(I first read this cautionary tale last week at Colored Boy and Friends: Mental Health Edition in New York City with the help of Bondfire Radio's Tasty Keish.)
INT. NIGHT – KITCHEN
Alex is seated on a designer high stool from Tarjé at a marble counter in a tidy kitchen (with clean baseboards, thank you very much) that appears to also serve as a plantain warehouse. A mid-sized plate piled high with ravaged chicken bones rests at his right. At his left: collard green-scented candles and a flute of the finest red Kool-aid. Luxury, ho. Trillville's "Some Cut" plays softly in the background.
I love food the way Donald Trump loves the applause his anus-mouthed ramblings elicit from his loyal, unmoisturized flock of Fuckboy Franks and Dumpsterheart Debbies. My devotion to food mirrors the potential Dickhead-In-Chief's passion for masking his stage four melanin envy with his special brand of short-dicked xenophobia — the pestilent, rabid kind that convinces me that if reverse racism were real, more often than not, it should probably look and feel like a baseball bat to the motherfucking face because fair is fair.
My gluttonous reputation is internationally known, pleighboy. I get DMs with the raunchiest recipes instead of sexytime offerings. The people of Internetland tag me in food-related posts — "Alex, have you seen this nine-tier red velvet Oreo wedding cake/chicken castle/solid gold nacho situation?" or "This cheesecake eating contest/30-pound burger/chicken wing festival reminded me of you, Alex!" — day pon day via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text and carrier pigeon. So while I relish any opportunity for midday calorie-fueled wet dreams, I'm never not hungry or plotting my next meal(s). Y'all are such enablers.
And I still have more pictures of food in my phone than of homies, Janet, and glorious melanin-rich menfolk, combined. I also recently created a separate Instagram account dedicated to my food victories and greedy nigga exploits. This ain’t no ordinary love.
I say all that to say: food is my life.
As such, I am spiritually mandated to try the macaroni and cheese 8 out of every 10 times I see it on the menu in a restaurant UNLESS the establishment’s reputation or reviews from trusted sources discourage or explicitly prohibit dancing with the devil. It's a rule in the Handbook For Inwardly Obese Food-Obsessed Persons. This same handbook also gives me thug motivation and guidance each time I engage my waiter in an ultra-serious discussion about the quality and configuration of the macaroni and cheese assemblage in question. Some of my go-to fact-finding tactics:
1. Do you eat it? An easy leading question. It’s more pointed than “Is it good?” and body language reveals all. Maintain eye contact and try to detect if the mofo is telling you whatever it'll take to get you to order some high-priced fuckshit. Do their eyes shift? Do they start to sweat? Do they stammer and claim to not understand the question, Racheldolezalingly? Be attentive.
2. Is it baked? I'm working on my self-care and that means avoiding pot-to-plate macaroni trauma at all costs. I want the same for you.
3. Assuming you love and aren't trying to murder them, would you feed it to your mother or your children? Obvious.
And so forth.
Look. I don't care about your doings and screwings, but I believe with every piece of my Black ass being that Saint Moms Mabley would want us to bake our macaroni and cheese. Let's be real. And not just for a cute kiss of crispness on top. Bonding and unity among the cast of ingredients: super muy importante. And: seasoning matters, folks. We can agree on this, yes? If you agree, say, “I love myself!” We is free now and must start acting like it. That means pay your bills, teach the babies, and season your food like you respect yourself. Grow up.
Food recommendations are serious business. I still don't speak to the baldheaded scoundrel who recommended the putridness at Copeland's in New Orleans. She's lucky I didn't get a restraining order or beep Homeland Security about the gastric warfare she subjected me to.
Nobody told me mac & cheese was made with spaghetti and hatred in New Orleans.
I won't even get started on the spaghetti-based devastation I faced at Verti Marte that legendary meandering, zooted Christmas Eve when I attempted to eat and drink my way around the French Quarter in a night. And I'm still healing from another grand betrayal: the much-hyped, muy regular chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House, also in Nola.
"Food Network said it's the best chicken in the country!" those hateful ho-ass rat bastards told me.
And that was the last time I took food advice from an Ashanti fan.
With that mighty preamble out of the way, submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society, I call this story, Close Encounters of The Macaroni and Cheese Kind.
EXT. NIGHT – FRONT PORCH
Alex is seated in a rocking chair with twice as many collard green-scented candles as before and Trump supporter teeth-as-confetti scattered around the porch. Covered by a couture Gordon Gartrelle poncho, he is wearing a vial of artisanal white tears around his neck. A pitcher of sweet tea rests seductively on a speaker plugged into nothing in particular. Rockin Sidney's "Don't Mess With My Toot Toot" softly plays from a boombox.
Peaches Hot House, Brooklyn.
