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.