“This is as delicious as it is problematic.”
~Historians Eating Mac and Cheese
Mac and cheese. Macaroni and cheese. Mac dog and the cheeser. Two of these are socially recognized and accepted terms for the classic, theoretically simple dish that combines cooked macaroni with a cheese sauce to create an addictive meal. Mac and cheese has recently seen a surge in respectability, as the blue box dinners of our childhood have been replaced by high end ingredients such as truffles, lobster, or whatever the fuck this is.
But before it was a fancy source of carbs, even before it was the only thing you’d eat as a kid, mac and cheese was a high end dish eaten elusively by the wealthy during the formative years of our nation. It’s history is complicated, as is just about everything from the 18th century, but it at least offers a glimpse into the lives of our founding fathers.
So we’re going to dumb it down as much as possible and toss in swears and bad jokes to kind of skirt around the whole “slavery” thing when we tell you about…
The (Complicated) American History of Mac and Cheese
The first known recipe of mac and cheese comes from a 14th century Italian cookbook, Liber de Coquina, which features a cheese and pasta casserole made from slicing lasagna into pieces, tossing it in boiling water, and then layering it with cheese and melted butter to make a heart attack casserole.
Of course, this was just a pasta and cheese casserole—the first recorded instance of macaroni and cheese comes from the 1770 cook book by the Englishwoman Elizabeth Raffald, which called for tossing a Mornay sauce with macaroni, sprinkling with Parmesan, and baking. Now as you chefs out there know, that’s literally a macaroni and cheese recipe you could find online today.
But what about America? Sure, Europe was making cheesy pasta dishes forever, but they’re far away, and talk funny, so who gives a shit about them? We’re here to learn about how America got into mac and cheese. And as it turns out, we’ve been eating mac and cheese here for as long as we’ve been a nation, and the dish itself became popular in the late 18th and early 19th century thanks to Thomas Jefferson….
…’s slave, James Hemings. Yes, like, the brother of Sally Hemings. Yes, that Sally Hemings. Yes, those are beads of sweat on our foreheads as we try to figure out how to address this subject respectfully and without talking about Jefferson’s dick. (But like, do you think he’d be like “This dick’s about to make some JefferSONS” though? DAMMIT we said we weren’t going to do this!) So um. History time!
James Hemings was basically Julia Childs if she were born into slavery two centuries earlier, and also was a man, and also okay this comparison isn’t really holding up to muster. The point being that, as a slave, James Hemings was one of the first, and arguably one of the best, French-trained chefs to practice in America. The older brother to Sally Hemings, his mother was the slave Betty Hemings, and his father was her master, John Wayles.
Oh, this also made him Martha Jefferson’s half-brother, since John Wayles was her father as well. He also, because parts of our history suck pretty impressively, was property, passed onto Martha upon her (their) father’s passing, and then inherited by Thomas Jefferson when the two married.
While Jefferson served as Minister of France in 1784, he took Hemings to Paris to teach him how to cook. Hemings learned the language, and Jefferson paid for him to receive extensive culinary training, because deep down he had an affinity for the young man and hahaha who are we kidding, he did it because he wanted a free chef. Dude owned slaves, this wasn’t altruism.
Anyway, there he trained until 1789, when Jefferson and his party (you know, the party of slaves) came back to America, and Jefferson was named George Washington’s Secretary of State. While he was in France, Jefferson became infatuated with a cheesy macaroni dish, which Hemings no doubt took back with him to the United States.
From 1789 until about 1793, Hemings was Jefferson’s cook, but actually received a wage, as they lived in New York and Philadelphia, where the government was located, and both were not slave states. When Jefferson went to return back to Monticello, his famous estate (in a slaveholding state) Hemings negotiated his freedom.
He would be released into freedom once he had found a replacement chef and suitably trained him. So Hemings took aside his younger brother and said, “You’re the chef now, dude,” and spent three years training him before going about his merry way. He would briefly work, for pay, at Monticello again, but refused an offer to be the White House chef when Jefferson became president. Sadly, just five years later, at the age of 36, Hemings would commit suicide while living in Baltimore, Maryland. Which. Man that sucks. Let’s get back to mac and cheese, please.
Ah yes. So anyway, Hemings had written down various recipes from his French training, and also taught his brother Peter the ropes. Peter would eventually prepare a “pie called macaroni” at a state dinner in 1802, and mac and cheese officially launched as a popular dish for the rich and landed gentry. In 1824, a cookbook called The Virginia Housewife included a macaroni and cheese recipe of layered cheese, butter, and macaroni baked in an oven.
Despite it’s obvious simple deliciousness, this dish was still not something you’d see everyday. Macaroni itself was hard to come by—Jefferson had actually commissioned the creation of a macaroni pasta maker for his own personal use. He found the end result to be “meh” so he just paid a shitload of money to import it directly from France (and people wonder why dude was in debt his whole life).
For a time, macaroni and cheese was a luxury dish served by high end restaurants, but by the end of the 19th century, macaroni as an ingredient became easier to procure, and more families were able to make it on their own. But it was 1937 that saw the true launch of mac and cheese in America. All thanks to a little blue box.
No, goddamn it, not that little blue box. Sorry, our graphics guy is mad because we “won’t give him a raise” and “won’t pay him at all” and “he hasn’t seen his family in 8 years, he’s been locked in a closet in our office since we first launched.”
There we go.
Yes, a combination of the invention of processed cheeses, the Great Depression, and World War II all came together to push macaroni and cheese from a formerly fancy casserole to a delicious stovetop dish you could make for very little money.
Kraft had heard about a salesman in St. Louis taking grated Kraft cheese and attaching it to a box of pasta with a rubber band, and they thought, “Hey, we better get rich before this guy does.” So in 1937 they introduced their basic product of cheap macaroni and a liquid processed cheese (essentially melted cheese with emulsifying salts). Cook the pasta, mix the cheese in, and you’ve got yourself a meal.
Then World War II hit, and suddenly a cheap (19 cents, which was the equivalent of $2.75, making it actually more expensive than Kraft dinners today) meal that didn’t use up dairy or meat rations and had a shelf life of 10 months was exactly what a nation at war needed. During the war effort, over 50 million boxes were sold. The famed blue box came in 1954, and they’ve tinkered with recipes and variations since, adding the powdered cheese boxes that we typically see, and even tricking us into eating stuff without (as many) chemicals in it a few years back.
Today, mac and cheese has gone full circle. It’s still regularly enjoyed by those cooking on a budget, but it’s also now seeing high end restaurants adding their own spin to the dish. It’s a simple dish, but that allows for endless creativity.
And that’s where we stand today, as a country who knows mac and cheese more for the blue box than for the Hemings, but one who has seen the humble macaroni and cheese change and evolve just as we have as a nation. Or something. Like, Jefferson gets credit for what his slave did, which is fucked up, but we get to eat delicious mac and cheese, which is delicious. History is complicated and weird. But mac and cheese isn’t.
(Except for this. What the fuck, you guys?)