Thursday, March 5, 2020

Mac and Cheese--A Bit of History

While surfing the Internet the other week, I found two different videos giving two different recipes from two different periods for a dish we consider an "old" favorite today.

We call that dish "macaroni and cheese."

But although the boxed mixes we often use to make it today date back no earlier than the 20th century, written recipes for very similar dishes go back at least 700 years. Moreover, The Food Timeline avers that the combination of pasta and cheese goes back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, though they date elbow macaroni, the type of pasta most often used for macaroni and cheese today, to the beginning of the 20th century.

The videos I found on YouTube appear to the right of this post.  The top one is from the Townsends channel. That channel belongs to Jas. Townsend & Son, Inc., a company that sells reproduction clothing and artifacts (including historical cookbooks and kitchen tools) for reenactors engaged in portraying the 18th and early 19th centuries.  They have posted numerous videos showing them cooking period recipes using period techniques and equipment.  The Townsend video shows their best recreation of the dish using a recipe from an 1784 book by a man named John Farley called The Art of Cookery. It is made by adding cooked pasta to a skillet with heavy cream and a ball of butter rolled in flour, stirring until the butter and cream combine.  Then Parmesan cheese is sprinkled on top, and a hot piece of iron called a salamander is held over it until the top of the macaroni browns a bit.

The video below the Townsends video comes from English Heritage, a British charity that manages over 400 historic sites in the United Kingdom.  That video shows a reenactor, portraying a cook named Avis Crocombe, who worked as the chief cook at a great house called Audley's End during the middle of the 19th century, making what she calls "macaroni cheese" for the servants' supper.

Mrs. Crocombe's original handwritten notebook of recipes survives to this day, and it's from that book that the recipe shown in the video (translated into modern measures) is taken. Her recipe also uses Parmesan, and is similar to the Townsend recipe, except for two key details:  it is baked like a modern casserole instead of being made in a skillet, and bread crumbs are added to the cheese sprinkled on top to give the meal an extra-crunchy texture.

Intrigued, I did a quick search to see whether Wikipedia could point me toward additional information.  This Wikipedia page indicates that there are similar recipes going back to the 14th century.  A quick search found a copy of one, on the Gode Cookery website, which has been adapted from a 14th century English cookbook called The Forme of Cury.  The Forme of Cury's recipe is called "Makerouns" and it uses pasta made from very thin strips of dough, instead of the tubular pasta we see in the Townsends and English Heritage videos.  It isn't broiled on top, but the cheese and butter sauce shows it to be a cousin of those recipes, and of our mac and cheese today.

The Food Timeline gives a chronological list of various macaroni and cheese recipes, starting with the one in The Forme of Cury, as well as a short history of Kraft's macaroni and cheese, which was introduced in 1937.

Even a reasonably complete history of this dish would be too long to list here, but let's finish this quick look with a survey of cheese choices.  The 18th and 19th century recipes above favor Parmesan, which makes sense since the earliest English recipes appear to have come from Italy.  The Forme of Cury recipe doesn't specify a particular type of cheese, allowing the cook to choose a personal favorite, or whatever cheese was on hand.  Boxed mixes have favored "cheese foods" such as American cheese and Velveeta, and modern made-from-scratch recipes often use cheddar, possibly because both American cheese and Velveeta have a vaguely cheddar-like flavor.  Perhaps The Forme of Cury had the right idea. Use the cheese you prefer in macaroni and cheese, because it is, first and foremost, a comfort food.


  1. I've made the John Farley recipe shown in Jas. Townsend and Son's video (though I use a kitchen blow torch instead of a salamander), and can attest to how successful it is. In fact this is my go-to mac and cheese recipe these days, because it's so quick and easy and it gives such good results. Brilliant for when I'm home late in the winter and can't be bothered cooking.

    1. That's quite a recommendation...if only my husband liked mac-and-cheese! Thanks.