Who Invented Mac and Cheese? This American Favorite Has Ancient Roman Roots

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You’re making up a macaroni and cheese casserole for the neighborhood potluck. As you stir, the plump elbows surrender to the thick, creamy orange cheese sauce. The voluptuous, squishy sound of walking barefoot through mud promises success. A top layer of grated cheese, browned to a golden crust, will add the final irresistible allure to this quintessentially American dish. But how did a combination of cheese and pasta—two European cultural exports—become one of America’s best-known staples?

The most famous version of the story goes like this: Thomas Jefferson brought an enslaved James Hemings to France to study culinary arts. Jefferson not only financed the lavish crash course in gastronomy but smuggled a pasta machine back from Naples so that Hemings could introduce macaroni and cheese to the elite families of the American South. Often, Hemings is left out of the story completely and Jefferson alone is the protagonist. A Budweiser ad from 1948 shows an illustration of Jefferson himself, serving plates of freshly made pasta to fellow forefathers. But that tidy origin story is just an example of a gastromyth—a food-related tall tale that snowballed as it’s been told to new generations. When it comes to macaroni and cheese history, we’ve got a lot more unpacking to do.

Roman party food origins

The earliest mention that we have of pasta and cheese being joined together dates back as far as 160 BCE, when Marcus Porcius Cato, ultraconservative senator of the then Roman Republic, wrote his treatise on running a vast country estate, De Agri Cultura. In it, he included a few recipes for ritual gatherings and holidays that bring together what could be construed as pasta and fresh cheese. “Placenta” (pronounced with a hard c) is one of those. It was made with layers of cheese packed between stacked sheets of whole-grain dough. Festive recipes like these became inextricably linked with the taste of pasta and cheese and thus became embedded in the collective memory as a marker of culinary identity.


Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Kaitlin Wayne



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