When I was 3 years old, my family moved to Japan. My father, a doctor in the Navy, was stationed at Yokosuka, a small naval base about an hour away from Tokyo. I don't remember much about Japan, but the one thing I remember clearly is the mac'n'cheese.
That seems strange, because Japanese chefs are known for sushi and rice dishes, not American food. But there was an military-owned American-style hotel in Tokyo that my family visited often, and they had the best mac’n’cheese I’ve ever eaten. Without fail, every time I went, I would order the mac’n’cheese. Partially because there weren't many other kid-friendly dishes on the menu, but also because it was really good.
Mac’n’cheese has a long history. The earliest iteration comes from 13th century Italy, in a book called Liber de Coquina (which means “book of cooking”). It consisted of cut-up bits of cooked lasagna coated with parmesan cheese (Wright). In France, they had a similar dish made of pastry dough, cheese, and butter (Bhabha). But most would agree the history of mac’n’cheese in America starts with Thomas Jefferson. In addition to writing the Declaration of Independence and doubling the size of the US with the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson also introduced mac’n’cheese to the United States. He brought the recipe back from France, along with Parmesan and macaroni noodles, and served mac'n'cheese at a state dinner in 1802 (Rhodes). His daughter was the one who first introduced cheddar cheese to the dish, leading to the mac’n’cheese we know today (Wright).
Over the years, many different version of mac'n'cheese have evolved. Everyone I know has their own recipe that they swear by. My parents' recipe is very traditional, based on a roux mixed with pasta and cheese, baked in the oven, and covered in breadcrumbs. It comes from a cookbook they got as a wedding gift. My paternal grandmother has a different recipe, a lot creamier and without the breadcrumbs, coming from a cookbook she's had since the 1960s. My maternal grandmother buys frozen mac’n’cheese from a Seattle cheese company called Beecher’s. All of their versions are equally delicious, in their own way.
High end restaurants, as well, have put their own spin on mac’n’cheese. You can find variations made with special artisan cheeses, or extras like bacon, broccoli or lobster. Not to mention the many companies that make boxed mac’n’cheese, whether it’s Kraft or a gluten-free, dairy-free company like Daiya.
Why is that? How is it possible that mac'n'cheese is so versatile? How is some form of it found in every facet of American culture?
For me, mac’n’cheese is bigger than just a meal. It has more meaning and more memories than almost any other food, because it was one of the few foods I really loved as a kid. Whenever my parents went out for the night and left me and my siblings with a babysitter, they would make boxed mac’n’cheese. We’d eat it while watching Star Wars and doing a bunch of crazy stuff we wouldn’t do with our parents around. Now when I think of mac'n'cheese, I think of the innocence and simplicity of childhood.
For people living during the Depression, boxed mac’n’cheese was a cheap source of sustenance. For college students, it’s the energy to power through an all night study session (Rhodes). For African Americans, it’s a reminder of their cultural heritage. The first American to cook mac’n’cheese was James Hemming, Thomas Jefferson’s black chef. On plantations, mac’n’cheese was a staple dish for slaves and slaveowners alike (Edgar). It’s universal to all fifty states, North and South, East and West.
For every person, mac’n’cheese means something different. It means a different recipe, with different ingredients, and different preparation styles. It means different memories, of different childhoods, and different parents. But the comfort we feel is the same. No matter who you are, as long as you’re American, you like mac’n’cheese.
Rhodes, Jesse. “Marvelous Macaroni and Cheese.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 22 Mar. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/marvelous-macaroni-and-cheese-30954740/.
Wright, Clifford A. “Origin of ‘Macaroni and Cheese.’” Did You Know: Food History , www.cliffordawright.com/caw/food/entries/display.php/topic_id/16/id/105/.
Bhabha, Leah. “The History of Macaroni and Cheese.” Food52, Food52, 7 Mar. 2014, food52.com/blog/9916-the-history-of-macaroni-and-cheese.
Edgar, Gordon. “A Brief History of America's Appetite for Macaroni and Cheese.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 29 May 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-americas-appetite-for-macaroni-cheese-180969185/.