Macaroni and Cheese.
Three simple words for a dish with such a complex history, that it has become a classic if not the quintessential American food to grace dinner tables since the Colonial era. But where did it come from? Who “invented” it? And last but not least, how did it become one of the most beloved comfort foods of all time?
Well let’s start with the pasta the one food that has become synonymous with Italian cuisine and the base for macaroni and cheese. While it may be true that the most famous varieties and recipes of cooking pasta really do come from Italy, but surprisingly, the actual origin of pasta lies elsewhere.
Pasta may have a much older pedigree, going back hundreds -if not thousands- of years. Unravelling the long and often complex history of pasta alone, we have to look at its origins and some of the myths surrounding it.
So how did pasta make its way to Italy ? There is indeed evidence of an Etrusco-Roman noodle made from the same durum wheat used to produce modern pasta: it was called “lagane” (origin of the modern word for lasagna). However this type of food, first mentioned in the 1st century AD, was not boiled, as it is usually done today, but ovenbaked. Ancient lagane had some similarities with modern pasta, but cannot be considered quite the same (Serventi and Sabban 2002).
Still looking at the origins of pasta, in the Talmud, The Talmud which means “instruction, learning”, is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. The whole Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and in standard print is over 6,200 pages long. It is written in Tannaitic Hebrew and Aramaic. The Talmud contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis on a variety of subjects, including Halakha (law), Jewish ethics, philosophy, customs, history, lore and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of Jewish law and is much quoted in rabbinic literature (Hazan 1993). It a particular section of the Talmud written in Aramaic in the 5th Century AD, there is a reference to itrium, a kind of pasta that was cooked by boiling, which was common in Palestine from the 3rd to 5th centuries AD (Serventi and Sabban 2002).
During the Arab Conquests of Sicily in the 7th, 8th and 9th Centuries AD, it believed that African Arabs from North Africa ,specifically from Libya, are to be credited for bringing pasta, along with spinach, eggplant and sugar cane, to the Mediterranean basin (Watson, 1983). By the 12th century, the Italians had also learned from the Arabs methods for drying pasta to preserve it while traveling. (Watson, 1983) The Arabic invasions heavily influenced regional cuisine. Today, the presence of Arabic people, from North Africa to the Byzantine Empire to Turkey, in the south of the Italian peninsula during the Middle Ages is considered the most likely reason behind the diffusion of pasta in the Italian culinary landscape (Hazan, 1993).
According to the “Macaroni Journal’ published by the Association of Food Industries Macaroni Journal, with the goal of promoting the use of pasta in the United States, it was believed that Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo brought back pasta from his journeys to China during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Chinese had been consuming noodles as early as 3000 B.C. in the Qinghai province. There is even some evidence there of 4,000-year-old noodles made from foxtail and broomcorn millet. The modern pasta that we know of today was first described in 1154 by an Arab geographer, Idrisi, as being common in Sicily (Watson, 1983). In his journals, Polo also described Chinese noodles as being like “lagana”, which implies he was possibly already familiar with a pasta-like food before going to China. Furthermore, in 1279, there was a Genoese soldier that listed in the inventory of his estate a basket of dried pasta. Polo did not return to come back to Italy from China until 1295. So Marco Polo could not have brought pasta to Italy via China. It was already in Italy at that time. So in essence Polo did not discover pasta, but he rather “rediscovered” the product that was once popular in Italy among the Etruscans and the Romans.
So turning our attention to macaroni, we find that the modern word “macaroni” is derived from the Sicilian term for kneading dough forcefully with energy, as early pasta making was often a laborious, day-long process. At that time, pasta dough was often kneaded with the feet for a significant amount of time. How these early macaroni dishes were served is not truly known, but many Sicilian pasta recipes still include typically Middle Eastern ingredients, such as raisins and cinnamon, which may be witness to original, medieval recipes.
Which leads us to one of the “The Liber de Coquina”, or Book of Cooking, an Italian cookbook from the 13th Century. “Liber de Coquina”, one of the oldest medieval cookbooks and it includes a recipe called “de lasanis “that many culinary historians believe is the first macaroni and cheese recipe. The recipe calls for sheet pasta cut into two-inch (50-millimeter) squares, cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese, likely Parmesan (Wright 2013).
