So who came up with the idea to combine elbow macaroni with creamy cheese to create this simple, yet perfectly complementary concoction? As you might expect, mac and cheese traces its roots to Italy, home of many culinary delights. The "Liber de Coquina," or "Book of Cooking," an Italian cookbook from the 13th century, includes a recipe called de lasanis that foodie historians believe is the first macaroni and cheese recipe. The recipe calls for sheet pasta cut into 2-inch (5-centimeter) squares, cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese, likely Parmesan [source: Wright].
From then on, macaroni and cheese grew in popularity across Europe. In colonial America, casserole dishes similar to today's mac and cheese were served at New England church suppers, where they probably originated from "receipts," or recipes, passed along from English relatives. The dish was primarily reserved for the upper classes until the Industrial Revolution made pasta production easier.
Amateur historians have often credited Thomas Jefferson with introducing macaroni and cheese to the United States. But this is wrong. Jefferson wasn't the first to introduce macaroni (with or without cheese) to America, nor did he invent the recipe. It is possible that he helped popularize macaroni and cheese, though, because he likely served it to dinner guests while president. But it was Jefferson's enslaved Black chef James Hemmings who perfected the recipe.
Hemmings learned French cooking techniques while in Europe with Jefferson before he was president, and when they returned to the states, Hemming put his own spin on macaroni and cheese. He taught the recipe to his brother Peter Hemmings, who later served "pie called macaroni" at a state dinner hosted by Jefferson at the White House, introducing mac and cheese to America's elite.
Eventually, Mary Rudolph, who took over hostess duties at the White House when Jefferson's wife died, included a macaroni recipe that with Parmesan cheese in her 1824 cookbook, "The Virginia Housewife."
Of course, Kraft Foods introduced the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner in 1937, at the end of the Great Depression. Called "the housewife's best friend, a nourishing one pot meal," it was a fast, filling and inexpensive way to feed a family. In that year alone, 8 million boxes were sold, and the popularity of Kraft dinners continues today [source: Rhodes].
While original homemade recipes include pasta, butter or cream, and Parmesan cheese, American cooks often improvised, using cheddar, Colby or more affordable processed cheese, and spices like nutmeg and mustard. Today, gourmet versions call for a variety of cheeses, including Gruyère, smoked Gouda, and goat, and add-ins like bacon, tomatoes, shallots and more.
So, while no single cook can lay claim to the classic macaroni and cheese recipe, everyone has a favorite version of the dish. Whether yours comes in a blue box or features a medley of gourmet ingredients, there's nothing like it for warmth and comfort.
Originally Published: Jun 15, 2010