A look at the historical fallacies, truths, and wishful thinking about the queen of comfort foods.
You’re making up a macaroni and cheese casserole for the neighborhood potluck. As you stir, the plump elbows surrender to the thick, creamy orange cheese sauce. The voluptuous, squishy sound of walking barefoot through mud promises success. A top layer of grated cheese, browned to a golden crust, will add the final irresistible allure to this quintessentially American dish. But how did a combination of cheese and pasta—two European cultural exports—become one of America’s best-known staples?
The most famous version of the story goes like this: Thomas Jefferson brought an enslaved James Hemings to France to study culinary arts. Jefferson not only financed the lavish crash course in gastronomy but smuggled a pasta machine back from Naples so that Hemings could introduce macaroni and cheese to the elite families of the American South. Often, Hemings is left out of the story completely and Jefferson alone is the protagonist. A Budweiser ad from 1948 shows an illustration of Jefferson himself, serving plates of freshly made pasta to fellow forefathers. But that tidy origin story is just an example of a gastromyth—a food-related tall tale that snowballed as it’s been told to new generations. When it comes to macaroni and cheese history, we’ve got a lot more unpacking to do.
Roman party food origins
The earliest mention that we have of pasta and cheese being joined together dates back as far as 160 BCE, when Marcus Porcius Cato, ultraconservative senator of the then Roman Republic, wrote his treatise on running a vast country estate, De Agri Cultura. In it, he included a few recipes for ritual gatherings and holidays that bring together what could be construed as pasta and fresh cheese. “Placenta” (pronounced with a hard c) is one of those. It was made with layers of cheese packed between stacked sheets of whole grain dough. Festive recipes like these became inextricably linked with the taste of pasta and cheese and thus became embedded in the collective memory as a marker of culinary identity.
Surviving the Dark Ages
After Cato, the written record of the pasta-and-cheese combination falls off the radar, because centuries pass before we have another surviving cookbook in Italian. Both of the anonymous cookbooks from as early as the 13th century, Liber de coquina and Libro della cocina, contain a recipe for a layered pasta and cheese dish, suggesting that the dish had been carried on straight through from antiquity and the Middle Ages. In these books, the pasta is again layered with cheese and respectively called lasanis and lasagne, the latter purposefully fat-laden for maximum comfort. Although not in a cookbook, we also get the first mention of macaroni in 1279 from the inventory of the belongings of a deceased military officer. Then circa 1350, Giovanni Boccacio writes of macaroni as the idealized food of the fictitious utopian town Bengodi, in The Decameron.
The 14th century was a time of unprecedented cultural exchange, dubbed the International Gothic. Aristocratic families in Western Europe intermarried and consequently did a lot of castle-hopping, bringing their kitchen staff in tow. It was also the century of the Hundred Years War, and three Jubilee years, which flooded Rome with pilgrims.
A recipe called “makerouns” made it all the way to England and was included in the 1390 compilation The Forme of Cury (from the collected recipes used in the royal kitchen of Richard II):
Take a thin sheet of dough and cut it into pieces, place in boiling water and cook well. Take grated cheese, melted butter, and put it beneath and above like lasagna; serve.
Martino da Como, a.k.a. Maestro Martino, a renowned chef to the aristocracy and high clergy, published a cookbook in 1465 with a butter and cheese based pasta recipe called “Roman macaroni.” Owing to its popularity, it became de rigueur that a chef of any standing create his own version of it. Macaroni, in this case, was cut noodles. Indeed, macaroni was a generic word for pasta, not a specific shape. In Boccacio’s Decameron they were most likely gnocchi, for example. Regardless, the standard preparation for any dish called macaroni involved butter and copious quantities of cheese, usually Parmesan, with the addition of sugar and cinnamon, which was used as ubiquitously then as salt and pepper is used now.
Macaroni à la mode
By the mid-18th century, macaroni and cheese had taken root in France, but the French veered away from Italian dictates toward a creamier style, a signature touch positioning the dish in the context of their own cuisine.
