Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.
Macaroni and cheese really seems like the most American food you can get, though it originated nowhere near here. According to the Smithsonian, the dish first came to America with Thomas Jefferson, after he visited France and “became enamored with the fashionable pasta dishes served there.” I’m pretty sure that’s the only time mac and cheese has ever been called fashionable (though today’s purveyors of truffle oil- and lobster-laced versions might beg to differ).
After coming upon a recipe for “Macaroni Au Parmesan” in the 1894 cookbook of Isabella Vache Cox in the New-York Historical Society’s library
, I discovered that a taste for macaroni and cheese may well be one of the few constants in this country’s history. In the book, the dish sounded creamy and comforting, and it could be whipped up on the stovetop with very few ingredients. I thought it almost looked modern and started to question how much recipes had really changed.
Until I saw how long you had to cook the pasta for.
Here is the recipe in its entirety:
Throw 1/4 lb of macaroni [ed: this used to be a generic term for pasta] broken into pieces 1 inch long into a large saucepan full of fast boiling water and a pinch of salt. Boil 20-25 minutes. When done, strain. Put back the macaroni into the saucepan with 1oz butter, a small pinch of white pepper, a pinch of salt. Shake over the fire for 2-3 minutes. Take off the fire and stir into the macaroni 2oz grated parmesan or other mild English or American cheese. Serve very hot with crisp dry toast cut into neat pieces.
Twenty minutes? Clearly, the concept of al dente did not cross the Atlantic until much later. But the rest of the recipe sounded pretty straightforward, and the white pepper seemed like a nice accent. So I tried it out.
I did not realize how anxious cooking pasta for 25 minutes would actually make me. After 8 minutes I nearly took it off out of instinct, and when the timer hit 20 I had to resist my urge to just throw the pasta away. It started breaking up in the water, fat with everything it had absorbed, and a few pieces slipped through my colander. But after shaking it with the butter and seasonings and stirring in the pasta, it was actually delicious, if you enjoy mushy, cheesy tasting things. And c’mon, you know you do.