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The History of Macaroni and Cheese

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In Food History 101, we're hitting the books -- to explore the who, what, when, where, and why of what we eat today.

Today: The story of how macaroni and cheese became the American classic it is today. 


macaroni and cheese from Food52

While American comfort foods are known for their simple preparations, one dish in particular stands out as endlessly versatile and universally loved: macaroni and cheese. From a backyard barbecue to an upscale restaurant (with a stop at the Thanksgiving table in between), this gooey, cheesy favorite is equally welcomed wherever it finds itself, in whatever iteration it may be. 

Whether plasticky, marigold-hued, and concocted from a box, or topped with breadcrumbs, shaved truffle, or morsels of lobster, macaroni and cheese transcends boundaries, cultures, and food preferences -- exemplifying comfort, no matter what form it takes. But how exactly did this much-adored dish find its way to American soil?

Pasta and cheese casseroles are far from new -- recipes for early versions have been found in various 14th century cookbooks including the anonymously written Italian medieval tome Liber de Coquina (Book of Cooking), and the French Forme of Cury, which lists a dish called “makerouns,” combining thin pastry dough, cheese and butter. Thanks to these recipes, pasta and cheese casseroles gained popularity all around Europe, particularly in France, Italy and England.  

Baking sheet mac and cheese from Food52

It’s unclear when macaroni became the chosen noodle in this dish, but the recipe in a more modern form emerged in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper. Raffald included instructions for béchamel sauce made with cheddar cheese, and advised readers to top the noodle casserole with breadcrumbs and Parmesan. 

Sources differ as to the introduction of Macaroni and Cheese to the United States. Some credit colonial settlers who may have brought over the dish from England, while others ascribe the introduction to Thomas Jefferson, who had sampled the dish in Europe and so enjoyed it that he attempted to design a macaroni-making machine. This didn’t go to plan, and he settled for importing the Parmesan cheese and macaroni noodles, and then serving the dish at a state dinner. Whether or not he introduced it, Jefferson’s appreciation for the dish and its place on such an important table was an inspiration to scores of Americans. The love for mac and cheese was born. 

No matter how you like to serve and eat your macaroni and cheese, one thing’s for certain: it’s not going anywhere. 

What's your favorite macaroni and cheese recipe? Let us know in the comments! 

Tags: history, food history, macaroni and cheese, mac and cheese

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