From Comfort to Classic: The History of Southern Mac And Cheese

From Comfort to Classic: The History of Southern Mac And Cheese

by Esme Addison

I love macaroni and cheese. The cheesier and buttery the better. So it was with great delight that I discovered the interesting stories behind such a beloved southern dish. Macaroni and cheese has a long and rich history, tracing its roots back to Italy before becoming a staple dish in the South. I’ll be exploring the journey this beloved comfort food traveled from its early beginnings to its current popularity in Southern cuisine. Get ready to delve into the history of southern mac and cheese.

Catherine de Medici’s Influence on Mac and Cheese: From Italy to French Royalty

Catherine de Medici, the wife of King Henry II of France, is often credited with bringing macaroni and cheese to France from her native Italy. Macaroni and cheese was originally known as “Maccheroni alla parmigiana” in Italy, and was a dish made with baked layers of pasta, tomato sauce, and grated Parmesan cheese. It was considered a luxury dish, enjoyed only by the wealthy due to the expensive ingredients used.

However, when Catherine de Medici married King Henry II and moved to France, she brought her love of Italian cuisine with her, including macaroni and cheese. The dish quickly became popular among the French royalty, and was soon enjoyed by the wealthy throughout Europe. The dish was adapted to local tastes, with different cheeses and ingredients being used in each country.

Catherine de Medici brought Mac & Cheese to France.

In France, the dish was typically made with béchamel sauce and Gruyère cheese, and was often served at royal banquets and special events. The dish was considered a delicacy, and was seen as a symbol of wealth and status. Over time, macaroni and cheese became a staple dish in French cuisine, and remains popular to this day.

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Thomas Jefferson & James Hemmings: Father & Chef

Thomas Jefferson and James Hemmings had a unique and complicated relationship, as Hemmings was the brother of Sally Hemings, the young slave woman who gave Jefferson six children. They were in Paris during Jefferson’s tenure as the American minister to France, where James was given the opportunity to receive culinary training.

While in Paris, James Hemmings learned the recipe for macaroni and cheese pie. The original recipe consisted of a combination of imported macaroni noodles, Parmesan cheese, and a creamy béchamel sauce. The dish was considered a delicacy and was typically served to the wealthy.

Thomas Jefferson discovered Mac & Cheese in France.
James Hemmings recreated Mac & Cheese. (Not really Hemmings!)

James Hemmings, considered the first African-American chef brought the recipe for macaroni and cheese pie back to Virginia with him after his time in Paris and served it at state dinners.

A Pioneer of Southern Cuisine

Mary Randolph was a prominent figure in Virginia society in the early 19th century, and was known for her exceptional cooking skills. She was a distant relative of Thomas Jefferson and was said to have been close with the former President and his family.

In 1824, Mary published “The Virginia House-Wife,” a cookbook that aimed to capture the flavors and traditions of Southern cuisine at the time. The cookbook was considered a groundbreaking work, as it was one of the first cookbooks to be written by a Southern woman and to feature recipes that reflected the unique tastes of Southern cuisine.

One of the most notable recipes in “The Virginia House-Wife” is for macaroni and cheese, which was a popular dish in the early 19th century. The recipe called for boiling macaroni and then tossing it with grated cheese, cream, and butter before baking it in the oven. The dish was considered a luxury, as the ingredients were expensive and not readily available to everyone.

Mary Randolph, author of The Virginia Housewife popularized Mac & Cheese in her cookbook of southern recipes.

The inclusion of macaroni and cheese in “The Virginia House-Wife” helped to popularize the dish in the South and cement its place as a staple of Southern cuisine. Mary’s cookbook remains an important reference for Southern food enthusiasts and culinary historians, and her macaroni and cheese recipe is still widely enjoyed today.

The History Of Southern Food

Regional Variations of Macaroni and Cheese

Southern Macaroni And Cheese

Southern Mac and Cheese has been a staple dish in the Southern United States since its first recorded appearance in Mary Randolph’s cookbook, “The Virginia House-Wife”. In the centuries since, the dish has evolved and become a staple in Southern cuisine. Over time, the dish has been adopted and adapted by different regions, with each adding their own unique spin. For example, in the 20th century, the addition of breadcrumbs became a popular topping for the dish. Mac and Cheese has also become a popular side dish at family gatherings and holiday meals, as well as a staple in soul food restaurants and other Southern dining establishments. Today, Southern Mac and Cheese remains a beloved dish, with countless variations and creative twists being developed all the time.

