This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Who Invented Mac and Cheese, first released on October 13, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: There’s Four Cheese—cheddar, muenster, gruyere, and a touch of pecorino!
NICOLA TWILLEY: I’m liking the look of La Mancha, which is “a taste of Spain right at your fingertips.” “Flavorful manchego cheese, accented by fresh fennel and onions.” Delicious.
GRABER: Cajun has Andouille sausage, green pepper, onion, celery, garlic, and of course, genuine Cajun seasoning. There’s quite a variety here!
TWILLEY: Yeah, what do you want?
GRABER: I don’t know!
TWILLEY: Oh, you can get a sampler! Done!
GRABER: You might not think that there are so many options of macaroni and cheese available, but there are. And it’s glorious.
TWILLEY: But all these varieties—are they really mac and cheese? Surely the real mac and cheese comes in a blue box?
GRABER: Well, that’s got to be a somewhat recent invention, but the real mac and cheese is certainly American, right?
TWILLEY: Or, maybe not? I mean, pasta is not originally American. I do know that. But you don’t find mac and cheese on the menu in Italy. So where did this dish come from?
GRABER: And how did it get boxed up and fed to children all over North America?
TWILLEY: But also become a staple of soul food, and the centerpiece of Sunday night dinners for African Americans around the country?
GRABER: All this, and a few tips for the perfect homemade mac and cheese of your own. This episode is a special sponsored episode, it’s been brought to you by Undeniably Dairy.
ALLISON AREVALO: So I think of macaroni and cheese as a very specific dish. I think it’s different from other kinds of pastas that have cheese in it. It’s a specific thing that has bechamel, it has cheese, and it has elbow macaroni. It’s—you know it’s thick and gooey and oozy and you know you just have these little noodles that also—I mean, it reminds you of childhood.
TWILLEY: This is Allison Arevalo. She’s the founder of Pasta Friday in Oakland and she has a new cookbook that’s coming out in 2019. She is also a bona fide mac and cheese expert.
AREVALO; So I was the co-founder of a mac and cheese restaurant in Oakland, Homeroom, that served 12 different kinds of mac and cheese, lots of homemade desserts, and fresh side dishes. And yeah, I owned Homeroom for seven years. So mac and cheese was my life for a very long time.
GRABER: Allison had been dreaming for a long time about opening a restaurant, and then she and a partner decided mac and cheese would be their focus.
AREVALO: When we were building it out almost everyone that I told including my parents was, like, Are you really going to make a—build a restaurant that only has mac and cheese? Like, really, you’re crazy, what are you thinking?
TWILLEY: People suggested she could also serve pizza. Maybe even burgers.
AREVALO: And I was, like, No it’s going to—like, it’s mac and cheese. We will have desserts, we’ll have some side dishes but that’s going to be—that’s the thing. And everyone really thought that I was crazy for even considering this. But then when it opened we had lines down the block every night for years. You know, it was really way more popular than I ever even thought.
GRABER: Her customers came multiple times a week. They brought their prom dates. They proposed marriage there. Because everyone loves a good mac and cheese.
AREVALO: Yeah, people are really just drawn to it. They’re drawn to the feeling they get when they eat it. It’s a celebratory food too. You eat it when you’re celebrating birthdays or graduations. It’s comforting if you’re going through a breakup. Or you know lots of people come if they have someone who’s sick or in the hospital, they’ll pick up mac and cheese and bring it to them.
TWILLEY: For Allison, mac and cheese feels like a universal. One of those things that everybody loves. But there’s one particular group of Americans that claims it as their own.
MILLER: Mac and cheese is so ingrained in African-American culture and soul food that believe it or not there are African Americans who believe that we invented macaroni and cheese. So they think it’s something that white people stole just like rock and roll.
GRABER: Yes, we did actually steal rock and roll. But did we steal mac and cheese, too? That is something we’re going to investigate this episode with the help of an expert
MILLER: Yeah, I am Adrian Miller, the soulfood scholar, and my tagline is dropping knowledge like hot biscuits.
