"Boil as much macaroni as will fill your dish …" says the 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph. However, at least two decades before the publication of that cookbook, macaroni prepared with cheese was already a staple on the tables of the elite families of the South. Drawing on French culinary traditions, Thomas Jefferson and James Hemings, his enslaved chef, had already enlarged their culinary repertoire.
When Thomas Jefferson returned from Paris in September 1789, he was already acquainted with the creamy, cheesy baked dish of macaroni that was popular there. He had apprenticed young Hemings to several elite Parisian households to learn the art of French cookery, and Hemings would have learned to make the dish. By 1793, Jefferson was paying duty on imported macaroni, according to his Memorandum books. It's very likely that some of that macaroni ended up being prepared in the kitchen below the South Pavilion at Monticello.
The recipe for macaroni pie, as the dish was called, was no doubt taught to James Hemings' younger brother, Peter. I believe that the young enslaved girl Edith Hern Fossett may have begun her work life in a kitchen as a scullion under the two brothers who were working to produce meals for the Jefferson household. In that setting she would have done work such as stirring pots, and grating cheese for this seemingly favorite dish of their master.
After James Hemings left Monticello, Peter Hemings was the head cook. Once ensconced at the White House, Jefferson brought Edith Hern Fossett from Monticello to learn French cookery under the tutelage of French chef Honoré Julian. Jefferson continued to purchase macaroni and the cheese to go with it.
But that was only the beginning. In 1806 Edith Hern Fossett was joined in her kitchen apprenticeship by her sister-in-law Frances Gillette Hern. The dish remained a favorite; in 1807 Jefferson received a bill for the purchase of an 80-pound Parmesan cheese and 60 pounds of Naples macaroni, which his European agent purchased in Italy. In 1809 the two enslaved women cooks were returned to Monticello with years of experience meeting the demands of Jefferson's table. Over the long years back at Monticello, macaroni and cheese must have been a common part of the menu, because Jefferson's last grocery order, placed five months before his death in 1826, included "Maccaroni 112¾ lb." That is a great deal of macaroni indeed.
In the custom of the day, cooks taught scullions recipes and culinary techniques. Those scullions went on to become cooks in other plantation kitchens. Before the Civil War, thousands of Virginians moved west to cotton country, taking enslaved cooks and their favored dish. When freed Peter Fossett, son of head cook Edith at Monticello, went to Ohio and became a noted caterer, macaroni and cheese was likely part of his usual menu.
City and farm families across the South took to the dish, making it a staple of church suppers and daily fare. Familiar and commonly available Cheddar cheese and later American cheese are the two main cheeses listed in the recipe books. Macaroni and cheese appears in the 1911 cookbook by African American pullman porter and chef Rufus Estes. His recipe was simple, requiring only the layering of cooked macaroni, cheese, butter and milk. In her cookbook Date with a Dish: A Cook Book of American Negro Recipes, published in 1948, Freda De Knight heads off her eight-page section of noodle and spaghetti recipes with that same traditional layered version. When I was a girl, it was more common to see recipes using a white sauce enriched with grated Cheddar cheese, and that's the way I originally learned to make it. Over the years I've gone back to the original 1820s layered recipe. My guests at the history dinners I host rave about it.
Today it is hard to imagine any American festive event that does not have a version of mac and cheese on the table. Whether made from a box or scratch-made, macaroni and cheese is the favorite of children, elders, new cooks, old cooks. We can all thank the African American cooks and chefs that prepared this dish, a dish originally created in Europe, for making macaroni and cheese an iconic comfort food on American tables nationwide.
Leni Sorensen, who was born in California, was a folksinger and a member of the cast of the musical Hair, and at one time catered to movie crews and started a tamale business. She farmed for eight years in South Dakota and earned her M.A. and Ph.D. from William & Mary. Retired from six years as the African American research historian at Monticello, she lectures and writes on issues of food history and teaches rural life skills from her farmstead home Indigo House in western Albemarle County, Virginia.