Plated: Mac & Cheese

By Rebecca Turner

Macaroni and cheese is the quintessential comfort food. No matter how old you are, mac and cheese fills your stomach and soothes your soul. Every Mississippi family has a mac and cheese master whose recipe is revered and reserved for Sundays, special occasions, and holidays. But have you ever wondered about its origin? It has been a classic American food since the Colonial era in the early 17th century. But who brought it to America? And how has it remained a treasured comfort food?

The word macaroni comes from the Sicilian term for kneading dough forcefully. Early pasta making was often a day-long process — a far cry from the quick-cook boxes in American pantries today. Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book, “The Experienced English Housekeeper,” calls for a bechamel sauce mixed with macaroni, sprinkled with parmesan, and baked until bubbly and golden. Legend has it that it was Raffald’s recipe, or something similar, is what Thomas Jefferson fell in love with during a diplomatic stint in France in the late 1780s.

Jefferson has been touted as the sole creator of the dish and given credit for popularizing it in America. Food historians report that Jefferson was so captivated by the dish he had a macaroni maker shipped to Virginia. However, there are no written records of the Jefferson household’s macaroni and cheese recipe. Still, a recipe by Mary Randolph from the 1824 cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife” could be what got served at Monticello (his home). The tall tales fail to mention that the Jefferson family didn’t cook.

Macaroni and cheese took on many identities in low-wage communities. Because it was a rich, flavorful, and hearty stand-alone meal, mac and cheese recipes were used for celebrations and as a penny-pinching meal. Kraft Foods introduced its boxed macaroni and cheese in 1937 during the Great Depression, serving four for 19 cents. In a year, the company sold 8 million boxes of its quick-and-easy macaroni and cheese.

After 2 world wars and an extended economic depression, macaroni and cheese became attractive to all cooks seeking budget-friendly ways to feed families.

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