TWILLEY: Adrian wrote a book about soul food. It’s called Soul Food. And it has chapters on fried chicken and black eye peas and candied yams.
MILLER: I wasn’t planning to include macaroni and cheese in my book because it has such a clear European provenance that I didn’t think there was a unique African-American angle. But I got so much peer pressure from my African-American friends—really, threats that they were going to slap me upside the head if I didn’t include it—that I just buckled to peer pressure and included it in the book.
GRABER: So Adrian bowed to his friend’s insistence and dug into macaroni and cheese. And he realized it truly is deeply ingrained throughout African-American culture.
MILLER: Because even though soul food is cast as this monolithic thing, there is a lot of regional variety between how soul food ingredients are prepared, you know, whether they show up on menus or not. But mac and cheese is one of those constants that you see anywhere you go in the country.
TWILLEY: And, just like at Allison’s restaurant, Adrian says that there’s a mac and cheese for every occasion in African-American culture, from the humble convenience meal to the competitive potluck mac and cheese or the more luxurious version you save for Sunday night dinner.
MILLER: You may have three or four cheeses there. You’re going to have some rich ingredients. You may have a little meat in there. You may have some more vegetables you know something that’s going to be kind of over the top that takes more time. You’ll probably save that for a Sunday dinner, a family reunion, or funeral, or any other kind of occasion that calls for you to rise to your, you know, magic abilities as a cook.
GRABER: So all Americans think mac and cheese is theirs. African Americans think they particularly of all Americans own the dish.
SASHA CHAPMAN: And it’s also Canada’s de facto national dish.
TWILLEY: A bold claim there, from a Canadian. Sasha Chapman is a journalist based in Toronto. And in an article for the The Walrus magazine, she made a strong case for mac and cheese really being Canadian.
CHAPMAN: Canadians eat more Kraft Dinner than any other group of people on the planet per capita.
TWILLEY: Kraft Dinner is Canadian shorthand for boxed mac and cheese.
GRABER: Sasha’s not done with the list of reasons that Canada can claim the dish. She also pointed out that James Kraft—he’s the guy whose company is practically synonymous with macaroni and cheese—he’s actually Canadian!
CHAPMAN: He grew up on a dairy farm in Ontario and with sixty five dollars in his pocket made his way across the border to Chicago and decided to invent processed cheese.
TWILLEY: This mac and cheese ownership debate seems like precisely the kind of mystery Gastropod should wade into and make even more confusing before potentially solving. What do you say Cynthia?
GRABER: I think we’re up for the challenge. But the first thing to do is to figure out where the dish originally comes from. Meals don’t usually spring forth from someone’s mind, like a totally new invention. This dish had to have origins somewhere. So—macaroni. That’s Italian. Shall we look to Italy?
TWILLEY: Allison is Italian American. Her great grandmother was born in Italy.
AREVALO: So my great grandmother used to cook me this dish. I mean I—it’s like sad to say how often I ate this because it was one of the only things I wanted to eat when I was a kid. But it was long noodles. It was spaghetti that had butter and parmesan cheese and she made it a certain way and it was all I wanted to eat. And it was so good. And it wasn’t mac and cheese.
GRABER: Nope. It turns out that if you travel around Italy, you are unlikely to find anything like mac and cheese.
TWILLEY: Allison’s own great grandmother would never have made mac and cheese. So when Allison opened a mac and cheese only restaurant…
AREVALO: She loves cooking shows and she was always watching the Food Network. And so she knew what mac and cheese was and she knew that American love mac and cheese. But she didn’t understand why I was doing it. She’s, like, really? She’s, like, well, what about my recipes? You know, are you going to focus on any of your Italian recipes? I’m, like, well, not this time.
TWILLEY: Cacio e pepe—that’s a classic, cheesy Italian pasta. And it’s delicious. But it’s not mac and cheese. It’s not creamy enough.
