Rebranding Ethnic Foods: The Story of Mac n’ Cheese in America

Starting as a mock term for fashion, macaroni was one of the first ethnic Italian foods to reach the United States. Mac n’ Cheese is one of the most popular staples of American food in the modern world and can be found everywhere. This dish has become so convenient and accessible to the American market that it’s impossible to live without experiencing it. Although it is incredibly renowned now, its popularity didn’t actually rise until the 20th century. It wasn’t until the introduction of transportation, industrialization, and urbanization that food became more accessible to American diets, leading to the introduction of ethnic recipes like Macaroni & Cheese.

The Mac

The origin of macaroni in America starts with the mass production of durum pasta with screw presses in Naples, Italy in the 1730s. This allowed dry pasta to become widely distributed throughout Italy and eventually reach parts of its neighboring countries, in this case, France. Reaching the most notable restaurants and dishes of Europe, in Thomas Jefferson’s five-year stay in Paris in 1784, the macaroni was so remarkable that he requested a machine to manufacture them back home. So by 1789, Jefferson would request his private secretary William Short to acquire what was known as a macaroni “mould,” and it would arrive in the United States in the later years along with his other belongings. (“To Thomas Jefferson from William Short, 11 February 1789”). 

It is undetermined whether the macaroni in Jefferson’s request meant the typical elbow pasta or another type of pasta. Macaroni and “paste” were umbrella terms that referred to generally any type of dry pasta. It most likely wasn’t the usual elbow macaroni pasta we know today, since it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that it was even conceivable of producing even a couple of batches of that shape. It would look more similar to modern-day spaghetti noodles. As a matter of fact, some of the “macaroni” recipes in the 19th century indicated to “break it up in pieces:”

The New York Times. “Receipts for the Table.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, November 3, 1877, 2. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers (accessed November 23, 2022). https://link-gale-com.loyno.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/GT3003949583/NCNP?u=lln_aluno&sid=bookmark-NCNP&xid=016e44d8.

This indicates that the word macaroni didn’t necessarily describe a certain type of pasta or ingredient, but rather the style of the dish, in this case, baked pasta.

Even after the introduction of this machine in the early 1800s, macaroni was still rather imported from Italian ports like Palermo, Naples, and Livorno. Although macaroni press introduced pasta to average consumers, it was still inefficient to produce them widely.

“Multiple Classified Advertisements.” Aurora and Franklin Gazette, January 27, 1826. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers (accessed November 23, 2022). https://link-gale-com.loyno.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/GT3007138761/NCNP?u=lln_aluno&sid=bookmark-NCNP&xid=88797656.

For starters, there weren’t as many macaroni factories, and it was also cheaper and less laborious to import them overseas (Lobel 17). Meat, despite being hard to buy and preserve fresh, was much more appealing since it had twice as much protein and everyone was familiar with it. And there weren’t as many Italian people to make Italian dishes: “Between 1820 and 1870, fewer than 25,000 Italian immigrants came to the U.S.” (“Italian Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History”). Vermicelli and macaroni got frequently transported to American markets, but it wasn’t bought as much, and hence not much of it was sold. 

After steamboats and railroads became a formalized method of efficiently transporting goods in the 1850s, macaroni factories were becoming more abundant. Farms were advancing trying to industrialize the market. With the opening of the first pasta factory in America by the Frenchman Antoine Zerega in 1848, macaroni could now be distributed faster and to more places in the United States. Markets would sell different types of pasta in greater quantities and at a more plausible price. 

Italian immigration skyrocketed in the 1880s making Italian restaurants and dishes more common in America. Italian immigration was due to poverty and new regulations, and many opted for the United States as their first choice. The late 19th century then marked the Italian immigration period as “[i]n the 1880s, they numbered 300,000; in the 1890s, 600,000” (“Italian Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History”). The first Italian restaurant opened in the United States was the Ristorante Fior d’Italia in San Francisco and many others also opened during that period (Bezzone). Urbanization allowed for the implementation and diversification of palate in the United States. Different ethnicities were more welcomed in terms of food, and cultures were spreading rapidly. Contribution to American cuisine by many immigrants paved the way to recognize and Americanize ethnic dishes. 

The Cheese

Macaroni’s love relationship with butter and cheese didn’t actually start as early as it first became a recipe. In English recipes from late 1780s, parmesan cheese is actually used as a topping. In Elizabeth Raffald’s 1786 and John Farley’s 1787 cookbooks, both instruct you to “lay” Parmesan cheese on top of the boiled macaroni, and then “toast it” (Raffald, Farley). This process is similar to seasoning a dish, rather than favoring it.

Uncommon also was the use of Italian parmesan cheese rather than the contemporary use of cheddar. Eventually, in later American recipes, they start using cheddar cheese since it was more accessible to the public during the 1850s. But it’s worth observing that even though cheddar cheese was an English product, since macaroni was Italian, they often matched Italian cheese with it.

