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Who Knew Thomas Jefferson Loved Macaroni and Cheese?

When I began college in 1990 I was first introduced to what some consider the ultimate comfort food, macaroni and cheese. It came to me in a box that was easily made in 10 minutes and eaten with the abandon of an 18 year old whose metabolism was still intact. I can still remember the first time I bought boxed mac and cheese and ate it at home in front of my mother. Her disgust was apparent. If my mother, from Muscle Shoals, Alabama did not eat macaroni and cheese (she certainly did not serve it to us), how is it considered a Southern dish?

We have Thomas Jefferson to thank for this phenomena, Jefferson and his chef - who was also a slave - James Hemings. After all, Monticello IS located in Virginia which IS a Southern state. Neither Hemings nor Jefferson invented mac and cheese but Jefferson is said to have loved the dish he ate in France and instructed his chef to learn to prepare it for their return to the colonies. Let’s be honest, much like Sam Gamgee is the real hero in Lord of the Rings, Hemings is the hero of the story of how mac and cheese came to America

Macaroni and cheese most likely originated in Italy (as every pasta and cheese story does). It was not the dish we know today. The cheeses were layered with sheets of dough and not blended with tiny elbow shaped pastas favored by small children around the globe. The dish emerges in the 13th century and by the 14th century was included in an Italian cookbook named Liber de Coquina and was named “Maccheroni alla parmigiana.”  Macaroni and cheese is yet another story of recipes and culinary specialties migrating across Europe. Eventually the dish found its way to France with sources crediting Catherine de Medici and her desire to bring Italian dishes to France upon marriage. 

Baked mac and cheese!

From Italy to France to Virgina, macaroni and cheese was not only a favorite of Jefferson but his cousin, Mary Randolph popularized it in her cookbook The Virginia Housewife. Randolph was a cousin of Jefferson’s and her published cookbook was revolutionary for her time with macaroni and cheese a shining star!

Unfortunately, the macaroni and cheese story in regard to Hemings does not end well. He was the brother to Sally Hemings, the slave who bore Thomas Jefferson six children. He was able to eventually negotiate his freedom from Jefferson and committed suicide 4 years later. He was responsible for bringing other culinary delights to the United States included creme brulee and bechamel sauce. 

James Hemings

Much like Mary Randolph’s recipe, and presumably Hemings, I typically bake my macaroni and cheese. My eldest sister makes a delicious stovetop mac and cheese that is similar to that found on the back of the Velveeta box. But I prefer mine to be slightly more solid and a delicious mixture of cheeses. I was curious about others’ experiences and ran an informal poll on my personal Facebook page.  I was flabbergasted!  

I received approximately 50 responses!  I insisted only those born and raised in the South could answer and I asked if they grew up on boxed, stovetop homemade, or baked mac and cheese. Baked for the win!  Though may had both, the predominant answer was baked. There were a handful like myself that did not grow up eating any mac and cheese. As I have spent a considerable amount of time on this it has given me time to ponder and have come to these conclusions as to why this was not a dish served on our Southern table: my mother was very big on vegetables and there are no vegetables in mac and cheese, she watched her weight (and ours) and knew it is ridiculously fattening, my father did not like pasta beyond spaghetti, and she also did not have it as a child. 

Like my mother I have also not raised my children on mac and cheese though now that I have learned to make this creamy baked version, it can now be found on our table!


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