GRABER: That’s because it’s just grated cheese on pasta, and then the starch in the pasta water helps the cheese form a sauce. Because you can’t just grate cheese on to pasta and get that super creamy sauce like you get with mac and cheese.
AREVALO: Yeah, I mean, if you try to melt it straight onto the pasta you’re going to get clumps. It’s not going to uniformly melt into a sauce.
AREVALO: I mean, if you add some of the pasta water, the cooking water, it will help a little bit but it’ll be grainy, it’ll be clumpy, it’s not—it won’t be a uniform sauce.
TWILLEY: This cacio e pepe style, emulsified pasta-water-and-grated-cheese version of a cheese sauce—it’s actually much closer to historic recipes for cheesy pasta.
GRABER: The earliest recipe we know of so far is from the 1300s. It’s a Neapolitan cookbook called Liber de Coquina, and it’s a recipe for squares of cooked pasta that are sprinkled with grated cheese. The next earliest mention comes from England.
MILLER: There was a cookbook published in the late 1390s called The Forme of Cury and that was the go-to cookbook for the Royal Court of England. And in that book, the recipe is pretty much just boiled pasta, butter, and Parmesan cheese.
TWILLEY: I’d eat that. But it’s not mac and cheese.
AREVALO: It definitely would not be the mac and cheese that you think of when you think of like the comforting mac and cheese.
GRABER: To make that, you need something called bechamel.
AREVALO: Bechamel is really what holds it all together. It’s what makes it creamy.
TWILLEY: A bechamel sauce starts with a roux, which is flour and butter, and hot milk.
AREVALO: So when you’re making the roux, first you want to melt the butter. And then you cook the flour into the butter.
GRABER: When you do this, the flour particles swell, this makes the mixture thicker. And those flour particles also get coated with fat, and this keeps the fat in the butter or eventually the cheese from clumping up.
TWILLEY: But what also happens is the long starch molecules in the flour—they rearrange themselves. Some of them cross-connect, making the sauce even thicker. Some of them split into shorter chains, so it’s less quick to congeal on the plate. It’s truly a beautiful thing.
AREVALO: So you keep whisking, you’re slowly adding the milk a little at a time, whisking, whisking. And then, the bechamel will start to form. And, as you keep cooking, it will get thicker and thicker.
GRABER: So now you have a super smooth, thick sauce, and this is the perfect base. Now you can add in cheese.
AREVALO: And you want to do all of this over low heat. If you add the cheese and you have it over high heat the cheese is really—it’s going to get super grainy and it just it just won’t taste very good and it won’t look very good. The sauce will start to separate. So you want to do it over low heat. Melt the cheese and then add the pasta and then you mix it all together.
GRABER: And then often you put it in the oven and bake it, maybe with some crispy breadcrumbs on top. Mmm.
TWILLEY: They do have bechamel in Italy. But the pasta dish you mostly find it in is lasagne. There isn’t a stand-alone bechamel cheese noodle dish on most Italian menus.
GRABER: So it seems like mac and cheese isn’t really Italian. But where is it from, and how did it come to take over America? And Canada?
TWILLEY: To find out, we need to go to Switzerland.
GRABER: So back to macaroni and cheese. We’ve decided Italy probably isn’t the source of the creamy goodness. But Italy has a neighbor that seems to be a more likely suspect.
TWILLEY: Switzerland. Specifically, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Which, to be fair, was Italian for big chunks of history.
IMHOF: Some parts belonged to Lombardia for a long time. On the other side there were parts of Italy which belonged to Switzerland. So it must always mix and back, and coming and going with recipes, products.
GRABER: Paul Imhof is the author of a series of books on Swiss food.
TWILLEY: For the books, Paul created an inventory of typical Swiss dishes. And there was one in particular that you find on restaurant menus and in homes all over Switzerland.
IMHOF: It’s dish called Älplermagrone.
