How a US President Made Mac 'n' Cheese a Thing
This January 20th, my fellow Americans, we do two vitally important things in the United States. We inaugurate a president, and we celebrate National Cheese Lovers Day. We believe that this is more than a coincidence. Looking back over two-plus centuries of presidential culinary history, it's hard to escape the fact that we've had some cheese-loving commanders-in-chief. Certain cheese dishes appear over-and-over on White House menus, and to celebrate this happy convergence, we present the four cheesiest dishes in presidential history. Read on to learn about the birth of macaroni and cheese.
Cheese Pluribus Unum
For dairy farmers living in the 19th century, nothing said "congratulations" more than sending the Biggest Cheese (our president) a large amount of cheese. For his first presidential inauguration, President Thomas Jefferson received a 1,000 pound-plus round of cheese from dairy farmers around the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts. President Jefferson was awed by what would be called the "Mammoth Cheese." After hosting dinners at the White House, he would entertain his guests by taking them to the White House's East Room to view the colossal queso. Not to be outdone, when Andrew Jackson was inaugurated a second time in 1835, some dairy farmers in upstate New York sent him a 1,500-pound cheese. President Jackson kept it around for a couple of years, but couldn't get rid of it fast enough. He decided to give the public a go at it, and he opened the doors of the White House so that they could feast upon it. It may have seemed like a brilliant idea at one time, but the resulting feeding frenzy left the White House smelling like cheese for months.
How Macaroni and Cheese Became An All-American Food
I begin with Thomas Jefferson again, for he is the earliest known president who loved macaroni and cheese. He first learned of the dish while he served as the U.S. minister to France from 1784 to 1789. At the end of this diplomatic stint, Jefferson took great pains to have a macaroni-making machine sent from Naples to his Philadelphia residence. He even had his enslaved chef, James Hemings, learn how to make the dish. Hemings made a version that was closer to the original recipe: pasta, Parmesan cheese, and butter. The only innovation was that Hemings's showed his French culinary training by adding some cream. Jefferson went wild for it.
Once he became president, Jefferson thought so highly of macaroni and cheese that he served it at a small dinner party he held at the White House on February 6, 1802. We know this because Reverend and U.S. Congressman Manasseh Cutler, one of the dinner guests that evening, wrote about it in his diary. He began his recap with a note of disappointment before describing the whole meal: "Dinner not as elegant as when we dined before. Rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a pie of macaroni . . ." Cutler then struggled to describe the newfangled food, "which appeared to be a rich crust filled with strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be." Then came the final verdict from Cutler: "tasted very strong, and not agreeable."
Ronald Reagan was another macaroni and cheese-loving president. It was one of the main foods that sustained him while recuperated in the hospital after an assassination attempt. It was also one of President Reagan's guilty pleasures when First Lady Nancy Reagan wasn't around to keep him on his diet.
Cheese Wins the Straw Poll
As the late southern food authority Edna Lewis once wrote in her cookbook In Pursuit of Flavor, "Cheese straws are common throughout the South, served with cocktails, soups, sandwiches, and salads . . . [t]he straws are not yeast-raised, and when they're baked, they are flat and very crisp." Since so many of our presidents are southerners, it's no surprise that cheese straws regularly appeared on White House menus. Cheese straws--cheesy breadsticks made with flour, cheddar cheese, butter and cayenne pepper that make for a great savory cocktail snack--were served not solely for the informal meals, mind you, but even the fancy state dinners. Once again, there's strong, bipartisan support for this dish: President Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, served them at his first state dinner in 1890; President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, included them in his Thanksgiving dinner in 1952 and Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, both democrats, savored these spicy, salty and savory treats at their family meals.
The Rise and Fall of Cheese
The popular presidential food is also associated with one of the most tragic days in presidential history. In Warm Springs, Georgia, on Thursday, April 12, 1945, an African American cook named Daisy Bonner started preparing lunch for the visiting President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt would often stay in Warms Springs for long stretches of time to get treatments for his polio. While he was in town, Bonner cooked for him. On this particular day, Bonner started making a cheese soufflé. When it was ready, she called the president to the table. He suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage, and he died a couple of hours later. Bonner swears that the soufflé did not "fall" (deflate) from the time it was ready until the president was pronounced dead. Anyone who has made a soufflé knows that this is a minor miracle (try your hand at it with this Parmesan Cheese Souffle).
With soufflés, timing is of critical importance. When White House Executive Chef René Verdon planned to make cheese soufflé for President John F. Kennedy, he would cook four separate soufflés at 15-minute intervals—hoping that just one soufflé would be ready to serve immediately to the habitually-late-to-meals president!
Perhaps the perfect benediction for cheese comes from the words penned by FDR's chief housekeeper in the White House, Henrietta Nesbitt, in her book, The Presidential Cookbook: Feeding the Roosevelts and Their Guests: "Cheese is smart and sophisticated, and yet so simple and healthy. I am not surprised to discover that while it was a daily standby at the White House, I have very few recipes calling for cheese. With the Roosevelts, according to the old nursery jingle, 'the cheese stands alone'. It is a meal in itself or the tidbit that sparks up a meal. I don't know how we'd get along without cheese. It is the perfect food."
Baked Macaroni with Cheese
This recipe appears in Damon Lee Fowler's Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance (Distributed for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation). It is closer to the original version of macaroni and cheese, not the glorious, goopy version that is so beloved today.
Makes 6 Servings
4 cups whole milk
4 cups water
1 pound tube-shaped pasta, such as small penne
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small bits
8 ounces imported Parmesan cheese or extra‑sharp Farmhouse cheddar
- Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Stir together the milk and water in a large pot and bring to a boil.
- Add the pasta, stirring well, and return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is tender, about 8–12 minutes.
- Lightly drain it in a colander (it should still be a little wet) and return it to the pot. Season with salt to taste and toss well.
- Lightly butter a 2-quart casserole dish and cover the bottom with one-third of the pasta.
- Dot with one-third of the butter and shave one-third of the cheese over it using a vegetable peeler or mandolin.
7. Repeat the layers twice more, finishing with a thick layer of cheese and bake until golden brown, about 20–30 minutes.
Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award-winning author. His next book, The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas will be published on President's Day, 2017.