Around the same time, macaroni and cheese recipes were transplanted to Great Britain’s American colonies. Early evidence of pasta circulating as a highbrow standard in Virginia is first seen in Patrick Lamb’s posthumously compiled and published Royal Cookery; or the Complete Court-Cook (1710), containing a recipe called “To Make Soupe Vermicelly,” pasta in a butter-rich veal and chicken gravy. Over the space of 50 years, Lamb had made his way up through the ranks in the kitchens of the Stuart monarchy and overseen William and Mary’s coronation. He also held the official monopoly over tobacco sales to the royal households—all imported from Virginia by strict decree.
A recipe calling for “vermachelly” from Edward Kidder’s 1720 cookbook was copied into an anonymous Virginian family manuscript. In 1747, best-selling British cookbook author Hannah Glasse presented two English-style vermicelli pudding recipes as well as instructions on how to make vermicelli from scratch. Both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington had a copy of Glasse’s cookbook in their home libraries and it was on Jefferson’s wish list—just to say, pasta was not unknown among the Yankee Doodles.
However, it was in Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper(1769), another cookbook that circulated in the colonies, where we get our first proper recipe for macaroni and cheese in English. Her recipe calls for thickening the sauce with butter rolled in flour, denoting once again a predilection for creaminess.
James Hemings and the limits of speculation
By the time James Hemings began his training in Paris in 1785, macaroni had already been appropriated by the French, with the additions of a white sauce or cream and Gruyère cheese, and eventually ditching the usual cinnamon and sugar. England followed suit because, after all, the best chefs in England at that time were French. The colonies tagged along, not yet having established a culinary tradition and wanting to keep up with European trends.
It is likely that Hemings not only learned how to make macaroni and cheese, but also served it, as it was a favorite of Jefferson’s and considered ostentatious enough to impress guests. In 1789, Jefferson and Hemings returned to the US and moved to Philadelphia, where Hemings was the chef. Hemings requested his freedom in 1793 and it was granted in 1796. The information we have about him thereafter is speculative. In 1801, when Jefferson became president, he attempted to contact Hemings, inviting him to assume the role of chef at the White House. Before negotiations were made, Hemings died of alcohol poisoning. His case merits further investigation into the tribulations of skilled, educated formerly enslaved peoples’ attempting to assimilate into a society mired in cultural stigma. But as for macaroni and cheese, there is no corroborating evidence of Hemings as ambassador.
Who invented mac and cheese? You may want to dig into a plateful while you make your way to our story’s conclusion.Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Kaitlin Wayne
Making it American
By the early 19th century, “macaroni” as a form had come to mean dried tubular pasta to most people outside of Italy. Over the course of the century, the macaroni and cheese dish underwent a cultural transition, traceable in the numerous cookbooks published in England and the US. More and more often we find it as either a generic standard simply called “Macaroni” or with a frenchified title like “To dress Macaroni a la Sauce Blanche” as featured in the iconic Southern cookbook, The Carolina Housewife (1847). Its Italian origin was quietly fading, and entries called “Italian macaroni” were no longer macaroni and cheese but pasta dishes with stewed beef and tomatoes.
The 1800s were a golden age for white American women cookbook writers, as the domestic arts was one of the few domains in which they were permitted to flourish unimpeded, and nearly all of these cookbooks contained recipes for macaroni and cheese. Yet, it was enslaved Black women who were in the kitchens, hands-on, either perfecting the recipes that would end up on the printed page, or translating heirloom recipes into reality, in one way or another passing on their craft to the next generation of cooks.
The perpetuation of macaroni and cheese became the legacy of Black women cooks. From the moment they came to dominate the workforce of the kitchens of elite families of the American South, sister to sister, wise woman to novice, they were the gatekeepers of this tradition, the authorities overseeing the maintenance and proliferation of the tradition through the skillful application of their profession. These are the cooks responsible for spreading the good news of creamy macaroni and cheese.
