Macaroni and cheese is one of those dishes — beloved by all Americans — that transcends geographical location or history. We eat it from sea to shining sea. It’s a nostalgia-inducing classic, the perfect compliment for everything from BBQ, to burgers, to Hennessy. It thrives in dank college dorm rooms and upscale restaurants. Point being, mac and cheese can do it all.
But just because mac and cheese is loved by Americans doesn’t mean it was founded here. The holy trinity of macaroni, cheese, and butter has been around for a very long time. So long, in fact, that perhaps eating it is actually hard-wired into our DNA — making it the ultimate comfort food.
Macaroni comes from a Greek word for something made of barley, or makaria. This was adopted and corrupted by the Italians and became “maccheroni.” Maccheroni was a catch-all phrase for pasta around the time maccheroni and cheese sauce started popping up in medieval cook books.
The Liber de Coquina, or Book of Cooking, was published around the beginning of the 1300s. That’s roughly the same time William Wallace was marauding around Britain and killing English. Liber de Coquina includes recipes for baked pasta dishes with parmesan and other cheese sauces. Basically your average mac and cheese casseroles. If you can read Latin, the cookbooks are available online. They’re a fascinating snapshot into our shared culinary past.
Later that same century, the English (having long since eviscerated William Wallace) saw their own recipe for maccheroni and cheese popping up in cookbooks. The Forme of Cury, or Method of Cooking, was published by Richard II around 1390. It included a clear and concise recipe for basically exactly what mac and cheese is today. The basic recipe was to make a thin foil of dough and cut it into pieces, boil and drain, mix with grated cheese and butter. That’s literally all mac and cheese is. If you’re into reading Middle English and old school cookbooks, you can check out The Forme of Cury for free online.
75 years later, Martino da Como — widely considered the world’s first celebrity chef — wrote the Libro de arte Coquinaria in 1465, which included maccheroni, or pasta, dishes from all over Italy, including what was the precursor for Fettuccine Alfredo. The combination of maccheroni and cheese sauce was solidified in pan-European cuisine.
There’s a lot of space between the 14th and 15th century and your cupboard today. By 1769, macaroni and cheese was a common dish across most of Europe and the colonies. That was the year Elizabeth Raffald wrote The Experienced English Housekeeper — which has a recipe for a mac and cheese casserole topped with parmesan and bread crumbs that wouldn’t look out of place in any modern 21st century recipe book.
It was close to this time when Thomas Jefferson crossed the big blue sea and returned to Europe to broker deals, loans, and treaties with the French to kickstart the campaign he called “America.” Jefferson became enamored with macaroni and cheese. By this time, macaroni referred to any tubular pasta. The myth goes that TJ attempted to design his own macaroni die back at Monticello, but failed. So he had a pasta machine fitted with a macaroni die and shipped over from Italy along with several wheels of parmesan.
Jefferson loved the dish so much he even served it at state dinners at the White House. Whether macaroni and cheese was already being eaten by English, French, and Italian immigrants already living here is up for debate. It seems extremely likely. Either way, Jefferson gets the credit for popularizing the dish in America.
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, macaroni and cheese spread across the USA. It was ubiquitous in cookbooks and on dinner tables. Then financial doom stuck the United States in the form of the Great Depression. People were cash-poor and starving across America, so a little dairy company in Chicago, Illinois, devised a cheap way to feed people a dish they already loved. Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese was born in 1937 under the slogan “make a meal for four in nine minutes.” For only 19 cents a box (about $2.50 in today’s money), it was cheap, easy, and filled you up.
During World War II, Kraft was able to expand their cheese-powder driven products thanks to rations on fresh dairy. They convinced the government to let them sell two boxes of mac and cheese for one ration card. Popularity soared.
Today, Macaroni and Cheese is beloved across North America. Some Canadians even put it ahead of Poutine as the National Dish. The holy trinity of pasta, cheese, and butter is still all over the streets and dining tables of Italy. It’s taken on endless transformations — with the new foodie craze delivering renditions that feel “cheffed up” and uniquely imagined.
No matter how old we are, most of us will eat mac and cheese even if we know it’s not the best version. It just has to tickle our nostalgia receptors. Because we love it. And because it’s been a part of us for hundreds and hundreds of years.