the coffee table for a minute, finishing up a battle. Then I paused and turned to address the ‘Best KD Ever”. It looked as impressive as Kraft Dinner always did. Glistening shiny cheese, beautiful uniformed shaped noodles, and a fork buried in the side. It looked no different than when I had made it.
I took a bite. And froze.
All thoughts of the paused video game left my head as I took in the deliciously familiar creamy cheese taste that was somehow better than ever. It was just, more. More creamy, more cheesy, more delicious than I’d ever had before. I took a few more bites, to confirm this was not just a fluke tasting, digging to the bottom to the bowl as if I could unearth Chris’ secret ingredient. Eventually I had to admit it to him.
“This is so good.” He nodded, humbly smiling through his own bites.
“You don’t understand, this is…possibly the best Kraft Dinner I’ve ever had.” I remember Chris smiling wide with pride, our teenage ego rarely heard compliments in those days, rarely ever from each other.
“What did you put in it?” I didn’t believe he did this through skill alone. He must’ve done something, added something to make it great.
“Nothing.” Silence for a few minutes, as he grinned at me. I stared at him with disbelief. Because I did not believe him.
“Seriously. What did you add?” I was demanding now. Chris’ smile turned to one a look of concerned innocence.
“Nothing!” He proclaimed. I stared at him, looking for any sign of a tell. He bemused look was gone, replacing with worry at my indignation. I dropped it, repeating my claim that it was REALLY good and finishing off the bowl quickly. We returned to our game, but the dish still plagued me. What had he done differently?
That thought stayed with me for nearly two years, trying to figure out what he had done differently. Days after the incident I decided to make a bowl for myself, following the boxes’ instructions to the letter. It was still good, but it wasn’t the magically creamy perfection that had floored me days before. I ate the whole box regardless, but still it ebbed at me through every bite. Every now and again, when Kraft Dinner was brought up in conversation with Chris and anyone else (It’s a Canadian culture staple, it happens a lot) I would reflect on that perfect bowl he’d made me and ask again, How did you do it? He’d shrug and swear he had just followed the instructions. But his tones of perceived innocence only made me question if he was just a sneaky bastard, keeping such secrets to himself.
My ‘Ah-ha’ moment came almost two years later, when I was in my college apartment in Windsor Ontario, shared with two other people. One of those people was a gorgeous man named Kyle, who was taking culinary arts at the same college I was studying musical theatre in. I was making Kraft Dinner near the end of the semester, any semblance of well-planned grocery runs out the door with the exhaustive rehearsals we had on-top of classes and projects. I had made the terrible mistake of not checking for ingredients before dumping the noodles in the pot and had resorted to begging off of Kyle, a frequent occurrence I’m sure he can attest. I had the milk, but the Costco sized container of margarine my parents had sent me to school with at the start of semester was finally empty. Kyle told me I could use some of his butter.
“Butter?” I inquired. Butter was a baking ingredient, for fancy dishes. I must’ve looked puzzled because he specified.
“Just use the markings on the side of a stick in the drawer, and put the rest back. I think for KD it’s like, two tablespoons?”
These words meant nothing to me, but I followed his instructions. I mixed everything in, letting the square pat of butter melt into my orange mess, rather than the usually carefully measured spoonful of margarine. I poured the contents into a large mixing bowl, the only bowl in our kitchen large enough to contain the whole box and returned to my room. Watching YouTube and working on journals.
I took the first bite, then the second before it hit me. This Kraft dinner tasted EXACTLY like the Kraft Dinner Chris had made me years ago.
The realization hit me like a wave. My family had been a margarine family for my entire life, buying the giant Costco brand of margarine that came in reusable containers that we would reuse until their yellow crusted interiors finally melted away in the dishwasher. This rule went past my family into the generations above me. My grandparents on both sides, margarine in everything except baking! Where else had my parents learned this practice from. And I, not know any better, had conformed to their ways! EVERY SINGLE PERSON THAT HAD EVER MADE ME KRAFT DINNER HAD USED MARGARINE, AND NOT BUTTER.
I ate, the discovery washing over me as my hunger was sated. I felt invigorated. I felt validated in my believe that Chris’ HAD done something different. Chris who lived two doors down from me in the same small townhouse complex. Once I had finished the box I dashed over to his backdoor and burst into the kitchen where he and his future wife, another of my best friends, Alex were making dinner of their own.
‘YOU USED BUTTER!” I accused, riding the high of Kraft Dinner and righteousness.
Alex stood stunned by the fridge at my outburst but Chris, accustomed to my shenanigans, did not even blink. He looked down at his creation in the pan and looked back up at me.
“No, not in this. Just some olive oil”
Editorial Note: My American wife has pointed out to me that now that I live in the USA and not my beloved home country (The country of KD) that it is referred to as ‘Kraft Macaroni and Cheese’, not KD or Kraft Dinner. I’ve acknowledged the culture difference but refuse to say such heresy.