A Brief History of Macaroni in America
We have a guest post today from Silence Dogood, who writes at Poor Richard’s Almanac and gives us the scoop on that American favorite, macaroni and cheese.
What could be more all-American than good old mac’n’cheese, especially that orange stuff from a box that so many kids grew up with? (you fans of mac-in-the-box, you know who you are.) But the history of macaroni in America goes way back before the Revolution and the first macaroni to arrive on our shores wasn’t pasta. And by the time the pasta macaroni did arrive, it was brought by a future U.S. president, who got the recipe in, of all places, the France of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Let’s take a closer look at how macaroni and cheese took its place in American hearts.
He Called It Macaroni
“Yankee Doodle went to town Riding on a pony, Stuck a feather in his hat, And called it macaroni.”
Ever wonder why Yankee Doodle called a feather macaroni? Feathers don’t exactly look like macaroni, after all. But what’s now regarded as a beloved children’s song was not about pasta at all. And its original purpose was anything but loving.
Our beloved song, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” began life as a derogatory British one, belittling their American colonists as a bunch of ludicrous hicks. Yankee Doodle (at the time “doodle” was a slang expression for idiot) considered himself to be a dandy, or fashion leader. In the late 1700’s, men were at least as concerned with presenting a fashionable appearance as women. In England, for a man to be called “a veritable Tulip of Fashion” was considered a high compliment. Yet poor Yankee Doodle rode a pony—not even a proper horse—into town and worse, thought sticking a feather into his hat would be the ultimate fashion statement, transforming him from a dud to a dandy.
In the 18th Century They Called This Macaroni
But why did Yankee Doodle call it macaroni? Was he delirious from hunger as he rode along? Did he wish he’d brought a bowl of pasta with him instead of the feather? If you guessed “none of the above” you’re right. Macaroni was another form of slang British expression used to lampoon a certain segment of society, namely men who dressed in outrageously excessive clothing and affected foreign tastes. In an insular place like England of the late 18th Century, flamboyantly loving the culture of a strange land like Italy was cause for a series of satiracal comics. Mary Daly, the mother of Pictorial Satire skewered them. Soon they were as ephemeral a phenomenon as the fops and the beaus from earlier in the century. And by modern standards (see the nearby pictures) they deserved it. Not the least of their fashion faults were their towering wigs with a bazillion tight rolls down the sides. Some wigs towered so high that the Macaroni had to wear tiny hats perched up on top like ships riding the ocean waves.
You Need More than a Feather to Look this Good.
It’s lost to history if the endless curls of the Macaronis’ wigs gave name to the pasta , or if the rolled, curled pasta gave name to the wigs and thus the foppish men who wore them. One thing we do know is that both the pasta and the styles originated in Italy; where young English gentlemen acquired the fashion, (and sometimes recipes for the pasta), during their “Grand Tour” of the Continent after graduating from college.
So now, understanding the state of namecalling in the late 1700’s, let’s get back to poor Yankee Doodle, who thought he might aspire to the heights of affected English fashion simply by sticking a feather in his hat. To the British of the time the song mocked the unsophisticated Colonials, who though were good enough to fight beside the British during the French and Indian War which another young feather toting, Virginian colonial, named Lt. Colonel George Washington inadvertently started. The British had their laugh but in the Revolution, the tables turned and the Revolutionary Army defiantly took up “Yankee Doodle” as a sign of patriotism, as they marched to battle. So successfully was it sung in defiance that it is now considered an American classic. Mainstreaming the pasta wasn’t far behind.
Mac’n’Cheese at Monticello
A renowned gourmet, Thomas Jefferson often served his guests at Monticello a favorite dish he’d brought back from Paris: none other than macaroni and cheese. Mr. Jefferson’s cooks had to make their macaroni pasta from scratch, using a pasta machine he imported from Europe, then break it into suitable pieces. (The recipe for the pasta, in Jefferson’s own hand still exists, as do his drawings and notes on the pasta machine.) If you’d like to try his recipe, feel free to substitute a box of classic elbow macaroni (or, to be completely authentic, spaghetti, the “macaroni” of Jefferson’s time) instead of making pasta from scratch.
Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Macaroni and Cheese
Boil 2 cups of macaroni in salted water until tender. Grate ¼ pound of cheese and mix with the same amount of butter. Stir into macaroni and bake in a moderate oven until the cheese is thoroughly melted.
Clearly, our third president wasn’t exactly Julia Child when it came to elaborating on how to prepare macaroni and cheese to his liking. Talk about a minimalist approach!
Jefferson himself was not at all shy about importing huge quantities of choice foods and wines from Europe. But what cheeses did he use in this new dish? British recipes from Jefferson’s time called for Cheddar and Parmesan; we know that Jefferson imported both macaroni and Parmesan from Marseilles. But when he was in the Washington, he had ample opportunity to serve his guests quite a different cheese with their macaroni: Mammoth cheese.
No, this cheese wasn’t made from the milk of woolly mammoths (sadly). Instead, it was a 1,230-pound, 4’4” wheel of cheese presented to him as a gift by a Baptist congregation in Cheshire, Massachusetts, in 1801. Needless to say, the massive cheese received a lot of publicity! And even Mr. Jefferson’s lavish style of entertaining wasn’t sufficient to consume the beast. Rumor has it that, after spending four years in the president’s larder, the remains of the famous Mammoth cheese were unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac River.
What Makes Great Mac’n’Cheese
Let’s get back to today’s macaroni and cheese. But before we go on to my own favorite recipe, let’s take a moment to discuss what distinguishes great from gross when it comes to macaroni and cheese.
