Somehow, mac and cheese in America became a kids’ fast lunch, and it stuck there. It was Kraft’s fault, with its incredibly popular boxed version, rolled out to mothers’ raves in 1937.
Elsewhere, macaroni is celebrated as a casserole of the upper crust. In Italy through the 1800s, fresh-cut macaroni layered with cheese and butter was the feast of the land barons.
It’s totally international. In Switzerland, it’s still called “Alpine herders’ macaroni.” On your Virgin Islands cruise, seek out “mac pie,” and you’ll find a plate of macaroni in an incredibly creamy white-cheese sauce, an art form.
We all have our macaroni moments. Mine was in Frazer Elementary School, where our Italian mama chefs crafted their artisanal version from USDA surplus cheese bricks and the largest of elbow macaroni. Our cafeteria was jammed those meatless Fridays, including mailmen, police and even the janitors.
Surplus milk and surplus butter on army-sized sheet pans did the trick. The top was browned and most craved, worth in trade for a Jell-O square.
The dish originated as the realm of the rich due to the pasta process. It took an army of servants to roll and cut the dough into shapes. