I have a visceral memory of mac and cheese. Every year on Halloween, my mom would toss my sisters and I into the car and drive to my aunt’s house so she could see our costumes. She had the BIG candy and also made us mac and cheese with smoky links (the unequivocally best mac and cheese topping) in it. It was divine. So, as far as I am concerned, my aunt Jackie invented mac and cheese. But really, she only perfected it; some other genius had the bright idea first.
Who invented mac and cheese?
Pasta and cheese have been best buds forever. The Italians knew all about sprinkling some parmesan on their spaghetti; there are recorded recipes that date back to the 1300s that prove this. Even the French got into the game once they got pasta on their menus; known for their cheeses, they really elevated the combination. But the mac and cheese we know today first showed up in a cookbook from 1769.
British chef Elizabeth Rafald created a recipe in her book, The Experienced English Housekeeper, that combined macaroni pasta with a cheese sauce similar to a bechamel. The recipe evolved over time, appearing in cookbooks like Modern Cookery in All Its Branches and Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Aren’t old cookbook titles great?
Who brought mac and cheese to the United States?
The story of mac and cheese’s immigration to the States is fascinating and heartbreaking. The feat is commonly attributed to a man named James Hemings, who was the first American to train in France to become a chef. He also was an enslaved man owned by Thomas Jefferson and, through generational slave abuse, was actually the half-brother of Jefferson’s wife, Martha.
Jefferson brought Hemings to France in 1784 and paid for him to be trained in their cuisine. He lived, worked, and studied there for five years, absorbing both their cooking techniques and their language. He was brought back to the United States in 1789 as a bi-lingual, fully capable French chef.
He introduced a dish called “macaroni pie” to the States, providing his own spin on a traditional French favorite. And thus, the American mac and cheese was born. Although he was eventually emancipated by Jefferson in 1796—after being forced to train his own enslaved brother as his replacement—Hemings unsurprisingly dealt with alcoholism and depression for most of his life, ultimately committing suicide in 1801.
James Hemings should be remembered and honored not only for his mac and cheese revelation, but also for introducing French cuisine and techniques into the U.S. cooking lexicon. We salute you, Mr. Hemings!
When was the first boxed mac and cheese invented?
Kraft Foods has been in the game for a long time as a pioneer in the American processed cheese world. They got a patent for it in 1916 and started including it in many of their products, including their iconic single-serve cheese slice.
Once the Great Depression hit, foods like real cheese became precious commodities, so processed cheese really hit its stride. Kraft, in an effort to sell more products, figured out a way to make powdered processed cheese. Naturally, the best way to sell it was with its favorite partner: mac.
Kraft boxed mac and cheese hit shelves in 1937 and the industry hasn’t looked back since. While popular, it still doesn’t beat a mac and cheese made from scratch, the way Aunt Jackie used to make.