Did James Hemings Bring Macaroni And Cheese To America?

There’s a popular meme that gets traction around this time of year. It says, “You need at least three to five years of work experience and three references to make the Thanksgiving mac and cheese.” The notion is hilarious and relatable, because mac and cheese truly is that dish for so many of us. It is the side centerpiece, the casserole of consequence. Everyone wants a piece, and everyone’s got an opinion. This decadent pasta dish can be traced back to ancient Italy, but to Black families across the diaspora, macaroni and cheese is ours. We can thank James Hemings, a man enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, for bringing the accompaniment to American tables.

Macaroni and cheese as we know it dates back to Roman times. The earliest found mentions of a dish that combines pasta and fresh cheese can be traced to 160 BCE and Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato’s treatise De Agri Cultura. From the beginning, macaroni and cheese was made for rituals and holidays, intended to delight a hungry gathering. Early popular versions of this layered dish were made with cinnamon and sugar before savory versions became the standard.

By the 18th century, the French had adapted the meal into the creamy version we know today.

Italian-based culinary historian Karima Moyer-Nocchi is the author of he Eternal Table – A Cultural History of Food in Rome. She has written extensively on the history of pasta and is currently working on a definitive book on macaroni. Her research reveals that the dish that has endured and evolved, appearing in cookbooks throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. It was also mentioned in English cookbooks from as early as 1390. 

Through the ages, the name has changed, although the concept stayed the same. Pasta layered with cheese has been known as “placenta,” “lasanis,” “lasagne,” “makerouns,” “Roman macaroni,” and “vermachelly.” By the 18th century,…

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