There is a popular meme that gains traction 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 term is fun and relatable because mac and cheese really is that right for so many of us. It is the center of the page, the pot of consequence. Everyone wants a piece and everyone has 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 combining pasta and fresh cheese can be traced to 160 BCE. and the treatise of the Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato De Agri Cultura. From the beginning, macaroni and cheese was made for rituals and holidays, meant to please 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 to 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 has endured and evolved, appearing in cookbooks throughout the 12th century.th and 13th centuries. It was also mentioned in English cookery books from as early as 1390.
Over the years, the name has changed, although the concept has remained the same. Pasta layered with cheese has become known as “placenta,” “lasani,” “lasagne,” “makerouns,” “Roman macaroni,” and “vermachelly.” By the 18th century, the French had adapted the meal to the creamy version we know today. From 1784 to 1789, Thomas Jefferson visited Paris and returned to America with two cases of macaroni, serving the dish to visiting voters. This decadent dish wowed American palates and became a showpiece on the founders’ tables. Which brings us to the considerable legacy of an enslaved cook named James Hemings.
Thanks to a 1948 Budweiser ad that falsely billed him as “our first spaghetti maker,” Thomas Jefferson has been portrayed as a kind of founding foodie whose travels diversified his appetite. He has been depicted as responsible for the introduction of ice cream, French fries, and macaroni and cheese into American diets, with the Monticello Library sharing many documents on macaroni.
“Hundreds of people were enslaved at Monticello, including members of the Hemings family.”
In 1793, Jefferson had a pasta press sent to his home, and there are notes on the pasta machine in Jefferson’s own handwriting. Despite the evidence of these documents and a recipe for macaroni in Jefferson’s own hand, Monticello acknowledges that this recipe was likely dictated to him by one of his cooks. It is said that Jefferson only entered the kitchen to set the clock, and the meals served at his popular dinners were all created by a talented team of enslaved cooks. They were responsible for the correct preparation and the resulting popularity of the dishes served. They deserve recognition and praise for their lasting contributions to the food culture of America.
Hundreds of people were enslaved at Monticello, including members of the Hemings family. Elizabeth Hemings was the matriarch of the family that came to include a third of the population of Monticello. Of her eleven children, we know most about her daughter Sally and her son James, the latter of whom worked as a valet before being sent to France with Jefferson for instruction in “the art of cooking” in 1784. In 1787 he had become Jefferson’s chef de cuisine in France.
There is much to learn about James Heming’s life. On Netflix, the award-winning documentary series “High on the Hog” takes viewers into the kitchens at Monticello, where his mac and cheese recipe is prepared by culinary historian Dr. Leni Sorensen and enjoyed by Gayle Jessup White, community engagement officer at Monticello and a descendant of the Hemings family. There, before the stewing stove and hearth of the kitchens at Monticello, they discuss the history of mac and cheese, particularly the role of James Hemings in helping to popularize it in the United States. In addition, the documentary “Ghost in America’s Kitchen” by chef Ashbell McElveen takes a closer look at Hemings’ many undeniable historical contributions, rightfully placing his legacy as America’s culinary founding father.
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“On social media, you’ll find videos and tweets claiming Hemings invented macaroni and cheese, despite the earliest documented recipes appearing in cookbooks hundreds of years before his birth.”
“The most important thing to know about James Hemings – and I encourage you to watch the documentary on Prime made by my friend Chef Ashbell; is that he played an active role in the synthesis between European sensibilities, American ingredients and African-Virginian know-how and culinary intellect . Hundreds of years of knowledge flowed through his hands into the food he created. He created Southern fine dining and gave it a birth date,” says Michael Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South ,” to ESSENCE.
On social media, you’ll find videos and tweets claiming Hemings invented macaroni and cheese, despite the earliest documented recipes appearing in cookbooks hundreds of years before his birth. But we able to thank you Hemings for helping popularize the dish at state. The first recorded mention of mac and cheese being enjoyed at Monticello was in 1802, and we know that Hemings had likely made the dish there before his death a year earlier.
Adrian Miller, author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue” and two-time Beard Foundation winner explains Hemings’ influence this way: “It’s a story that I think is a metaphor for African American cooking and our experience. in this country. It’s the story of innovation and virtuosity. Often African-American chefs are overlooked for our contributions. So I think to even know that there was an African-American man trained in classical European cooking who could make this dish is a story of triumph and about himself. I think that’s why this story endures.”
Karima Moyer-Nocchi notes that although macaroni and cheese originated as a Roman feast food, it is loved and embraced by cultures around the world, and a loving sense of ownership abounds. Macaroni pie is a dish in Scotland (where it is made with a hot water crust pie shell). In my home country of Trinidad and Tobago, it’s a hearty, baked stew served weekly as a centerpiece of our Sunday lunch tradition. Moyer-Nocchi also informed me of an Indonesian version of mac and cheese that was brought in through the Dutch. The combination of noodles and dairy products served at American tables resonates in cultures around the world.
“It’s a matter of culinary identity,” says Moyer-Nocci. “We use food to define ‘our group’ and denote membership. Food in our culinary identity makes us feel like we belong to something meaningful that is bigger than ourselves. It is our piece of eternity.”
“The most important advice I can give is don’t mess with family recipes without approval, especially during the holidays!”
For first timers preparing a dish of the baked gooey goodness, anxiety is sure to rise. How do you perfect a dish so long-awaited and certain to be scrutinized? The OG recipe by James Hemings was made with noodles cooked in a half-milk, half-water mixture, so there’s one way to start: adding silkiness to your dish and paying homage to the chef who helped popularize it in the U.S.
Now, if you have an old family recipe, follow it. It’s probably not the best time to experiment unless you’re prepared to be roasted by your relatives and social media as a whole. “The most important piece of advice I can give is don’t mess with family recipes without approval, especially during the holidays!” implores Michael Twitty. So the Caribbean macaroni pie with the colorful pimentos that looked good on the Gram? Maybe save it for a regular Sunday brunch. For Thanksgiving, it’s all about tradition.
If you’re still worried, Adrian Miller advises a rehearsal before your presentation. “I suggest maybe doing a practice run and getting an aunt or two to test it and say, ‘Oh no honey, you have to do this or that.’ It’s just a matter of finding the sweet spot,” says he. “I always tell people to go for the Sunday casserole method, not the cheese sauce with noodles, because it’s a special occasion and so this deserves a little extra care.”
James Hemings’ culinary skills helped elevate cooking in the kitchens at Monticello, and the techniques he perfected were passed down through the ages. So in many ways, Hemings left a significant impact on American history. The next time you bite into a creamy, delicious bite of mac and cheese, remember James Hemings and the flavor he brought to the side dish we’re so passionate about.