GRABER: Älplermagrone—that is, Alpine herder macaroni, the macaroni dish for herders who live in the Alps.
IMHOF: I mean you cook pasta, then in some parts together a little bit some potatoes, magrone or macaroni. You cook them. With onions, cream in it or not or butter. And then cheese.
TWILLEY: The Swiss typically serve this heavy, creamy, carby delight with some applesauce. But otherwise it sounds a lot like… mac and cheese.
GRABER: And it goes way back in the history of the Swiss Alps. Or the Italian Alps.
IMHOF: The oldest recipe we found is in the cookbook of Maestro Martino which is famous cookbook in Italy in the Middle Ages. And this man came from from a today Swiss alpine valley, Valle di Blenio. At that time it belonged to one of the dukes in Northern Italy.
TWILLEY: Maestro Martino—a Swiss guy who cooked for an Italian duke in the 1500s— he described making pasta with tube in the middle and then mixing it with butter and cream and cheese.
IMHOF: So actually you have really a base of this macaroni and cheese or älplermagrone.
GRABER: So this sounds a little bit closer. And in fact the curvy tubular shape of the pasta itself, the elbow shape we associate with macaroni and cheese, Paul says that seems to have come from Switzerland, too.
TWILLEY: So maybe the original mac and cheese is Alpine—like Italian food redesigned by the Swiss for hungry herders with a lot of cream and gruyere?
GRABER: This seems a little more convincing, though of course it’s not totally 100 percent settled. Historians, let us know if you come up with anything new. In any case, by the late 1700s, a creamy cheesy mac-and-cheese-style casserole was popular in both England and France. That’s where one of our founding fathers encountered it.
AREVALO: So Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing mac and cheese into the United States. And apparently he brought it back from France.
MILLER: Yes, Thomas Jefferson gets a lot of the credit but that’s really not true. If you look at manuscript cookbooks in the United States even before Jefferson’s time, people were serving something that was similar to macaroni and cheese in their households. They often called it macaroni pudding. But what you find in that time period is a lot of wealthier Americans who go visit Europe get exposed the dish and fall in love with it and bring it back.
TWILLEY: Thomas Jefferson was just one of these wealthy Americans who fell under the mac and cheese spell. He was introduced to it while he was living in Paris as minister to France in the 1780s.
MILLER: And then when his time is up as minister of France on his way back to United States he actually instructs some of his underlings to smuggle a macaroni maker from Europe back to the United States. because at that time the Italians had macaroni making on lockdown. So he had a series mac and cheese jones.
GRABER: Jefferson may not have been the first American to fall in love with this dish, but, to be fair, it’s not really a myth that he introduced it to America. After all, he had a little more influence than most people. Apparently he served macaroni and cheese in the White House.
TWILLEY: Although not all his guests appreciated it. Take a gentleman named Manasseh Cutler who came round for supper on a February evening in 1802.
MILLER: He shows up to dinner and he just really didn’t know what to make of mac and cheese, because he’s just never experienced it. So he thought the pasta noodles were giant onions. He wrote in his diary later that it was disagreeable and had a strong taste. So I’m not sure what Jefferson’s cooks put in that mac and cheese. And in fact he had to ask the guy sitting next to him at that dinner to explain what the dish was. And the person who explained it to Representative Cutler was Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
GRABER: We’re not sure whether Representative Cutler ever became a fan. But during the early days of mac and cheese in America, this is also when it starts to become an African-American dish. Because just like with Thomas Jefferson, the rich white people who loved the dish were not the ones who made it.
MILLER: Typically in the especially in the big houses of the large plantations, enslaved African Americans were the ones doing the cooking. So that’s probably where most African-American cooks got their expertise.
TWILLEY: At this point African Americans were not enjoying the mac and cheese they prepared. But even after emancipation, it was a dish that was reserved for special occasions.
MILLER: Early on macaroni and cheese was a very expensive dish because you had to use a certain type of pasta that was made with a certain type of wheat, and Parmesan cheese was hugely expensive.
