The Healing Powers of My Grandma’s Macaroni Salad

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Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


It’s just a bowl of noodles. A stockpot, in my case, because I don’t have the basketball-sized Tupperware bowl my grandma uses, but it’s still just a bowl of noodles, coated with the most stereotypically American of ingredients—Miracle Whip, mayo, a little pickle relish. It’s a bowl of noodles, but now it’s something more. It’s my deliverance, my emancipation from heartbreak.

Despite being a food writer, up until four years ago, I had never cooked. Like really, truly never. My husband enjoyed making dinner each night—a culinary curtain that separated his work life from our (formerly) happy home life—and I was happy to let him. I’d gush over his pastas when we first started dating; swung my legs from my perch on the kitchen island as he made coconut rice in what we thought was our forever home; fed the babies while he baked bread and attempted Peking duck on paternity leave; and gnawed on countless homemade pizzas as our relationship disintegrated over the years and I went through the stages of grief—denial, intense pain, and then, finally, numb acceptance.

When our 12-year marriage was over for good, and I no longer had someone taking care of dinner each night, the kids and I, of course, still needed to eat. Besides the obvious problem that I’d never so much as formed a hamburger patty in my life, there was the added obstacle of not having the extra energy to burn. I was tired, heartbroken, barely functioning. The divorce broke me down so thoroughly that I didn’t think I’d ever be whole again. My identity, my family, and my life were all so intricately tied to my husband that I didn’t know who I was without him. I just knew I had to keep the kids and myself going, and to do that, I had to start cooking.

I’d gush over his pastas when we first started dating; swung my legs from my perch on the kitchen island as he made coconut rice in what we thought was our forever home; fed the babies while he baked bread and attempted Peking duck on paternity leave; and gnawed on countless homemade pizzas as our relationship disintegrated.

That very first night, when everything else felt so unreal and upside down, I got myself into the kitchen and used the island as more than a perch for the first time. I made quesadillas. It wasn’t much, but all we needed were the calories to replenish those we’d burned from crying and screaming (for the kids) and soothing and holding it together (for me).

“Austen eating a pasta I made.”—Allyson Reedy

I continued to white-knuckle my way through dinner, cooking solely out of necessity. I dreaded my time in the kitchen, but each night I got back in there, boiling water for pasta, overcooking frozen Kroger-brand chicken breasts, and somehow creating rice that was both soggy and burnt at the same time. One night I had a breakdown when I couldn’t get the food processor to work, cursing my spoiled, 37-year-old self for never having taken the time to learn how to properly secure its lid. Another time, I set ears of corn on fire.
Besides doubting myself in the kitchen, I also doubted whether I’d made the right decision for my family. Maybe I should have stayed married to keep my family whole and fed. Maybe I should have accepted the lack of trust in exchange for comfort and security. Maybe I’d scarred the children forever, irretrievably ruining their young lives and compounding their misery with lackluster stir-fries.

But each night I pushed aside the doubts and continued my struggle-cooking. The kids didn’t like the food, and they let me know. Sometimes I’d laugh off their criticism; other times I’d get angry and yell at them, taking out my frustrations over so much more than failed salmon on them. Inevitably, the night following one of my outbursts, they’d compliment my dinner. They’d eat every bite. I’d feel guilty for having let the failed salmon win, but grateful for kids who lied through bites of bad chicken.

Because I didn’t have much get-up-and-go in me, I rarely cooked the kind of food I wanted to eat. I cooked the path of least resistance to get us by—the dishes I thought would nourish my picky kids without consuming effort that I just didn’t have. I occasionally paused to recognize how far I’d come, but every sad turkey burger felt like a reminder of how far I still had to go.

My favorite thing to eat, without question, is my grandma’s macaroni salad. I know what you’re thinking: Whose favorite food is macaroni salad? But it’s not just any macaroni salad, and especially not the kind you find at grocery stores. My grandma’s version is made exclusively with giant elbow macaroni, lots of hard boiled eggs, and a light coating of a just-sweet-enough blend of mayo, Miracle Whip, and sweet relish. It’s my ultimate comfort food—yet when I needed comforting the most, I didn’t have it.

The kids didn’t like the food, and they let me know. Sometimes I’d laugh off their criticism; other times I’d get angry and yell at them, taking out my frustrations over so much more than failed salmon on them. Inevitably, the night following one of my outbursts, they’d compliment my dinner.


My grandma is like a second mom to me. She was just 41 when I was born to my own single mom, and still young enough to march parade routes with me as I twirled the baton, to win me giant stuffies at Skee-Ball, to sew my Halloween costumes, and to make me batch after batch of macaroni salad for my after-school snack. It was our picnic-table staple on the Fourth of July, but really, we ate it year-round. After my mom moved us to Colorado from Southern California, where my grandma still lives, she knew to have the giant Tupperware filled with mac salad for my visits. I’d first hug her hard, and then dig in.

Three generations: The author with her grandma and child.

Photo by Allyson Reedy

These days, my grandma’s COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) requires her to be hooked up to an oxygen machine, which makes visits to Colorado impossible. I know she’d have loved to be here during my divorce, feeding me bowl after bowl of macaroni salad to cheer me up, but she just couldn’t leave home.
I’ve had the recipe for her macaroni salad jotted down on a piece of paper in a drawer for at least a decade—my ex-husband would occasionally make it for me, and I’d devour it when he did, but I had never attempted it myself. Granted, “attempted” is a strange word to use for a recipe as simple as boiling noodles and mixing a few ingredients in a bowl, but because of what it meant to me, I thought of it as beyond my capabilities. I was the heartbroken-but-getting-by girl. I could handle mediocre pastas and quesadillas at best. I certainly couldn’t take on my grandma’s recipe that I so loved and valued.

My grandma is like a second mom to me. She was just 41 when I was born to my own single mom, and still young enough to march parade routes with me as I twirled the baton, to win me giant stuffies at Skee-Ball, to sew my Halloween costumes, and to make me batch after batch of macaroni salad for my after-school snack. It was our picnic-table staple on the Fourth of July, but really, we ate it year-round.

Until one day, I did. I wanted to taste its tangy goodness and creamy magic. I wanted my children to experience its noodle-y glory and eggy splendor. I wanted to eat it straight from the bowl with them—not as a side dish, but as the main attraction (where, according to me, it belongs).

By that point, I was more comfortable in the kitchen, which is what happens after you do something a couple hundred times. I’d sauced my way through the doubts, overcome grief with successful rice (thank you, Instant Pot!), and healed my heartache one halfway-decent dinner at a time.

My macaroni salad didn’t just get by; it was perfect. It activated a sort of fingerprint on my tongue, lighting up my taste buds in patterns of summertime nostalgia. My kids loved it, and my boyfriend went back for seconds, because, yes, through my hopelessness, I somehow found love again. His arrival was certainly unexpected, but with divorce and disillusion behind us both, we’ve forged a relationship—and we even cook together.

My grandma’s macaroni salad is just a bowl of noodles, but it’s also my happiness, my reclamation, and my accomplishment. It’s my metaphorical victory lap for showing up for my kids when I didn’t think I could. I know that heartbreak and struggle will return—because that’s life—but when they do, I’ll be better prepared and better fed. It took a bowlful of noodles to show me that I can do the hard things—even cooking.



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