Fall Comfort Food: Macaroni and Cheese

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to find all kinds of macaroni and cheese recipes – whether you like this comfort food as a main dish, or perhaps a side dish for your Thanksgiving meal. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

It’s getting cooler and Fall is in the air. I keep seeing online recipes for Fall comfort food. I started wondering what dishes my friends considered “Fall comfort food” so I asked on Facebook. I was surprised that quite a few of my Facebook friends answered that question with a familiar favorite: Macaroni and Cheese.

Photo: two American favorites in one: macaroni and cheese pizza
Photo: two American favorites in one: macaroni and cheese pizza. Credit: Abbamouse; Wikimedia Commons.

That’s a dish that may seem pretty straightforward, but it has evolved over time and it lends itself to some creative interpretations. Served in the United States since the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef Thomas Hemings cooked macaroni and cheese for Jefferson’s guests in Virginia after both men were introduced to the dish in Europe. (1) Since then, macaroni and cheese recipes and mentions have been found in many newspapers.

The 1800s

Not published in a way that is familiar to us, 19th century (and earlier) recipes lack the instructions we have grown accustomed to from reading cookbooks and online recipe websites. These early versions don’t explain what ingredients to gather beforehand, what temperature to cook the dish at, or measurements needed.

That lack of detail is true of this recipe from 1876 that simply tells the cook to break macaroni, wash, put it onto the stove to soak until soft and then begin layering macaroni and “old cheese.” The only measurement mentioned in the recipe is “three tablespoonfuls of milk.”

A recipe for macaroni and cheese, Waupun Leader newspaper article 21 July 1876
Waupun Leader (Waupun, Wisconsin), 21 July 1876, page 4

This 1891 recipe pays homage to macaroni’s Italian roots and as such calls for “Parmesan” cheese. Unlike some macaroni and cheese dishes, this dish is made entirely in a pan.

A recipe for macaroni and cheese, Lafayette Advertiser newspaper article 19 September 1891
Lafayette Advertiser (Vermilionville, Louisiana), 19 September 1891, page 4

As we near the 20th century, standardized measurements start to be used in cooking. This recipe for macaroni and cheese includes a few measurements (“a piece of butter in the size of an egg” and “a handful” of cheese). This recipe includes a top layer of bread crumbs. The entire dish is finished off in a “quick oven.” According to one website I consulted, that would be an oven at 375-400 F degrees. (2)

A recipe for macaroni and cheese, Buffalo News newspaper article 26 November 1894
Buffalo News (Buffalo, New York), 26 November 1894, page 5

The 1900s

This 16 March 1900 edition of the “Daily Household Column” in the Philadelphia Inquirer includes a simple macaroni and cheese recipe and then an “Italian” macaroni recipe labeled as more complex. This recipe is a layered dish that adds beef, salt pork, mushrooms, onion, and tomatoes to macaroni and cheese.

A recipe for macaroni and cheese, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 16 March 1900
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 16 March 1900, page 13

It’s not surprising that, over time, advertisers used the popularity of the dish to promote their own products by introducing new ways to make macaroni and cheese. This 1904 advertisement for Lea & Perrins’ Sauce (Worcestershire) suggests sprinkling some on the finished macaroni and cheese, or making the dish better by adding it to the dish prior to baking.

A recipe for macaroni and cheese, Buffalo News newspaper article 29 June 1904
Buffalo News (Buffalo, New York), 29 June 1904, page 3

By the late 1930s, families could save time by purchasing boxed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. It was inexpensive and a time saver, especially during the World War II years when more women were in the workplace and families had to deal with food rationing.

However, some families continued to make their own mac and cheese by scratch, and even tried to put a new spin on it as influenced by various published recipes. For example, this 1940 Texas recipe adds American cheese and a jar of mustard.

A recipe for macaroni and cheese, San Antonio Light newspaper article 19 January 1940
San Antonio Light (San Antonio, Texas), 19 January 1940, page 32

Macaroni and cheese can be served in something other than a casserole dish. For example, this recipe from 1950 is for a Macaroni Loaf that takes the familiar recipe and adds parsley, onion, pimento, eggs, and ground meat.

A recipe for macaroni and cheese, Detroit Times newspaper article 4 January 1950
Detroit Times (Detroit, Michigan), 4 January 1950, page 14

My favorite macaroni and cheese recipe from the 1990s is found in this “Kid Club” column based on a kindergarten recipe book. One of the kindergarteners, Jon-Paul McCartney, makes it simple and to the point with his recipe.

A recipe for macaroni and cheese, Arkansas Democrat newspaper article 12 February 1990
Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock, Arkansas), 12 February 1990, page 38

2000 and Beyond

As time has gone by, macaroni and cheese recipes have been reimagined. Sure, people still love the tried and true, but many are trying new things with their macaroni. I remember a decade ago discovering a macaroni and cheese “bar” at a local amusement park restaurant. Guests chose toppings to add to their base mac and cheese that included veggies (broccoli, for example), meats (think ham and bacon), and additional sauces (various cheese and hot sauces). That allowed diners to customize their mac and cheese to create something new. Obviously, mac and cheese at our house was never the same after that.

This newspaper article provides some traditional mac and cheese recipes that you can start with as a foundation to something more creative. It also has this baked macaroni and cheese recipe.

A recipe for macaroni and cheese, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper article 7 June 2000
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 7 June 2000, page 64

People have always shared their mac and cheese recipes in the newspaper. It’s one more way an online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors, the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in – and the recipes they shared.

It’s Time for Mac and Cheese

Whether you like it in the Fall, for Thanksgiving, or every week, macaroni and cheese is a favorite dish for many. Do you have a family recipe for this old favorite? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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(1) “The History of Slavery in the Cultivation of Mac and Cheese,” (https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/03dbf30ccad245b0a505f18b18fb5e8c: accessed 23 October 2021).
(2) “Oven Temperature,” Food (https://www.food.com/about/oven-temperature-528#:~:text=Moderately%20Hot%20Oven%3A%20375F,Hot%20Oven%3A%20500F%20or%20more: accessed 23 October 2021).

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