Over the course of a century, the pasta and cheese casserole traveled from Italy to France. By the 14th Century it is a French dish of parmesan and pasta that was brought to England. A cheese and pasta casserole known as “makerouns” was recorded in a the famous medieval French cookbook “The Forme of Cury”, which was written in the 14th century. It was made with fresh, hand-cut pasta which was sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese.
The recipe given was:
“Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh.
and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water &
seeþ it wele.
take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as
losyns and serue forth.”
“Take a piece of thin pastry dough and cut it in pieces, place in boiling water and cook. Take grated cheese, melted butter, and arrange in layers like lasagna; serve.”
The first so called modern recipe for the dish was included in cookery by writer Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book “The Experienced French Housekeeper”. Raffald’s recipe is for a bechamel sauce with cheddar cheese, which is mixed with macaroni, sprinkled with parmesan and baked until bubbly and golden.
From 1769, macaroni and cheese grew in popularity across Europe. But the American macaroni and cheese has three main lines of culinary ancestry to be claimed. In the first, it is thought that macaroni and cheese was a casserole that had its beginnings in colonial America at a New England church supper. In southeastern Connecticut it was known long ago as macaroni pudding and probably originated from “receipts,” or recipes, passed along from English relatives. The dish was primarily reserved for the upper classes until the Industrial Revolution made pasta production easier.
In the second, and perhaps the more famous story, and more than likely the original story, it is said that the classic American macaroni and cheese returned with Thomas Jefferson to Virginia after his sojourn in Italy. Jefferson had brought back a pasta machine from Italy in 1793. His cousin Mary Randolph (1762 –1828) became the hostess of his house after Jefferson’s wife died. Mary Randolph was a member of the Virginia elite, with roots extending back to the colony’s formative years. As the eldest of thirteen children of Thomas Mann and Ann Cary Randolph of Tuckahoe in Goochland County, she grew up surrounded with all the wealth and comforts enjoyed by families in the plantation homes. Along with her formal education, Mary Randolph was trained in proper household management practices, a quality expected of upper-class women of the time. Women were expected to supervise large manor houses with supporting buildings and numerous slaves. “Mary Randolph: A Chesterfield County role model for women of the 19th century”, states that women were relegated to secondary positions within the family hierarchy, but in truth they were the mainspring that kept the household running (Arlington National Cemetery Archives). Women of this period had numerous responsibilities for the household supported by a formable knowledge of food preservation and preparation and elegant entertaining. This knowledge was important throughout Mary Randolph’s adult life. With Mary’s knowledge of food and entertaining, invitations to dine in the Randolph home were coveted. Mary’s skills as a hostess and cook, along with her slaves, were well known in the area surrounding Richmond Virginia. In fact, her reputation was so widespread that during the slave insurrection near Richmond in 1800, the leader “General” Gabriel announced that he would spare her life so that she could become his cook (Arlington National Cemetery Archives). Mary is credited with “inventing” the dish using macaroni and Parmesan cheese.
And thirdly, this is where history took a turn and left out one of the most important characters in the culinary origins of macaroni and cheese and how it became an American staple at the dinner table. James Hemings (1765-1801), who was a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson, was among the first chefs in America to serve macaroni and cheese.
The story of James Hemings is a fascinating one, as told by Madison Hemings, his nephew. James Hemings was one of twelve children of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings (Gordon-Reed, 2008). James’ mother was said to be the daughter of a “full-blooded African” and a white sea captain who is only known as Captain Hemings, and in being a slave, she was the “property” of John Wayles, “a Welchman” (Hemings,1873). Betty Hemings became Wayles’s slave concubine sometime following the death of his third wife. James was the second oldest of the six children that union was said to have produced (Hemings, 1873; Stanton, 2000). Wayles was a lawyer, a wealthy Virginia landowner, and heavily involved with the slave trade. Madison Hemings (1805-1877) was the son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. He was also the nephew of James Hemings. Madison was freed by Thomas Jefferson’s will in 1826. He moved to Ohio, following the death of his mother Sally in 1835, where he worked as a carpenter and farmer. Madison’s memoir, as told to S.F. Wetmore, was originally published in Ohio’s Pike County Repubican in 1873.