Last summer, after a handful of recommendations, I went to investigate this allegedly magical chicken at Peaches. To, you know, see what the fuck. I was once a hot sauce-abusing Negro who adored spicy foolishness, but in recent years, I prefer to taste my food. So, while others flocked there for the famous hot chicken, I opted for regular ol' fried chicken — chicken chicken, if you will — with mac & cheese, butter beans, and cornbread. The chicken was a win: crispy and yummy and seasoned with love and dignity.
The mac's consistency was great, because creaminess is the way to true freedom, but sadly, the only discernible flavor was cheese. Mac and cheese should be more than just cheesy, folks. It has tons of praiseworthy potential, and being small-minded with your preparation is a crime against humanity. Anyhow, when I went back a few months later, the chicken was as dry as an Alicia Keys a Capella double album, but the mac & cheese was on 184 thousand dozen hundred. I don't know.
There've been some solid victories here in the city, though.
I went to Miss Lily’s, a Caribbean spot with Manhattan prices, with a group of friends to catch up and be loud and aggressively Black in public because self care. I don't believe in paying $20+ for fucking oxtail as a free Negro in the United States in the 2000 and the 16, so I went with the jerk wings and macaroni and cheese. Before confirming, I asked the waitress straight up. "Look. Do YOU eat the mac and cheese?" Without missing a beat she replied, "Yes! It's not like Bed Stuy and it's not like going to somebody's mama's house, but it is so good."
And dammit, I believed her. I felt her. It's all in the eye contact. And she was right.
The mac and cheese at Sweet Chick, the restaurant franchise that Nas co-owns, uses fontina, gruyere, and aged white cheddar, and is delightful.
The chicken and waffles is dope, too.
The Mexican Mac-and-Cheese with chorizo at Dos Caminos which uses wagon wheel pasta, sharp cheddar, a Mexican cheese blend, GARLIC, jalapeños, cotija cheese and other goodness, is also fantastic.
I took a squad of greedy folks there for the churro ice cream sammich, which you absolutely need in your life. I fully appreciated the magnitude of Saint Damita Jo's love and glory that night.
And then there is the stuff at places like Island CZ Café. I knew upon ordering this what my complaint would be, because it's a frequent complaint when I try macaroni & cheese from a Caribbean spot: lack of seasoning. A handful of Caribbean folk have tried to come for me over this stance. I said what I said. Fight me.
Oh, so y'all just gon' me charge $700 for a weapon-like brick of cheese with flecks of pasta tossed in? Word. It definitely came sliced like a loaf of bread. Unsurprisingly, the texture and the creaminess were a win here. But involving anything other than noodles and cheese would have made a world of difference here. When in doubt, salt will work it out. Thankfully the strength of the drinks made up for the food.
And then there is Sid Gold's Request Room, at 165 W 26th St, New York, NY.
A few months back, fellow VSB contributor Natalie Degraffinried invited me to Sid Gold's for a storytelling showcase hosted by writer and teacher Tim Manley. Adepero Oduye, who starred in Pariah alongside Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell, was among the participants. Great show. Naturally, I had to assess their mac situation, which they made with fontina, Parmesan, and cheddar. Cute combo. Impressive flavor. However, it was a bit more soupy than my spirit could bear. In fact, I described it to Natalie as "soupy nonsense." It was better than "what the hell is this?" but like hearing Mary J Blige’s Christmas album, I'm in no rush to do that shit again.
It was obviously baked more for cosmetic reasons, to lightly brown the top, than to bring order and unity to the soupy nonsense within. Oh, and those overcooked noodles? Chile, bye.
It wasn't horrendous, but I wouldn't even suggest it to the most fervent and obnoxious and reality-averse Iggy Azalea stan, and that's all I'm going to say about that.
And then, I went to Billie's Black, at 271 W 119th St.
If you, someone running an enterprise in the business of offering yummy food in exchange for money, give an item its own section of the menu, it better be nutbustingly good. If you then mention the specialness of this separate section-deserving dish, as a hungry and joy-seeking customer, I want to skeet across the room upon first taste, okay? I want joy and the love of the ancestors to wash over me as a quartet of becornrowed angels performs Janet’s "Runaway" on harps. Give me fire and desire. Give me fever. Something. A tingle?
In a perfect world, sure. In a world where Itchy Amelia the rapping Australian White Walker is free to release her sonic torture unto the world at will? Nah.
The honey BBQ wings were on point. But that mac? The texture was misleading: it was sufficiently cheesy, but not overwhelmingly so. It was baked. I was hopeful. But a Taylor Swift dancehall album produced by David Foster would have more flavor. It was like discovering that the that ultra fine thirst trapper you just followed on Instagram sends weekly tithes to Umar Johnson's "school" and is as witty as a pile of toenail clippings. And the waiter was clearly employed because of fineness and not for demonstrating even the most basic ability to pretend to possess the slightest desire to develop a hint of a concern for cultivating any sort of skill. Go-Go-Gadget: Supreme Disappointment. Apparently the catfish is impressive. Or something.
