Some partnerships embody America: peanut butter and jelly; apple pie and vanilla ice cream; pumpkin spice and just about anything. Macaroni cheese is another such combination. It typifies two striking trends in American cuisine: the joyful assimilation of dishes from other countries and the industrialisation of food to maximise convenience and profit.
Some credit hungry and resourceful 19th-century Swiss shepherds with the invention of macaroni cheese. Dry pasta is both light and long-lasting – ideal to schlep around the Alps – and herdsmen could make their own cheese. Others go further back to 14th-century Italy, where a tome entitled “Liber de Coquina” (“Book of Cooking” – nothing if not to the point) featured a dish called “makerouns” that involved pastry dough, cheese and butter.
Macaroni cheese almost certainly came to America via France. Thomas Jefferson developed a taste for the dish while living there in the 1780s. So impressed was the future president that he imported the necessary tools to recreate it, including a pasta machine, and served mac ’n’ cheese at a state dinner in 1802. Some fellow diners were sceptical. Manasseh Cutler, a congressman who attended, dismissed it as tasting overly strong and “not agreeable”. Despite such misgivings, the dish’s popularity spread. Slaves cooked it in plantation kitchens and it has since become a mainstay of African-American soul-food.
It was Kraft, of processed-cheese fame, that baked macaroni cheese into American culture. The company first produced its boxed version in 1937, as America was still feeling the agonies of the Great Depression. Cheap, easy and quick to make, it became an American staple. Two million boxes are now sold every day. For many, the lurid glow of the ultra-processed sauce, made with powdered cheese, is a defining – even comforting – feature. Kraft sells its mac ’n’ cheese today with the message that, though you may mess up all other aspects of parenting, if you buy this, you’ll get at least one thing right.
The convenience is undeniable. But unseasoned by nostalgia, it is a bland and disappointing bowlful. In the time it takes to cook a pan of pasta, it’s more than possible to whisk up a quick béchamel sauce (that French influence again) and stir through some cheese. Two minutes under the grill and you have a far tastier dish with which to offset your parental shortcomings.•