National Soul Food Month 1. When we think of the “standard” soul food menu, one of the essential dishes on most people’s list would be macaroni and cheese. Just for fun, I Googled “soul food dinner” images, and of the first few results, 8 of 9 included mac and cheese–
Nonetheless, the fact that mac & cheese is considered a soul food essential was hardly inevitable. Macaroni and Cheese doesn’t have any plausible African roots. Adrian Miller offers an excellent summary of the history of mac & cheese. Its roots go back to the Middle Ages in Europe, and it was considered a dish for the rich, not the peasants.
This accounts for the popular American myth that Thomas Jefferson invented mac and cheese, as suggested in this 1948 Budweiser ad:
Jefferson, through the skill of his chef, James Hemings, certainly popularized the dish in America. But it was still a dish for the elite. In the colonial period and the early days of the republic, macaroni was not readily available, and Americans didn’t know how to make quality pasta. We also didn’t know how to make the Italian cheeses that were used in the dish at the time.
As far as the cheese half of the equation, there was room for development. The English used their local cheddars in place of Italian cheeses. Meanwhile, American and Canadian dairy farmers started producing their own versions of cheddar cheese in substantial quantities (indeed, a lot of the production was exported to England).
Then, toward the end of the 19th century, Italian immigrants began coming to America in large numbers, and brought with them their pasta-making skills. The ingredients for mac & cheese, American-style, were falling into place. But how did the dish become such a favorite in the African American community?
The Italian immigrants often lived in proximity with African Americans, and they may have been the ones who introduced the dish to their black neighbors.
Garibaldi’s, a 1920s pasta factory and restaurant in Oakland, also featured tamales and enchiladas!
But mac & cheese wasn’t instantly embraced by African Americans. Frederick Douglass Opie cites a 1928 study of Mississippi Delta farm families. Most of the women in the study had never even tasted macaroni and cheese, and it wasn’t all that popular among the families who had tasted it. The women thought it was expensive, difficult to prepare properly, and reported that their families thought it was “starchy and gummy” (an indication that they, indeed, didn’t know how to cook pasta properly).
That brings us to 1937, when Kraft introduced the mac & cheese dinner (still known in Canada as a “Kraft Dinner”). Since the early 1900s, as large-scale cheese-making emerged, manufacturers were interested in ways to utilize the scraps that couldn’t be sold. James L. Kraft (1874-1953) had developed one method for making these scraps into “processed cheese.” Once the cheese was processed, it could then be dehydrated into a powdered form, giving the cheese a very long shelf-life. Thus, the boxed mac & cheese dinner was born.
As the original box indicates, the dinner could serve four and be prepared in a few minutes. But it wasn’t just a matter of convenience. It was also economical. Later ads, such as the 1965 ad below, noted that the dinner’s cost was about five cents per serving. In 2016 dollars, that’s about 38 cents per serving, which means the price hasn’t changed much in fifty years.
The item became very popular during World War II, in part because the cheese offered a protein substitute during meat rationing. It’s also not hard to imagine that in many African American homes, working moms were attracted to the convenience and low cost. Meanwhile, mac and cheese was also becoming a school lunch standard.
Mac & Cheese was on the menu for May 16, 2016 at the Union County (Kentucky) public schools.
In the 1980s, the federal government began liquidating its stocks of processed cheese, which had begun accumulating as part of a price support program for dairy farmers during the 1930s. For a decade or so, this surplus “government cheese” was widely distributed to low-income families. Some maintain that because the USDA’s standards for the processed cheese were more strict than cheese processed for the commercial trade, the surplus cheese actually tasted better. One of the ongoing debates today is whether one should use processed cheese in homemade versions. Some cooks insist on it; others refuse to eat it if it includes processed cheese.
A block of government surplus cheese.
Mac & cheese can be prepared in two basic ways. In the stovetop method of the Kraft Dinner, we boil the pasta, prepare the cheesy sauce, mix the two together, and serve it up. Today, there are microwave versions that are even easier to prepare. Even with a homemade version, the stovetop version can be prepared quickly.
The other way is the oven casserole method, made from scratch. Once the basic elements of pasta and cheese became affordable for lower-income black families, the baked dishes were ready to become part of the soul food menu. The baked dishes can be very rich in flavor, and may well be considered more of a special-occasion or Sunday Dinner side dish.
Here’s my recipe for a baked mac & cheese. It’s meant to serve 6-8.
Another advantage of macaroni and cheese is that it can be made for large groups without sacrificing quality. I made this mac & cheese, increasing the recipe above, as part of a meal to serve 70-75 kids in my church’s 2015 Vacation Bible School:
Ironically, mac & cheese has come full circle, and become a high-end gourmet dish, as in the days of Thomas Jefferson. The ability to make a good macaroni and cheese has become a frequent test dish for American chefs. I made the dish below using a recipe from Angela Davis, of “The Kitchenista Diaries” blog.