GRABER: Parmesan came from overseas, durum pasta wheat did, too. But, over time, American farmers bred and grew wheat much more cheaply here, and they started to make more and more cheese, and that started to come down in price, too.
MILLER: So then, this very expensive dish becomes much cheaper and starts to become accessible to a lot more households.
TWILLEY: But the ingredients didn’t just become cheaper—they started changing into something more… American.
MILLER: So cheddar cheese replaces the Parmesan cheese.
GRABER: Cheddar cheese is a pretty popular variety here in the U.S., but there’s another change afoot for the cheese. And this is where the Canadians come in to the story.
CHAPMAN: So James Kraft grew up on a dairy farm and began working as a clerk in a little general store near Lake Erie. And he noticed that often the cheddar cheese that they would get into the store would start to mold, it would go off. I think he describes it as being marketed in a state of extinct virtue.
TWILLEY: This is at the end of the 1800s. Canada produced a lot of cheddar—it was second only to timber in the country’s exports. But it was, apparently, a fairly unreliable product in terms of quality. And James Kraft moved across the border to Chicago with only 65 dollars in his pocket and a determination to do something about that.
CHAPMAN: So he decided he wanted to create a much more shelf stable product. You know, at the time few people had refrigerators. It took a lot longer to deliver foods from farms to cities.
GRABER: And the cheddar would arrive—not so delicious. So to create cheddar that wouldn’t go bad, Kraft figured out a way to basically sterilize the cheese—his first patent was in 1916, and it described a method for melting cheese and cooking it long enough to kill the microbes, then stirring it quickly as it cooled with pasteurized milk. Then he could seal the whole thing up, and it’d last much longer.
TWILLEY: Later, Kraft improved his process, incorporating a discovery made by a couple of Swiss inventors—yes, back to Switzerland again—to make his cheese product even more stable.
CHAPMAN: And the way to do this was to use emulsifying salts, like citric acid and phosphate. Which would allow the the processor to exchange the calcium in the milk proteins for salt. And salt of course is a preservative.
GRABER: And this new processed cheese lasts forever. American cheese is born. But you’ve probably guessed—I mean, his name is Kraft—you’ve probably guessed that this is going to come back to macaroni and cheese.
CHAPMAN: So there was a salesman in St. Louis who was selling pasta and decided to start taking Kraft grated cheese and attaching it to boxes of pasta with a rubber band. And this is how he sold it to consumers in St. Louis.
TWILLEY: This was during the Depression. People were working long hours, they were looking for cheap ways to feed their families. And the convenient marriage of macaroni and processed cheese fit the bill.
CHAPMAN: Well it was so popular that Kraft—the Kraft company caught wind of this and decided to start marketing it themselves. So Kraft Dinner was introduced in 1937.
GRABER: This is the story of how that blue box of little elbow pasta and powdered cheese, this is the story of how it came to be! Kraft began selling boxed macaroni and cheese, and they’ve never stopped. And this is also how it became more of an everyday dish for the poor—and among those poor were African-Americans.
MILLER: And so it transitioned from something that rich people ate on occasion to something that was more common during the week.
TWILLEY: In fact, mac and cheese became something that relief agencies advocated as a good way to stretch your food dollar and meet your family’s nutritional needs.
MILLER: Yeah, that, and then you have the school lunch program which incorporates macaroni and cheese as well. So there’s all these different angles, high and low, where mac and cheese becomes part of the African-American diet.
GRABER: Today, macaroni and cheese can still sometimes be what you make to get you through to the next paycheck.
CHAPMAN: And if you are somebody who uses a food bank it may be a symbol of poverty. It may be a symbol of what happens at the end of the month when you have to crack open those boxes and eat yet another night of Kraft Dinner.
TWILLEY: But that’s not all mac and cheese is today.
