I really have been having a good time investigating macaroni and cheese and it is about time to drop some history knowledge on the subject. Why is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese a staple in nearly every American kid’s home? How and when did the macaroni noodle and cheddar cheese combine to become the dish we know and love today? I am going to take a stab at answering these questions and delve into the history of macaroni and cheese.
The history of pasta goes as far back a very long time, with little tidbits of pasta ancestors dating from before Christ and the first concrete evidence in the 1200s or 1300s. Cheese has a long, storied history as well. I am sure both are very interesting, but today we are going to focus on the magnificent duo and the history of macaroni and cheese, not the individual ingredients. For this post, we are going to assume that macaroni style pasta already existed and that cheddar cheese was already a thing. Our study will specifically be about the history of macaroni and cheese.
Many point to the origin of Macaroni and Cheese as being from a 13th or 14th century cookbook named Liber de Coquina. The two authors of this cookbook reign from France and Italy. This is not the earliest known cookbooks, but it one of the earliest. In this book, there is a recipe named “de lasanis.” It translates to English as:
On lasagna: for lasagna, spread fermented pasta as thin as you can. Then divide it in square parts at the width of three fingers. Then put the mentioned lasagna in boiling salted water to cook it. When properly cooked, add grated cheese. If you want, you can put some good powdered spices while that, pulverize them over a trencher). Then, put over another layer of lasagna and powder[ed spices]; and keep doing that until the trencher or bowl is full. Then eat it with a small pointy wooden stick.
Now, this looks more like lasagna to me, but my suspicion is that this is the first recorded recipe that marries pasta and cheese. It is a beautiful thing, huh? Even though this book does mention pasta and does mention cheese, it isn't quite the dish we know today. What makes macaroni and cheese very unique are the specific ingredients. Let’s follow macaroni.
The Experienced English Housekeeper and Macaroni
The first recorded recipe of pasta and cheese that includes macaroni as an ingredient is recorded in a book called The Experienced English Housekeeper. This was a wildly popular series that was first published in 1769 and includes the macaroni and cheese recipe as follows:
Boil four ounces of maccaroni til it be quite tender, and lay it on a fieve to drain, then put it in a toffing pan, with about a gill of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it five minutes, pour it on a plate, lay all over it Parmefan cheefe toafted; fend it to table on a water plate for it foon goes cold.
Now, you may think I am spelling some of the words wrong. Nope. Where it seems appropriate, replace the letter ‘f’ with an ‘s’. This was known as a long s. That little tidbit isn't cooking history, but I thought was kind of interesting. I am finding many sources on the internet that place the use of cheddar cheese as being first used with macaroni in this cookbook, but I am not seeing it. I can't find it. Perhaps it is specifically listed in a future edition or in a part of the book I could not find, but once again, I am not seeing it with mine own eyes. I see the use of macaroni and parmesan, which does not completely get us there, but definitely is on the way.
Macaroni and Cheese are seen many times in 19th-century cookbooks, but I cannot find many mentions of the use of, specifically, cheddar cheese. In fact, the first place I could find cheddar being mentioned as an addition to macaroni and cheese was in an 1893 Good Housekeeping magazine, which was founded as an American magazine.
Some More on Cheddar
Before we get to America, let's stay in England for a minute. We need to talk about cheddar cheese and why England may have been the place where cheddar cheese was added to the dish. "Cheddaring" is a process that gives the cheese it’s namesake. Cheddar is also the name of a village in England and specifically where the name came from. There are caves at Cheddar Gorge near the village of Cheddar that has the perfect humidity and temps for making cheddar cheese. Unsurprising to me that cheddar cheese is so popular in the UK. Cheddar cheese has been made since the 12th century and is currently the most consumed cheese in the UK.
So, our dish seems to have migrated from the France or Italy region to England. Since macaroni was mentioned as an ingredient in mac n cheese in an English cookbook and Cheddar Cheese was very popular, to me it makes sense that the two were combined in England. Whether or not that is actually how it went down, I am not sure I can answer, but it sure seems to be pointing in that direction. What also makes sense is that the US has very strong historical ties to England, so cheddar cheese would have migrated along with much of our culture. The history of macaroni and cheese shows a leap to America
Crossing the pond
What first popularized macaroni and cheese in America? Very likely, it was Thomas Jefferson. I think it would stand to reason that macaroni and cheese may have been made in the homes of Americans anyways, but Thomas Jefferson served macaroni and cheese as a state dinner in 1802. Additionally, he wrote up plans to make a macaroni-making machine (pasta extruder). Jefferson spent time in Europe, so was influenced by the culture and food. He likely ate macaroni and cheese on his overseas adventures. It does not appear that he was using cheddar cheese at this time, but we have to think that sometime in the 19th century, cheddar cheese started to solidify as the cheese of choice in macaroni and cheese.
The 20th-Century Macaroni and Cheese
So, this is the century when mac and cheese took off in a big way. In 1937, Kraft started selling the boxed version that we recognize today. It was a big hit. One box could serve four at a very reasonable price in a time period where the average American was still feeling the impact of the Great Depression. Then, during the food rationing of WWII, Mac and Cheese became an even more valuable commodity. Shoppers could get two boxes of the stuff for one food stamp. The history of macaroni and cheese during this time is where the dish sealed itself as an America icon.
Here we are
Well, the post-WWII baby boomer corporate commercialization of everything took hold. Macaroni and cheese became more recognizable as the Kraft box than a home-cooked meal. The history of macaroni and cheese was sealed in the annals of our heritage. I am not going to deny it… I like the boxed stuff. Sometimes I even cut up a hot dog or two and put them in there. That being said, it sure does not replace a home-cooked meal.
I hope that this has been as interesting of a journey for you as it has been for me. We have tried to get a bit closer to uncovering how the two ingredients, macaroni, and cheddar cheese, came together to be the taste powerhouse that it is today!