By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
While Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing macaroni and cheese to the Americas, it was the work of his enslaved chef, James Hemings, that put the dish on the proverbial map and made it the truly celebrated dish of Americans to this day. For Black people, macaroni and cheese is more than a savory delight, it represents overcoming trials, celebrating achievements and is a unifying factor for families across the race.
In my almost 30 years, I’ve met one Black person who didn’t like macaroni and cheese, and I changed his mind with a taste of my six-cheese mac recipe. Macaroni and cheese is a staple at almost every Black function and there are rules: fill the dish with cheese (there should be no holes) and ensure that when that spoon lifts there is cheesy goodness oozing from the dish to the plate. Done well, macaroni and cheese needs only a few seasonings, can’t be too salty, and pops with a good helping of pepper. There are various ways to make macaroni and cheese and some, like myself try to make it cuter, not necessarily fancier, by adding truffle oil and butter, artisan cheese; or even breadcrumbs; but at its base- it’s a cheese roux and noodles that makes for this fairly simple and widely celebrated culinary dish.
When Jefferson visited Europe in the 1780s, he first encountered and fell in love with the dish. He took detailed notes and even shipped a macaroni extruder to Virginia to bring the dish to the Americas. Jefferson hosted dinners featuring macaroni and cheese, garnering rave reviews, and the rest is sort of American history- as told by White people. However, it wasn’t Jefferson cooking the dish, but rather his slave and chef, Hemings, who was able to warm the hearts and fill the stomachs of the former president’s guests.
According to Damon Lee Fowler, Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance, enslaved Black people were taught to follow written recipes; but they were also talented culinary artists in their own rights, and as with soul food today, added their own touch beyond the text. “Their hands had known other products, their noses, other fragrances, and this was bound to affect the cookery for the better,” according to Fowler. Hemings was trained by a French chef while spending time in Europe with Jefferson; however, his own twist on macaroni and cheese is what Jefferson preferred. Hemings was actually able to achieve freedom once teaching another slave, his brother Peter, how to create Jefferson’s favored cheesy dish. Peter Hemings made a “pie called macaroni,” at an early 1800s state dinner hosted by Jefferson, further introducing the dish to America’s upper echelon.
Macaroni and cheese was featured in cookbooks and became a culinary delight among the wealthy, but it also was a dish for the poor. After slavery, Blacks often relied on relief organizations and food from the government, which often included macaroni and processed cheese, making a quick, easy and affordable meal. Once Black Americans grew in wealth and access to more products from stores and markets, macaroni and cheese included a roux and other tricks of the trade passed down from generations to this day.
Macaroni and cheese is part of Black American’s journey. It’s not just a beloved American dish, but truly a staple for Black people as, in James Hemings case, it presented an opportunity for freedom, was a way to express culinary creativity, at times it served as a means of survival and to this day is a way to unite people at a dinner table and beyond.