GRABER: The boxed version can be convenient and appealing—even to someone like Allison who made gourmet versions of mac and cheese for a living
AREVALO: You know, I have two young boys at home—I have a four and a 6 year old and they love it both ways. And I remember someone—a friend of mine came over and I have a whole drawer full of pasta at my house and I also have two boxes of the boxed mac and cheese in there. And he opened the drawers, he’s like, Are you kidding? You have boxed mac and cheese? I have young kids. I can’t—I don’t always have the time to make them the fresh mac and cheese if they want it. And sometimes they really love the boxed one. So, yes. So I have it.
TWILLEY: The box is cheap, the box is quick, and the box is also kind of a blank slate for self expression. Sasha didn’t grow up eating boxed mac and cheese—she has a super crunchy granola mum who made everything from scratch. But she still remembers her first encounter with the box mix fondly.
CHAPMAN: I do. So it was in first year of university and I was in residence and somebody had a box of Kraft Dinner and made it for me. And then it became kind of a mark of pride for people to doctor up the Kraft Dinner and turn it into something gourmet and you know add a bit of Dijon mustard, add some salami to it. You know, add all sorts of other things to turn it into something special.
GRABER: This is just what I did in my early 20s—I’d add small pieces of broccoli and hot sauce to boxed mac and cheese to make it into a meal.
TWILLEY: I mean, add-ins are half the fun. Mac and cheese is definitely something you don’t have to be a purist about. Allison developed dozens of different versions for her restaurant.
AREVALO: We wanted to have all different kinds of cheeses and all different kinds of add-ins.
GRABER: There were a few that were always on the menu.
AREVALO: We always had a Mexican Mac on the menu and that one had chipotle peppers and chorizo and lime and cilantro. One of the other ones was a goat cheese mac and that was like a lighter also more like sophisticated mac and cheese. That one always came baked with bread crumbs and had a drizzle of olive oil and thinly sliced scallions inside. That one was also really great.
TWILLEY: Not all of these creative mac and cheese varieties were hits
AREVALO: Like, it sounds great when it’s in your head and then you make you’re, like, oh that was—that was terrible. Let’s not do that again. You know, we did one that had like bacon and gruyere and caramelized onions and it sounds like that would be delicious but it is so sweet and just—it was not good.
GRABER: But mac and cheese—other than a few misses, it’s nearly always good. And Allison nearly always wanted to eat it.
AREVALO: There were definitely days that I did not want to eat mac and cheese anymore more. I’m like, oh my gosh. Especially, like, recipe testing days. Like, I cannot look at anymore mac and cheese. But yeah it was still a dish that I loved eating, that I would love—you know coming into work and I would order mac and cheese for lunch. And you know I didn’t really get bored of it. But yeah, it’s just, I don’t know, it just had this special place in my heart but I just couldn’t give it up.
TWILLEY: That’s just it: mac and cheese has a special place in North American hearts. Even when it’s hard to digest.
GRABER: And this is why it’s actually surprising that it’s such a mainstay of an African-American Sunday dinner.
MILLER: Well, I think it’s an outlier because of the cheese element. You don’t really find a lot of cheese in African American cooking in the traditional sense. And I think that a lot of that goes back to kind of West Africa. What I found in my studies is that there’s a higher incidence of lactose intolerance in people of African heritage, particularly West African heritage.
TWILLEY: Eating something that creamy, that cheesy, when you can’t digest lactose—that’s dedication. So mac and cheese is for sure African American. But it’s also American in general. And Canadian. And kind of Swiss?
GRABER: And everyone claims mac and cheese and loves the dish because it’s more than just noodles and cheese sauce.
MILLER: It’s really kind of about home, community. And again it was just something that people looked forward to that was not only delicious, but just reminded you of the love that somebody had for you.
TWILLEY: Thanks to Allison Arevalo of Pasta Friday, Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food, journalist Sasha Chapman, and Paul Imhof— we have links to their work on our website at gastropod.com.
GRABER: We’ll be back next week with our regular programming!