John Wayles was also the father of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, through his first marriage to Martha Eppes. Thus, Martha Jefferson was half-sister to James and his five full siblings, including Sally Hemings. Upon Wayles’s death in 1773, Jefferson inherited through his wife 135 slaves, including Betty Hemings and her children. James Hemings became the property of Thomas Jefferson in January of 1774 when the estate of John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, was settled (Gordon- Reed, 2008). He was nine years old at this time. Later that year, James and his brother Robert were taken to Monticello. Known also as Jemmy, Jim, Jamey, and Jame, this young slave would grow up serving Jefferson as house servant, messenger, driver, traveling attendant, and eventually chef (Gordon- Reed, 2008).
James benefited from the special status accorded by Jefferson to many members of the Hemings family. He received better apparel than other slaves and was assigned to household duties rather than to work in the fields. But nonetheless, he was still a slave. Only Betty Hemings’s sons were permitted to hire themselves out to other masters and keep the wages they earned (Stanton, 2000). Perhaps the most rewarding time of James’s service began in 1784 when Jefferson was appointed minister plenipotentiary in Paris by Congress. Together with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson had the responsibility of negotiating treaties of amity and commerce with European countries.
On the same day Jefferson assumed his diplomatic role he wrote to his future secretary William Short that he wished to take his servant James with him to France “for a particular purpose.” He asked Short to notify James, and if possible to bring James with him when Short traveled to Philadelphia to meet Jefferson. If that was not possible then Short was to direct James to “immediately come on to me at Philadelphia” (Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1784). The particular purpose Jefferson had in mind was to have James trained in the art of French cookery (Stanton, 1993).
James was nineteen years old when he sailed from Boston with Jefferson and his daughter Martha, familiarly called Patsy, early on the morning of July 5, 1784 (Stanton 2000) along with his younger sister Sally who was about fourteen years old at the time, and was the slave who bore six of Jefferson’s children. James and Sally were half-siblings to Jefferson’s wife, Martha and therefore Uncle and Aunt to Patsy. The travelers arrived in Paris on August 6, 1784. James was apprenticed to a traiteur (caterer) named Combeaux who provided Jefferson’s meals during the first year of his stay in Paris (Rice 1976). He subsequently trained under Jefferson’s female cook, and also a pastry chef, as well as with a chef of the Prince de Condé. James learned quickly and in 1787 became the chef de cuisine at the Hôtel de Langeac which was Jefferson’s private residence on the Champs-Elysées. He received wages, albeit half those of the previous cuisinière, and used a portion to pay a tutor for French lessons (Stanton, 1993).
The future American president Thomas Jefferson encountered macaroni both in Paris and in northern Italy. He drew a sketch of the pasta and wrote detailed notes on the extrusion process. In 1793, he commissioned American ambassador to Paris William Short to purchase a machine for making it. Evidently, the machine was not suitable, as Jefferson later imported both macaroni and Parmesan cheese for his use at Monticello (Malone, 1948).
James Hemings was freed by Jefferson in 1796 (Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1796) on the condition that James would train his younger brother Robert to replace him as chef in the Jefferson household. Sadly, James died at the age of 36. His only material legacy was an inventory of kitchen utensils and four recipes. Hemings’ considerable and historic influences on American food and culture including the introduction of macaroni and cheese, ice cream, whipped cream, and French fries for the first time in America, have long been attributed to Thomas Jefferson who, for the most part, has been wrongly credited with creating these dishes, which were actually Hemings’ genius adaptations of French haute cuisine (McElveen, 2016). Despite Hemings’ contributions to the culinary world, sadly, there are no written reminiscences from this intelligent literate man, himself, in his own hand.
In 1802, Jefferson served a “macaroni pie” at a state dinner, more than likely prepared from a recipe by James Hemings and cooked by his brother Robert. Since that time, the dish has been associated with the United States.
A recipe called “macaroni and cheese” appeared in the 1824 cookbook “The Virginia Housewife” written by Mary Randolph. It is believed that Randolph’s recipe may have been one of James Hemings creations. It had three ingredients: macaroni, cheese, and butter, layered together and baked in an oven. The cookbook was the most influential cookbook of the 19th century.