In the gross category: Mac’n’cheese that’s pretty much all mac and no cheese. Mac’n’cheese that’s soupy. (Lonely elbow-fish swimming in a sea of sauce just does not work, trust me. ) Mac’n’cheese that’s screamingorange, a color dreamed up by mad scientists for their “processed cheese products.” Mac’n’cheese that’s tasteless (in this case, I’m referring to flavor, not the Day-Glo color just described). Mac’n’cheese that’s gummy. Mac’n’cheese that’s bitter, a failing of many an otherwise lovely mac’n’cheese made by well-intentioned folks using globs of orange Cheddar. Mac’n’cheese with undercooked (ouch!) or overcooked pasta (this is macaroni, not pudding, people). And finally, mac’n’cheese with a crust so hard it can chip your teeth and knock your fillings out, because face it, you know that’s the best part and you’re going to try to eat it anyway.
Moving on to what makes a great mac’n’cheese: Lots of yummy, crunchy (as opposed to hard) crust to contrast with the creamy interior. Plenty of luscious flavor of the cheesy, buttery, creamy variety. Elbows cooked just right, so they’re fully cooked when you cut into the mac’n’cheese but still hold their shape rather than disintegrating. And finally, a sauce that is the perfect texture. This is key, not just for mac’n’cheese, but for all pasta sauces, in my opinion. The perfect texture is what makes good sauce great. For mac’n’cheese, the sauce has to cling to the pasta rather than floating, concentrating the flavor thickly around each elbow. But there has to be enough sauce so it isn’t absorbed by the pasta, creating a hard, dry mac’n’cheese. The closest I can come to describing the perfect mac’n’cheese sauce texture is to say that if you’ve ever eaten a perfectly prepared corn pudding (the ones served by the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky come to mind), you know just what I mean.
The Mac’n’Cheese Bill of “Rights”s
Before we can get on to my own favorite slow cooked mac’n’cheese recipe, I need to play Commander in Chief (or at least Chef) for a minute and lay down some fundamental “Right” ways to prepare mac’n’cheese. These rights are fundamental and self evident. They may not be abridgedFortunately for all of us, this Bill of “Rights” is a lot easier to defend than the originals!
- Mac’ n ‘Cheese has a right not to be cooked on high. The cheese will burn.
- Mac’ n ‘Cheese has a right to be made with evaporated, not sweetened condensed milk.
- Mac’ n ‘Cheese has a right to be made without fresh milk (for evaporated). Fresh milk curdles in the slow-cooker.
- Mac’ n ‘Cheese has a right to be slow cooked for less than 4 hours. Cooking for longer than 4 hours will disintegrate the pasta.
Silence Dogood’s Ultimate Mac’n’Cheese
Thanks to the slow-cooker (mine’s a Crock-Pot), it takes almost no more work to make marvelous mac’n’cheese from scratch than it does to cook the contents of that famous little box. And the results are so good, they’d knock Thomas Jefferson’s Macaroni wig from his head, if he’d actually worn one.
Yes, you could add things to make a fancier dish: sage and brown butter; sautéed mushrooms and sweet onions, caramelized leeks, or shallots; roasted red peppers; jalapenos or chipotles; garlic scapes or scallions; olives; basil or arugula pesto; maybe a little kicky spice like a touch of garam masala, Chinese 5-spice blend, ras al-hanout, or even chili powder. Fooling with the cheese, replacing the Cheddar with Gruyere or Swiss or Jarlsberg, mixing in crumbled feta or Gorgonzola or blue cheese, replacing the Parmesan with Asiago, could produce delectable results. Bacon? Truffles? Morels? Prosciutto?
The world (or at least, the recipe) is your oyster, so go for it. But first, try the basic recipe as given, then modify it to your own tastes. Or not. Everybody I know loves the basic dish so much, they refuse to allow me to play with any variations. Heartaches, nothin’ but heartaches.
Silence’s Crock-Pot Mac’n’Cheese
1-pound box elbow macaroni, cooked al dente
2 12-ounce cans evaporated milk
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups (2 packages) shredded sharp white Cheddar (use extra-sharp for more flavor)
1 teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ cup grated or shredded Parmesan
Set aside 1 cup of the Cheddar, the Parmesan, and the paprika. Stir all other ingredients together in the Crock-Pot or other slow-cooker. Top with reserved Cheddar, Parmesan, and a liberal amount of paprika to give the top a lovely warm color. Cook on low 3 to 4 hours. I like to cook mine for the full 4 hours to make sure the top is crunchy, opening the lid a crack to let the top form a nice crust during the final hour of cooking.
That’s all there is to it! Serve it as a side with barbecue, roast beef or fried chicken, or as a main dish with green and yellow wax beans and ripe tomato slices. Fried okra, fried green tomatoes, and/or sweet potato fries go well with mac’n’cheese, too. A good coleslaw—and I’ll post about this later—can also make a crunchy accompaniment to mac’n’cheese.
‘Nuff said. Macaroni and cheese, whatever its origins, really is an American classic. So try my recipe or enjoy your own, but eat your mac’n’cheese with pride! Tom Jefferson might be watching.
Silence Dogood contributes posts on cooking and other topics to the blog Poor Richard’s Almanac and SmartKitchen.com.
Macaroni Images from 24 Caricatures by Several Ladies, Gentlemen, Artists, &c. and volume ll of Caricatures, Macaronies & Characters by Sundry Ladies, Gentle.n, Artists, &c. [London]: M Darly, No. 39 Strand, 1771-1772, and courtesy of David Brass.