Illustration by Jennica Lounsbury

I have a confession: One of my favorite noodle dishes is spaghetti with meat sauce topped with melted American cheese. But before you come for me, note that I am not alone.

This is a longtime tradition in Black households, where this version of spaghetti is an ever-present side dish at cookouts, church revivals, and Sunday dinners. You’ll also find large tinfoil pans full of it at any soul food restaurant with a buffet. Why? I never thought about it until now, so I asked my mom. “It’s inexpensive and easy to make,” she said matter-of-factly, adding that it’s a staple as commonplace as macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and collard greens.

For me, the spaghetti was the perfect complement to the crispy buttermilk fried chicken, barbecue ribs, or smothered pork chops piled on my plate. A nice heap of the hearty pasta ensured I wouldn’t make a second trip to the buffet. No matter where I had it, the formula was the same: boiled noodles, tomato sauce made from scratch with ground beef and lots of fresh oregano and garlic. Some people make it on the stovetop, while others, like my mother, bake it in a large casserole dish, which seals in all the flavors. That’s always been my favorite version. In both methods, the American cheese is added when there are only a few minutes left to cook, so there’s a perfectly melted top layer of golden gooeyness.

Some may cringe at the American cheese, but as a kid, I thought it tasted like the pasta version of a cheeseburger. And who doesn’t love cheeseburgers? Melted mozzarella, Asiago, Parmesan, or provolone just don’t have the same effect. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve eaten and loved handmade pastas sprinkled with the very best cheeses at some of the world’s most celebrated Italian restaurants. But when I go home, I want soul food, and that’s spaghetti with meat sauce and American cheese.