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When Life Hands You Lemons... Make Mac N' Cheese

LAUREN PEACE, HOST: And now for the next installment in our commentary series. Reporter Cecily Mauran shares an experience that taught her about finding comfort amidst the chaos.

CECILY MAURAN, BYLINE: I am making mac n’ cheese. On the side of the highway. At the southbound border of Oregon and California. In our RV which has broken down.

I’m part of a small documentary film crew following a guy traversing the Pacific Crest Trail to raise money for Parkinson’s Disease.

The crew is just me, a cinematographer, a sound engineer and my sister Marion, the director and leader of this ragtag bunch.

When I graduated college, my sister invited me to come and help her with the documentary, to blog and handle social media. Not having a job lined up, or any idea of what kind of career I wanted, I jumped at the opportunity. It sounded like an adventure, and one that pushed aside the thought of entering the “real world.”

We ended up living in an RV for two months, as we followed our subject’s progress down to the Mexican border. We would hike for miles with heavy camera equipment on our backs or force our poor RV down what barely constituted a road… hoping that our subject’s GPS had signal and that our map reading had brought us to the right place. Sometimes we would get there in time to film our subject. Sometimes we just missed him.

Often, the crew was filming, editing, or dumping their files which made me the go-to person for managing the essentials like grocery shopping and cooking dinner. I had already enjoyed cooking. But parked on some forgotten dirt road, or in the parking lot of a rickety old campsite, making dinner took on a new sense of importance for me. I loved the rhythmic feeling of chopping vegetables, and the comforting smells of oil, garlic and spices as they sauteed with whatever was in the pan. In a day that might involve a 14 mile hike, stealing wifi from a Walmart parking lot, and finding a place to legally and hygienically… ahem… empty our sewage tank, it was that shred of normalcy that I clung to.

Growing up, no matter what was going on, homework, boyfriend troubles, college applications, my mom always made sure we had dinner together. Cloth napkins, a candle on the table, and absolutely no devices. There were many times where I resented it, annoyed by the sense of formality, but more and more, it is something I find myself doing even as I live in my own apartment.

Lately, my family has all been having dinner together again. My husband, brother, sister, parents, and two dogs are all quarantining together. We do our own thing during the day, but when 6 or 7 o’clock rolls around, some kind of internal alarm goes off, and we all wander into the kitchen. Wine is poured. Cucumbers and tomatoes are chopped for the salad, and the napkins and candles are put on the table. Usually, we talk about that night’s Jeopardy. But, inevitably conversation turns to the pandemic. When so much has changed, or been canceled, or delayed, or forgotten, dinner feels like something I can rely on.

When the RV broke down, while we waited for the tow truck to arrive, making mac n’ cheese felt like a moment of consistency I could offer, even if it was just for me. As cars whizzed by us, gently rocking the RV, I boiled water for pasta and cut up some cheese to make a sauce. We drank some beer and the cheap white wine that we always made sure to have plenty of, and listened to music from someone’s battery-powered speakers. I added milk to the pasta and dropped in some cheese, which melted into the heat. Voila. Instant cheesy comfort food.

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