05/01/2013 12:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Road to Sanity Is Paved With Chili Mac

Kristan Lawson

It came to me last week, like a bolt from the blue: My favorite food is chili mac.

You know that stuff -- macaroni, onion, garlic, kidney beans, tomato sauce, tomatoes, oregano, chili powder and ground beef or faux ground beef, mixed up together in a pot?


I had not thought of chili mac in years. Then bam.

You know how sometimes the truth arrives in a blazing flash? You weren't seeking it. I mean, sure you seek truth in general, because who besides sociopaths seeks lies? And sure, we all expect a baseline degree of certainty -- because the other option, never knowing anything for sure, would drive us mad.

I know. Which is to say: I know because I do not know. I know almost nothing for sure, nothing at all. This is my curse.

I know not knowing anything for sure can drive you mad, because I was mad: crazy -- or, as a cowboy I once met once said, "as good as." Not stark-raving, ok, but wandering this world all my life never knowing what was true or false or real or fake, whom to believe or what to say. Was this because my mother, who was God to me, was probably afflicted with Borderline Personality Disorder, a syndrome that spurs rages, paranoia, anorexia, suicidal ideations and compulsive lying?

I grew up hearing her say, in a voice I heard as holy, that kissing was dangerous and cars were death machines, that I was fat, that ugliness ran in our family, that my friends were not my friends but vicious little monsters who smilingly waved goodbye then called me awful names behind my back. That my own thoughts were booby traps, that what I said I wanted (a dog, a new name, to drive around deserts seeking strange stones) I did not. That life was cruel and everyone outside our house was crazy, mean and murderous. All words darted like gnats before my eyes, true false false true, and in my not-knowing I staggered helpless, saying/doing/wearing whatever I thought would pass, whatever I thought might make others hate me less. I knew nothing for sure, nothing at all. Not even what I liked.


I call this the Uncertainty Curse. I am not its only victim. It is endemic among the unconfident, the anxious and the insecure. You can read more about this in my next book, The Big Book of Low Self-Esteem, due out this winter from Penguin.

Uh oh. I just wrote four successive paragraphs starting with "I," which Dad always said not to do, because it makes one seem conceited, which makes others mad. His letters comprised mainly paragraphs starting with "you" -- as in, "You are probably having hot weather these days" and "You have now begun your sophomore year."

Which, come to think of it, was at least true.

Anyway, we don't walk around demanding that the truth be told to us, because that itself would make us appear insane. But we who have the Uncertainty Curse doubt even ourselves. We wonder whether what we say and even think are lies. This curse severs our souls.

Which is why, when it came to me in a flash that my favorite food is chili mac, I stopped and stared in wonderment. Unlike most thoughts, this one arrived with dazzling clarity, like the real voice of God. That it was so simplistic, downright infantile -- so what? We who are cursed need to start somewhere. Why not with our favorite foods? Put it another way: If we were facing execution, what would we order for our last meals?


As a food writer, I am exposed to amazing dishes created by connoisseurs using exotic, expensive, indulgent, outrageous, often delicious, often complex and very grown-up components. Bottarga emulsion. Bone-marrow butter. Sea-urchin roe. Fennel-pollen crème fraiche.

With all due respect for these, in my childish heart of hearts I warble: BRING BACK CHILI MAC.


I made some yesterday, using TVP instead of meat, and it was so good that not one but two Jesus Christs came to admire it.

Un-good chili mac does not exist. This is why it is my favorite. Because it is anti-pretentious. Inclusive. Easy. It can be made by those who hate to cook. It can almost be made blindfolded. Its measurements are infinitely variable.

Chili mac is what you might get if you were given three wishes. 1. Transform chili, which is already a perfect food, into something even better. Alakazam! Add noodles! 2. Transform macaroni, which is the world's most welcoming pasta, into something even more accessible. Abracadabra! Totally Americanize it! 3. Let me make something that requires no actual recipe. Shazam! As that cowboy I once met also said: Ohhhhh yeah.

I first saw chili mac at age 15, at a cheap buffet restaurant near Yosemite. Reeling, slowly circling the vat, not understanding how so many good things could all be in the same dish, I asked: What's that?

Chili mac, Dad said and shrugged as if I should know, but that was the point. I knew nothing at all.

I made chili mac often as a young adult, but then -- in this sneering, mandoline-wielding town of oxtail poutine, of squid-ink orecchiete, of yuba pappardelle with carrot confit, pumpkin-seed Bolognese and nasturtium petals, I became ashamed of chili mac. It was a liability. I would no longer speak its name. For many years it vanished from my mind and life. I was not a chili-mac girl. The curse made sure of that.

But like a mercy sailing down to reconnect the severed soul, I know one thing for sure. At last. And chili mac is back.

It's back.

Key image by Anneli Rufus. All other images by Kristan Lawson, used with permission.