At the same time, macaroni and cheese began moving down from the top shelf to mainstream kitchens. As the working class grew dramatically during the second half of the 19th century, nutritionists and public policy makers grew concerned with how to economically feed the masses. Macaroni seemed to be a possible savior given recent innovations revolutionizing the manufacture of dried durum wheat pasta. Macaroni could be produced cheaply and so became more readily available. Alexis Soyer, a French chef operating in Britain and social reformer, decried in A Shilling Cookery for the People (1855), “Why should not the workman and mechanic partake of these wholesome and nutritious articles of food, which have now…become so plentiful and cheap?”
American Juliet Corson was even more explicit in her free cookbook Fifteen Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families (1877), calling macaroni “a rather luxurious dish among the wealthy; but it should become one of the chief foods of the people. It is one of the most wholesome and economical of foods.” And as for the dish itself, “It will make just as hearty and strengthening a meal as meat.”
No one tooted that horn louder than nutritionist Sarah Tyson Rorer in Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book (1902). But she also points out that one of the reasons macaroni made sense both nutritionally and economically is that the quality of American pasta products had made great strides over the years.
Previously, American pasta was not made with durum wheat, the high protein grain that semolina is made from. However, in 1898, the US Department of Agriculture set out to change that, and, under the tutelage of Mark Alfred Carleton, durum wheat was successfully grown on a commercial scale in the US. The timing couldn’t have been better given the events that were in store in the coming decades.
The convenience of Kraft
Two world wars and an extended economic depression made macaroni an attractive dish to cooks of all types seeking a budget-friendly and nutritious way to feed their families. Canadian cheese maker James Lewis Kraft had made a bundle selling his processed cheese to the American government during World War I. In 1937, toward the end of the Great Depression, he introduced his Kraft Dinner, marketing it from his base in Chicago. It took off like wildfire.
In the Black community, macaroni and cheese maintained multiple identities. The quick kit or ready meal version was a reliable side dish for weekdays, or could easily become the main meal with some key additions. Cookbook author Carla Hall confirms, “The baked version in all its creamy glory was for celebrations or Sunday suppers. The stovetop variety was more of an everyday dish.” The elaborated Sunday-gathering macaroni and cheese has attained such a hallowed status that one must present personal references from trusted family members before being allowed to cook it for an important occasion. At the same time, mac ‘n’ cheese was also the stuff that filled school lunch trays and saw families through rough times.
Here was a dish that had been served on the tables of the Italian aristocracy, even to Popes. It had passed from France and England into the fine homes of the South and eased into American culinary repertoire to the point that its origin had been forgotten (even by the country where it had originated) and its history thereby rewritten. The pathway that allowed Kraft to flourish was paved by many factors, but above all by a 200-year legacy of Black and African American, primarily female, cooks to whom the scepter had been legitimately and deservedly passed. Even during WW II, when boxed macaroni and cheese became a rationed product, it maintained its status as a grand, comforting, and beloved dish, and a dignified way to feed the family.
Macaroni and cheese was not a culinary secret that sailed across the sea on a ship in 1789 to be propagated from an epicenter radiating from Monticello. It had germinated long before and, over the years, had been fine-tuned and interpreted by many hands over long stretches of time and distance. Authenticity in a recipe is not necessarily bound to a moment or an inventor. More often, it arises when authoritative hands have invested their expertise in a dish and positioned it within the folds of a tradition; as regards macaroni and cheese, that prerogative reverberates predominantly from the collective wisdom and generational experience of Black women in the United States
This reputation allowed it to be passed on with pride into the Soul Food canon, a genre that celebrates the foods that have sustained Black communities throughout American history and created a culinary identity from select dishes that bound a people through preparation rituals, food stories, festivities, and good eats, as it was in Ancient Rome, so too it is today. Foodways are the celebration of who we are, who we were, and who we would like to see ourselves as being.
Macaroni and cheese has so completely assimilated into the American foodscape that many Italians today dismiss it as a grotesquely caloric Italian American invention. Perhaps they would do well to brush up a bit on their culinary history.
All Rights Reserved for Karima Moyer-Nocchi and Adrian Miller