The lack of salt in these recipes also emphasizes the development and evolution of the cheesemaking process during the 19th century. Cheese initially was a way to preserve milk and to have a milk-based product throughout the year. Preservation methods weren’t available until the 20th century, so previous generations frequently used the drying preservation process in order to make food stay fresh for longer. This process involved smoke-drying a product, like jerky meat, or using grains, like salt. Ultimately, this was to draw moisture away from the food in order for it to stop microbial growth. So, since salt drew moisture away from cheese, great amounts were used to preserve it properly. It was a tedious and long process, not to mention the dry sour taste.

Cheesemaking stayed consistent that way until the industrial revolution. Industrialization took farmhouse cheesemaking into cheese factories. Factories exponentially changed the way people produced cheese, easily outperforming decent-sized farms. So by the 1850s, most farmhouses were outcompeted out of business and farm living has been declining dramatically ever since. 

“Multiple Classified Advertisements.” Aurora and Franklin Gazette, January 27, 1826. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers (accessed November 23, 2022). https://link-gale-com.loyno.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/GT3007138761/NCNP?u=lln_aluno&sid=bookmark-NCNP&xid=88797656.

This also changed the way people consumed cheese since more modernized equipment was used to mass-produce cheese at an affordable price for the public. Cheese demand grew as well as prices swirled into a downward spiral. Cheese was more accessible than ever before, and so it started to become more common in public standards. The most common cheese made was cheddar and so it was typical to adapt popular cheeses with popular recipes. People took advantage of more available and tastier ingredients and so that was how an Italian luxury cuisine blended with an English-American flavor.

The Mac n’ Cheese

It was after the first American macaroni recipe that the authentic Mac n’ Cheese dish started to look more familiar. The recipe was published in 1824 by Mary Randolph in her book The Virginia house-wife. Unlike the previous two mentioned, this one uses the baking of a casserole and the boiling with milk. 

Randolph, Mary, and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection. The Virginia house-wife. Washington: Printed by Davis and Force, 1824. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/73217897/.

As an inexperienced person in the kitchen, understanding and interpreting this recipe was challenging. Taking the time to cook this recipe, the first difficult part was approximating the quantity of each ingredient. I used as follows:

  • ½ lb of Elbow Macaroni
  • ½ lb Cheddar Cheese
  • 3 tbsp Butter
  • ¼ tsp Salt
  • 2 Cup of Milk
  • 4 Cups of Water
  • Tools: Oven, sieve, pot, casserole plate.

* Greater quantities of these ingredients could’ve been used. The ones used were up to personal judgment.

At the start, I used a 1:1 ratio of water and milk, that is 3 cups of water and 3 cups of milk, but the milk evaporated too fast and the macaronis weren’t boiling. So, then I had to remove some from the pot for it to cook properly. I’d even say the milk is unnecessary since most of the flavor is added from the butter and cheese that is baked. However, the addition of milk in this recipe does provide information about the use of milk during this time. Milk could’ve been boiled in recipes in order to recycle or save milk for it to not go to waste.

Baking this dish adds a toasty flavor, however, one you would taste for instance in the corner of a lasagna. I cooked it for about 23 minutes at 380℉. Nevertheless, the cheese since after it bakes dries quickly wasn’t distributed equally among the macarons. It had some very cheese portions and many with some to no cheese. It’s understandable though since baking macaroni was more common in the 19th century than frying it.

It’s certainly astounding how a recipe can tell you many stories from different perspectives, all fitting into a single 45-minute dish.

References:

  • Bezzone, Francesca. “The Oldest Italian Restaurants in the US.” Life in Italy, November 4, 2022. https://lifeinitaly.com/the-oldest-italian-restaurants-in-the-us/. 
  • Farley, John. The London Art of Cookery, and Housekeeper’s Complete Assistant: On a New Plan. London: printed for J. Scatcherd and J. Whitaker, B. Law, and G. and T. Wilkie, 1787.
  • “History of Pasta.” Share the Pasta, December 13, 2018. https://sharethepasta.org/pasta-101/pasta-iq/history-of-pasta/. 
  • “Italian Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History.” The Library of Congress. Accessed December 4, 2022. https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/italian/. 
  • Kindstedt, Paul. Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization. Chelsea Green, 2012.
  • Lobel, Cindy R. Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York. University Of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • Nystrom, Justin A. Creole Italian: Sicilian Immigrants and the Shaping of New Orleans Food Culture. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2018.
  • Raffald, Elizabeth. The Experienced English Housekeeper: For the Use and Ease of Ladies, Housekeepers, Cooks, &c. …. United Kingdom: R. Baldwin, 1786.
  • Randolph, Mary, and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection. The Virginia house-wife. Washington: Printed by Davis and Force, 1824. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/73217897/.
  • “To Thomas Jefferson from William Short, 11 February 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-14-02-0303. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 14, 8 October 1788 – 26 March 1789, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958, pp. 538–543.]

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