Mac ‘n cheese is a win-win. Bake it, cook it on the stovetop, or get it from a box. Feast on basic, gourmet, or potluck. Win for taste. Win for comfort.
It’s a foodie chameleon.
Whether in America, Canada, Israel, or anywhere around the world, everyone loves mac ‘n cheese. The magic is in the recipe – it shifts to fit individual, family, and cultural tastes.
Most people believe that the American version came from foodie Thomas Jefferson after he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister to France in 1785. Jefferson brought along his slave, nineteen-year old James Hemings, to learn the fine art of French cooking. By the time they returned stateside, Hemings was an expert chef who brought home a pasta machine from Naples, Italy.
American mac ‘n cheese was born.
Jefferson’s version was for wealthy Virginians. Hemings’ was soul food.
In 1796 when Hemings was thirty years old, Jefferson granted him freedom. The deal was good only if Hemings trained his replacement (which he did).
Five years later, Jefferson was elected President. He asked freedman Hemings to be the White House Chef. Before he could accept, Hemings died. President Jefferson and his wife Martha continued to serve what they called “macaroni pie” at state dinners.
Who claims first rights – Jefferson or Hemings?
According to food historians and authors, Karima Moyer-Nocchi and Adrian Miller, mixing pasta and cheese goes back at least two thousand years. In 160 BC, Roman Senator Marcus Cato wrote recipes for “ritual gatherings and holidays that bring together . . . pasta and fresh cheese.” His version was layering cheese and sheets of dough.
Other versions emerged.
The English called their dish makerouns. They took a thin layer of pastry dough, cut into pieces, boiled in water, and mixed with grated cheese and melted butter.
The French made it creamier and richer.
The Italians used fermented dough cut into two-inch squares, boiled, and served with cheese (usually Parmesan).
It wasn’t until the Great Depression that the foodie chameleon dramatically changed its colors. Food and money were scarce. The Kraft Dinner introduced instant mac ‘n cheese in a box. One box could feed a family of four and cost only nineteen cents. The first year (1937) it sold over eight million boxes. Colossal sales continued through World War Two when fresh meat and dairy was in short supply.
Today mac ‘n cheese is a main dish, side dish, even a breakfast dish. It’s loved by kids, families and grown-ups around the world. One million Kraft boxes are sold each day, offering flavors from original to four-cheese and Old World Italian. There are flavor boosters from pizza to cotton candy and options like gluten-free, whole grain, and white bean. That adds up to $500,000,000 in sales each year.
There are endless versions of mac ‘n cheese from casseroles to fried balls and pancakes. The Swedes make it with ham, leek, and cheese; Greeks add lamb; Israelis include couscous; and Brazilians use cream cheese. Then there are offbeat versions like buffalo chicken, cheeseburger, bacon waffles . . . almost anything goes with a foodie chameleon.
For those who want to venture out of the box, there’s National Mac and Cheese day in July and festivals around the country touted as “the cheesiest event ever.” You can get mac ‘n cheese gummies, plush toys, tee shirts, and baby food. Guinness reports the largest mac ‘n cheese was made in Utah, weighing 4,742 pounds. Want to meet a man who has eaten only mac ‘n cheese for 17 years, see an eating contest, or wear mac ‘n cheese clothes (hats, sweatshirts, and hoodies)?
Who claims mac ‘n cheese? All of us.
It’s a win-win.