Southern macaroni and cheese is known for its creamy, indulgent texture and rich, cheesy flavor. It often uses a blend of cheddar, American, and Parmesan cheeses, melted into a sauce made from butter, flour, and milk. The pasta is then baked until golden and bubbly, resulting in a comforting dish perfect for a cold day.

Macaroni and cheese prepared in other parts of the country is often more straightforward and simple. It typically uses only cheddar cheese and has a sauce made from just butter, flour, and milk. The pasta is boiled and then mixed with the sauce before being baked until golden and crispy. This version of the dish is known for its crispy, crunchy texture and tangy, cheesy flavor.

Southern macaroni and cheese often incorporates ingredients such as breadcrumbs or bacon to add extra flavor and texture. Other parts of the country may also include breadcrumbs, but they are usually used for a crispy topping instead of being incorporated into the dish.

Black Folks Macaroni and Cheese

Black folks macaroni and cheese, also known as soul food macaroni and cheese, is a variation with roots in the African American community.

The main difference between black folks macaroni and cheese and southern macaroni and cheese lies in the ingredients and seasonings used. Southern macaroni and cheese is often made with a blend of milk, butter, salt and cheddar cheese, while black folks macaroni and cheese is typically made with a combination of sharp cheddar, American, mozzarella, Colby Jack, and cream cheese. Half and half, evaporated milk or heavy cream may also be added to the cheese sauce for extra creaminess.

Southern macaroni and cheese may also include ingredients such as salt and pepper, and breadcrumbs or Panko breadcrumbs, which are used as a topping to add crunch and texture to the dish. Black folks macaroni and cheese, on the other hand, is often seasoned with ingredients such as garlic, mustard and onion powder, smoked paprika or hot sauce, which give it a bold and spicy flavor. Both dishes are creamy and delicious, but the differences in ingredients and seasonings make each one unique. Black folks macaroni and cheese is often baked until crispy, making it a staple dish for family gatherings and holidays.

As macaroni and cheese has become a classic entree in Southern cuisine, many modern variations of the classic dish have emerged, incorporating new ingredients and cooking techniques to add new flavors and textures.

Mac And Cheese Gets Fancy

Here are some of the more popular new versions of mac and cheese that are particularly popular in the South:

Gourmet Macaroni and Cheese

Gourmet mac and cheese often involves incorporating unique ingredients and elevating the traditional dish with high-quality cheeses and other premium ingredients. Some popular examples of gourmet mac and cheese include: Truffle Mac and Cheese: Made with the addition of truffle oil or truffle shavings, this version of mac and cheese is rich, indulgent, and perfect for foodies; and Four Cheese Mac and Cheese: Made with a combination of sharp cheddar, gouda, fontina, and parmesan, this version is cheesy and indulgent.

Bacon Macaroni and Cheese:

As the name suggests, this version of the dish incorporates bacon, which adds smoky flavor and a salty crunch to the dish. Bacon macaroni and cheese is a popular dish in Southern diners and BBQ joints, and is often served as a side dish.

Buffalo Macaroni and Cheese

This version of the dish incorporates spicy buffalo sauce, which adds a bold and tangy flavor to the dish. Buffalo macaroni and cheese is a popular dish in Southern sports bars and is often served as a game-day snack.

Seafood Macaroni and Cheese

This variation typically includes seafood such as crab, shrimp, or lobster, as well as other ingredients like cheese, cream, and pasta. The exact ingredients used in seafood mac and cheese can vary greatly, with some recipes incorporating ingredients like old bay seasoning or breadcrumbs for crunch.

Southern mac and cheese is a versatile dish that has been a staple in American cuisine for generations. It can be enjoyed in its simplest form or elevated with various ingredients to create a gourmet dish. Whether you prefer a creamy stovetop version, a baked classic, or a spicy twist, there is a mac and cheese recipe out there for everyone.

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