Happy Mac & Cheese Day!
No really, it's a national day.
It all started with Thomas Jefferson, well actually his chef, a slave named James Hemings (1765-1801). James Hemings became the property of Thomas Jefferson in January of 1774 when he was nine years old. James and his brother Robert were taken to Monticello where he would grow up serving Jefferson as a house servant, messenger, driver, traveling attendant, and eventually chef.
In 1784 Jefferson was appointed by Congress to go to Paris, together with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, with the responsibility of negotiating treaties of commerce with European countries. The day Jefferson assumed the diplomatic role he wrote to his future secretary William Short that he wished to take his servant James with him to France “for a particular purpose.” The particular purpose Jefferson had in mind was to have James trained in the art of French cookery.
James was nineteen years old when he sailed from Boston with Jefferson and his daughter Martha, along with his younger sister Sally who was about fourteen years old. (side note - Sally was the slave who bore six of Jefferson’s children.)
James was apprenticed to a caterer named Combeaux who provided Jefferson’s meals during the first year of his stay in Paris. He also trained as a pastry chef, as well as with a chef of the Prince de Condé, and soon became the chef de cuisine at the Hôtel de Langeac which was Jefferson’s private residence on the Champs-Elysées.
Jefferson found macaroni both in Paris and in northern Italy and it's clear he was a fan of the noodle. He drew a sketch of the pasta and wrote detailed notes on the extrusion process for making it. He even commissioned the purchase of a machine for making it, but evidently, the machine wasn't suitable, because he imported both macaroni and Parmesan cheese for his use at Monticello.
Jefferson served "macaroni pie" at state dinners, most likely with Virginia ham, to impress his guests. Back in the day, macaroni and cheese was not for the "common" people - It was haute cuisine. But it was because of these dinners that this dish became associated with the United States.
Sadly, James died at the age of 36. His only material possessions were kitchen utensils and four recipes. His considerable and historic influences on American food and culture which include the introduction of macaroni and cheese, ice cream, whipped cream, and French fries for the first time in America, have long been attributed to Thomas Jefferson who, for the most part, has been wrongly credited with creating these dishes. (I mean, come on, that guy never cooked!) They were actually Hemings’ adaptations of French cuisine.
A recipe called “macaroni and cheese” appeared in the 1824 cookbook
“The Virginia Housewife” written by Mary Randolph who was Jeffersons cousin and took over as hostess of his house after his wife's death. It is believed that the recipe Randolph published was one of James Hemings' creations. It had three ingredients: macaroni, cheese, and butter, layered together and baked. The cookbook was the most influential cookbook of the 19th century.
And then it happened... the little blue box: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, was introduced to the American public in 1937, at the end of the Great Depression. It was called “the housewife’s best friend, a nourishing one-pot meal,” because it was a fast, filling, and inexpensive way to feed a family. In that year alone, more than 8 million boxes were sold!! And the popularity of the Kraft box dinners continues today. This is how macaroni and cheese lost its standing as a fine dining side dish when it became boxed, available to the masses, and was labeled "inexpensive".
Nowadays, every cook has a recipe that includes pasta, butter, and cheese. The cheese of choice changes - could be cheddar, Colby, or processed cheeses like Velveta, and sometimes spices like nutmeg and mustard are added. Gourmet versions call for a variety of cheeses, including Gruyère, smoked Gouda, Havarti, and add-ins like bread crumbs, bacon, tomatoes, shallots, and even truffles. It's been formed into nuggets and fried and made a pizza topping, But there is no doubt it remains the number one comfort food in the U.S.
Enjoy Macaroni and cheese day! Celebrate your favorite way - boxed, homemade, gluten-free, fried, or on a pie.
Cheers! To the cheesiest day of the year!