This comforting dish is the culmination of years of hard work in the kitchen—and decades of unwavering devotion.

By Kia Damon
January 28, 2021
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Credit: Stacy Howell

I realized at a very young age that my Auntie Monica was the coolest person ever. She's the baby out of five siblings, coming in right after my momma. She is a Gemini, just like my momma. I have always been in love with and in awe of the women in my family. They're headstrong, hilarious, and fierce, and Auntie Monica is no exception.

Auntie Monica marches to the beat of her own drum. She was one of the reasons I could embrace being different, too. I have never known her to shrink herself or compromise her beliefs. That may have gotten her into some tough spots, but it has made her the unapologetic woman she is today. She was stationed in South Carolina working as a drill instructor training recruits for the United States Marine Corps when I was growing up, and I had a hard time imagining my barely 5-foot auntie marching and shouting at these folks who often towered over her.

I don't have any older sisters, but growing up, Auntie Monica filled that role. She spoiled me, took me shopping, and bought me things my mom would never let me get. She is also one of my biggest cheerleaders. Regardless of my goals and aspirations, she is never lacking in support. Honestly, in her eyes I can do no wrong. With every tattoo, every move to a new city, and a brief stint with the United States Air Force, she was there with unwavering love and encouragement. I'm always starstruck by her, even now.

Like me, she picked up her cooking skills later in life. It was after high school that Auntie Monica moved to Parris Island for the Marine Corps. It wasn't until she had her first duty station that she started calling home to my grandma for recipes like her famous pork chops. (It's a recipe that I often call my mom about, too—Grandma Jeannie was the best cook.) Auntie Monica wasn't a great cook by any stretch, but in time, she went from oversalting beans to completing her own holiday dinner spread. It took a lot of trial and error and a whole lot of patience with herself—and from those who had to eat her early cooking. Her husband at the time was an excellent cook who had a mastery of Creole and Cajun cuisine. Working with food that is so bold and up-front in flavor taught her how to lean in and trust her taste buds.

Her seafood mac and cheese, loaded with lobster, shrimp, and crab, is a shiny, cheesy, and downright delicious culmination of her years of hard work in the kitchen. It reminds people that not everyone can be a great cook, but a great cook could be anyone. (OK, that's definitely a rip-off of a quote from my favorite movie, Ratatouille, but you get the point.)

I tried to ask her what she thinks makes her a great auntie, and she said she didn't know. Instead, she flipped the question back on me, like a true Gemini. I think it's because she's the bridge to helping me understand the complexities of my own mother, her big sister, and because she lets me do and say anything. But most of all, it's because she is always there.

Credit: Stacy Howell
Get the Recipe: Auntie Monica’s Seafood Mac and Cheese