Verdict: In the words of Miss Sofia from The Color Purple, "Don't do it Miss Celie. Don't trade places with what I been through."
And then there was Junior’s.
My homegirl Shawnda and her boopiece came up from Richmond, Virginia to chillax and to watch Lupita act her damn face off in Eclipsed. She, being "touristy," as she put it, wanted to go to Juniors. Fine. I wasn't pressed to have the cheesecake. So, because I didn't trust anything else on the menu, I decided on chicken wings, like a real nigga. We were all curious yet unsure about the mac and cheese. Shawnda and I agreed, given the menu, and the fact this is was an item in a famous restaurant that I'd never heard mentioned by anyone ever, this was a risk. An adventure. Before deciding, we sought out the nearest, most trustworthy-looking Negro employee in the vicinity. "Hmm. Lemme ask this clean ass brother with the black ass lips. He looks sensible enough," I thought. I told them, "I got this." We signaled him over and I asked him straight up. "Look. What's the deal with your macaroni and cheese situation." He paused and looked at each of us. "I mean, it's good."
My grubmates and I exchanged nervous glances. He continued, "It's not quite homemade, but it's close."
Note: Using "homemade" to indicate high quality or trustworthiness is dangerous because: what if their home is a burning dumpster in some abysmal land where hugs and seasoning will earn you a trip to dungeon?
After surveying the scene and the food I saw passing our table, I opted for wings, the safest choice. Shawnda got BBQ chicken and ribs. Her boo got the brisket.
In retrospect, most of the tragedies I've faced in life could have been avoidable if I had trusted my gut. I'm a smart motherfucker. I'm great at surviving. And part of surviving means steering clear of ashy dicks and heeding red flags. After we ordered, instead of bringing, you know, some crumpets or perhaps some yummy pumpernickel bread to the table as our snack, do you know what they brought us? If not, I will tell you: beets, pickles, and coleslaw.
The motherfucking horror. That's when I knew that it was all a setup.
On the debut episode of my podcast with Jay Connor, "The Extraordinary Negroes," which features Damon and Panama, los Very Smart Brovas, we somehow wound up comparing artists to foods and places. Someone said that Beyoncé was bacon. I suggested Chris Brown was oatmeal: aight when you have it, but he ain't necessary at all. But the most important agreement we reached was that Azalea Banks was beets, because beets don't go with shit, any potential positives are washed by the shitty texture and they fuck everything up.
And those beets almost fucked up my vibe on that day, but I decided not to let Mr. Junior and his white gastric nonsense get me down. And so we cackled and were way Black and loud in the place to be despite the impending terror.
Then the food came.
And here are my questions.
Why, Mr. Junior, are you attempting to pass raggedy ass pot roast off as pricy delicious brisket?
Mr. Junior, if my sisterfriend's chicken is covered in BBQ sauce, why is the only thing we taste chicken rub? What kind of water-based BBQ sauce fuckery is this?
Why serve wings with yawn-worthy fried carrots when there are sweet potatoes in this world?
And what the fuck kind of terrorist camp of a family were you raised in where American cheese is a thing that goes in mac and cheese not being used to feed your pet subway rats or poison your arch-nemesis?
This was the worst of all the disappointments because it felt like a dropkick right in the spirit. That nigga with the black lips looked the three of us right in our faces and said it was CLOSE to homemade. So we're here envisioning somebody's nice, good-smelling grandma with a moomoo and ashy heels and diabetes in the kitchen whipping that work with the sharp cheddar and perhaps some garlic and such. And his monkey ass is over there envisioning the terrorist camp home situations that brought us the likes of George Zimmerman and that scoundrel ass Russell Simmons, who brought you the Rush Card, inaccessible funds, and eviction notices.
Here are my takeaways:
One. When restaurants are known for one thing, you really can't be mad when you get adventurous and everything except that one notable thing is fucking terrible.
Two. Ordering macaroni and cheese in public is always a risk. Even when the waiter is cute and has kind eyes.
Three. If you put sugar in your grits or intentionally listen to Flo-Rida, the stuff at Junior's is what you need in your life.
And lastly, Diddy didn't make those poor kids from Making The Band walk to Junior's for the lackluster chicken or the fucking mac and cheese. He sent them for the cheesecake. Remember that.
Let my cautionary tale guide you on your journey through the Land of Gluttony. Don't make the same mistakes I made. You know what danger looks like. I beseech thee: heed my warnings. I did that you so don't have to go through that, y'all. Know yourself. Trust yourself. And watch for wayward biking gentrifiers high on privilege when stepping off of the curb.