As my daughter scarfed down yet another meal of mac and cheese the other day, I told her that she had Thomas Jefferson at least partly to thank for that dish, although I can’t imagine what he would have made of our modern-day macaroni boxes with powdered cheese packets.
Jefferson fell for pasta in a big way when he lived in France and traveled through Europe in the 1780s. He took notes on “maccaroni” (then a generic term for pasta) while in Italy, and drew a diagram for a pasta machine. He also brought home a recipe for hand-made noodles (to be used in vermicelli soup) and had a pasta press shipped home — which, like most of us, he didn’t really use.
Of course, Jefferson didn’t do the actual cooking — his slave James Hemings did. He accompanied Jefferson to Europe with the purpose of mastering French cuisine, and he was later given his freedom in exchange for training his brother Peter to replace him as Monticello’s chef.
Food historians differ on what role Jefferson played in the development of mac and cheese, but it seems that he at least helped popularize the dish. Loosely speaking, macaroni and cheese dates back to medieval Europe, but that dish was really just boiled pasta dressed with Parmesan. Elizabeth Raffald’s The English Housekeeper (1769) has a recipe for macaroni in a béchamel sauce with cheese. Although not baked, it seems to be the first printed recipe similar to modern-day mac and cheese.
The first recorded American recipe for mac and cheese was by Louis Fresnaye, a chef who fled the French revolution, settled in Philadelphia, and established one of America’s first macaroni factories. Fresnaye distributed a recipe for a cheesy “vermicelli baked like pudding” as early as 1802. Meanwhile, mac and cheese in some form was made often at Monticello, and served to many guests there. And at least one dinner at the White House, in 1802, featured “a pie called macaroni,” according to a congressman present. This was probably mac and cheese, though it might have been served in a crust.
Unfortunately, no written record of the Jefferson household’s mac and cheese survives. Damon Lee Fowler, editor of Dining at Monticello, writes that a recipe by Mary Randolph, from the 1824 cookbook The Virginia House-wife, is probably much like what was served at Monticello. Randolph was Jefferson’s son-in-law’s sister, and she spent a lot of time with the Jefferson family (she was also a descendant of Pocahontas!). Here is her recipe:
Boil as much macaroni as will fill your dish, in milk and water, till quite tender; drain it on a sieve, sprinkle a little salt over it, put a layer in your dish, then cheese and butter as in the polenta, and bake it in the same manner.
I decided to try Randolph’s recipe. I had to make it a few times to get it right — it’s important to cook the pasta until tender, not al dente. It also helps to reserve some of the boiling liquid and add it before baking, to keep the pasta moist. Anyway, when I finally got the dish right, it was delicious — cheesy and crusty, but not all gloppy like some modern-day mac and cheeses. I like to think Jefferson would have approved.
3 cups whole milk
3 cups water
12 oz. elbow macaroni
½ teaspoon salt
2 tbs. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
6 oz. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a large pot, bring the milk and water to a boil. Add the macaroni, stir well, and return to a boil; then reduce the heat and cook the pasta until tender (about 8 minutes), stirring occasionally. Drain the pasta but reserve about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Add the salt to the pasta and blend well.
2. Butter a 1½-quart casserole dish. Place one third of the macaroni in the dish and top with one third of the butter pieces and one third of the cheese. Pour one third of the reserved cooking liquid over the top. Repeat with two more layers of macaroni topped with butter and cheese, drizzling cooking liquid over each layer.
3. Bake casserole, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Serve warm.
Note: Those interested in Jefferson’s culinary adventures might want to read Thomas Craughwell’s recent book Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America (Quirk Books, 2012).