The history of macaroni and cheese is as complex as the dish is easy to make

06 May 2020 - 23:35 By Andrew Unsworth
The first recipe for a dish resembling macaroni and cheese dates back to an Italian book from the early 14th century.
The first recipe for a dish resembling macaroni and cheese dates back to an Italian book from the early 14th century.
Image: 123RF/Petr Goskov

Macaroni and cheese is such a popular comfort food that many nations regard it as their own - even if the recipe varies slightly from place to place, with different additions and toppings. 

The "pure" version is a dish of cooked macaroni in a creamy Mornay sauce (a bechamel sauce with cheese added) and baked briefly to give it a crusty top. Pasta is of course Italian, a Mornay sauce is French, and cheddar cheese is English. 

Americans love mac 'n cheese so much that they lay claim to its invention. Legend says it was introduced to the US by the nation's founding father (and notable slave owner) Thomas Jefferson before he became the country's third president — and started serving it at White House dinners.

However, the credit should really go to Jefferson’s cook, James Hemings.

Hemings was the son of Elizabeth Hemings, whose mother was an African slave who married a white ships’ captain. She became the mistress of a Virginia lawyer John Wayles, and Hemings was the second of their six children. 

Wayles also happened to be the father of Jefferson’s wife Martha, so Hemings was in fact her half-brother and her slave — Wayles had willed "his" slaves to the Jeffersons when he died.

The whole Hemings family lived at Jefferson’s Virginia home, Monticello. James Hemings became the couple's cook. His younger sister Sally, meanwhile, became Jefferson’s mistress after his wife died, and she bore him six children. 

Jefferson took 19-year-old Hemings with him to Paris in 1785 when he was appointed minister to France, so that he could be trained in French cuisine. Italian pasta was popular in France, and Jefferson liked it so much that he acquired a pasta machine to take home. It was of course Hemings who used it to make pasta dishes, including macaroni and cheese.

Did you know?

After travelling back from France, James Hemings introduced chips to America, where they are called 'French fries'.

The pair may have discovered pasta in France, but the origins of macaroni and cheese are more complex.

An early 14th century book in Naples, Liber de Coquina, had a recipe for "de lasanis", which was squares of sheet pasta sprinkled with cheese.

The oldest cookbook in England, The Forme of Cury by Richard III’s chefs, had a recipe for "makerouns" which also resembled bits of lasagne with cheese.

The first recipe for macaroni and cheese of the sort we'd recognise was published in 1770 by Elizabeth Raffald in The Experienced English Housekeeper. It had a Mornay sauce made with cheddar and a Parmesan topping.

The Swiss could also have contributed to macaroni and cheese as we know it today — hollow pasta tubes were first made in the part of Lombardy that is now the Ticino canton of Switzerland. The Swiss version, alpemargen, is just pasta with cream, butter and cheese, usually emmenthal.

You can mix pasta with just about any cheese, in any way, but macaroni and cheese made with cheddar is the English version, and a popular part of the English heritage in South Africa. Our version is usually baked until it has a much firmer texture than the same dish would have in other parts of the world.