Similar recipes for macaroni and cheese occur in the 1852 Hand-book of Useful Arts, and the 1861 Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Then there is the famous British Victorian cookbook, “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management”, which included two recipes for the dish. One recipe states that:
“The macaroni, (which should be “tender but perfectly firm, no part being allowed to melt, and the form entirely preserved” – lest one be tempted to cook it for so long it actually disintegrated) is then topped with more cheese, pepper and breadcrumbs, before receiving a final dose of melted butter for good measure and being placed before a “bright fire” to brown the crumbs, or grilled with a salamander “[Beeton,1861].
By the mid-1880s, cookbooks as far west as Kansas included recipes for macaroni and cheese casseroles. Factory production of the main ingredients made the dish affordable, and recipes made it accessible, but not notably popular. As it became accessible to a broader section of society, macaroni and cheese lost its upper class appeal. Fashionable restaurants in New York ceased to serve it (Kummer, 1986).
By the 20th Century, the familiar blue box: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, was introduced to the American public in 1937, at the end of the Great Depression (Kraft Food Group). It was called “the housewife’s best friend, a nourishing one pot meal,” because it was a fast, filling and inexpensive way to feed a family. In that year alone, more than 8 million boxes were sold, and the popularity of the Kraft box dinners continues today mainly because every American child has grown up with macaroni and cheese.
Over the years, every home cook has homemade recipes that include pasta, butter or cream, and Parmesan cheese, American cooks often improvised, using cheddar, Colby or more affordable processed cheeses like Velveta, and spices like nutmeg and mustard. Today, gourmet versions call for a variety of cheeses, including Gruyère, smoked Gouda, Monterey Jack, Havarti, and goat, and add-ins like bacon, tomatoes, shallots and even truffles.
Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate universal comfort food. No matter how old you are, macaroni and cheese fills your belly and soothes your soul. There is nothing better in all world than a hot bowl of pasta and melted cheese with all of its awesome gooeyness that can put a smile on anyone’s face.
The Liber de Coquina (Latin: The book of cooking/cookery)
The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery. Complied in 1390 AD.
Arlington National Cemetery Archives. Accessed 12 November 2013. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/maryrand.htm
Beeton, Isabella. (1861). “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management “. London: S. O. Beeton Publishing.
Gordon-Reed, Annette. (2008). The Hemingses of Monticello: an American Family. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Hazan, Giuliano. (1993). The Classic Pasta Cookbook, Dorling Kindersley.
Hemings, Madison (1873). Interview published as “Life among the Lowly,” No. 1, Pike County (Ohio) Republican, March 13, 1873.
The James Hemings Foundation. “Master Chef, Culinary Innovator, Teacher, Maitre D’hôtel, Valet, Slave, American”.
Kraft Foods Group.
Kummer, Corby (1986). “Pasta”. The Atlantic. Retrieved 17 November 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1986/07/pasta/306226/2/
Library of Congress.
Malone, Dumas.(1948-1981). Jefferson and His Times, 6 Volumes. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, Publisher.
McElveen, Ashbell (2016). “James Hemings, Slave and Chef for Thomas Jefferson”. The New York Times. Retrieved 21 April 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/05/opinion/james-hemings-slave-and-chef-for-thomas-jefferson.html?emc=eta1&_r=2
Raffald, Elizabeth. 1769. The experienced English housekeeper: for the use and ease of ladies, housekeepers, cooks, and etc. London: J. Harrop, Publisher.
Rice, Howard C. 1976. Thomas Jefferson’s Paris. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, pp. 13, 40.
Serventi, Silvano and Sabban, Francoise (2002). Pasta: The story of a universal food (translated ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Stanton, Lucia. (1993) “The Research File: From Plantation Fare to French Cuisine.” Monticello Newsletter 4, Number 2.
Stanton, Lucia. (2000). “Those Who Labor for my Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Getting Word: The African American Families of Monticello.”
Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello.”
Watson, Andrew M. (1983). Agricultural innovation in the early Islamic world. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 22-23.