I adamantly detest the mac and cheese from Panera Bread. The sauce is so liquidy it’s practically soup, and they’re apparently too artisan for sharp cheddar. They insist on using bland white cheddar instead—if you can even call that cheddar. The whole dish seems to have been concocted to only have as much flavor as a four year-old with a tragically underdeveloped food palate can handle. 

Its only redeeming quality is that it’s made with shell pasta, which I believe is a prime pasta shape for mac and cheese done right. I’ve ranted to several friends about how Panera’s disappointing pasta in cheesy sauce doesn’t deserve to be called mac and cheese, and while I’m on my mac and cheese soap box anyway, I always add that garlic powder is the secret to good mac and cheese. 

Marketplace had mac and cheese at the pop-up bar one night, and I texted my parents in all caps saying that I was living my best life because I had finally found a place that makes mac and cheese the right way: sharp cheddar, garlic powder, oven-baked and with a pasta shape that’s more interesting than elbow. But I was also so excited because this mac and cheese reminded me of the kind I’d grown up eating at Thanksgiving, Christmas and other family holiday meals. There’s even a saying I’ve grown up hearing at family gatherings when we’re sitting around eating and, inevitably, someone brings up a time when they had to eat mac and cheese far inferior to what they currently were eating: “white people can’t make mac and cheese.” 

Pause. I pride myself on using this column to battle stereotypes and broad generalizations about people, and I’ve just made one. So I’m going to treat this like any other stereotype I bring up in this column, and investigate in order to find the root of it. 

When I first googled “best mac and cheese recipes,” I found a lot of blogs by artsy white women whose recipes look enticing, but none of them include garlic powder in their ingredients. From my own experiences, I insist as a fact that garlic powder makes mac and cheese taste better. Then I came upon recipes specifically labeled “soul food.”

Soul food, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, refers to traditional food that is popular among black Americans in the south. Both sets of my grandparents grew up in the south where they either made up the family recipes for mac and cheese that we still use, or where the recipes were passed down through their families. I had never made the connection before, but my affinity for a certain style of mac and cheese stems from an affinity for the soul food that I grew up with—even though the majority of my Thanksgivings haven’t been spent in the south. 

So if soul food is its own category of food with distinct characteristics, and it is by definition “traditionally eaten by black Americans”...Is there a racial or cultural divide over the correct style of mac and cheese? Why are the people I’m thinking of in my head who like Panera’s mac and cheese all white northerners? I usually just pity my friends and insist they haven’t had “real” mac and cheese, and while I’m entitled to my own opinion, can I actually say that Panera’s mac and cheese isn’t “real?” What we identify as “real” and “not real” depends on our personal experiences that shape our standards.

I turned to America’s cooking icons as the first source I could think of to find what “real” mac and cheese is: Paula Dean and Gordon Ramsay. While I was disappointed to find that neither of them included garlic powder in their recipes, when I searched “soul food mac and cheese,” I found multiple recipes that included my coveted garlic powder, including John Legend’s mac and cheese recipe. Among celebrities, it seems that even though Paula Dean is from the south, the black or “soul food” mac and cheese recipes are the ones that match what I’ve grown up to identify as “real.” 

I still believe that the best mac and cheese has garlic powder in it. If soul food recipes are the ones that include garlic powder, then those are the recipes that myself and my family would consider the best. Consequently, I get where my grandmother and great aunts are coming from when they say that white people “can’t” make mac and cheese. It’s not that they can’t make mac and cheese, but that the distinctive ingredients of soul food recipes are not universally used in all dishes. It’s kind of like saying that a jacket isn’t a real jacket if it doesn’t have a zipper. Really, the only two ingredients required for real mac and cheese are in the name of the dish—pasta and cheese.   

If you like Panera’s mac and cheese—although the thought of giving that dish validation makes my heart ache a little—I say go for it. You were probably raised on mac and cheese that tastes like theirs does, and maybe my family likes more seasoning on our foods than others. I never considered myself one who has a particular affinity for soul food since I don’t particularly like collard greens, ham, fried chicken, or many of the other foods associated with that category, but I will say that I do love some good-old soul food mac and cheese. 

And if all you’ve ever known is Panera’s mac and cheese, please introduce yourself to me. I’ll gladly invite you over for Thanksgiving. 

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.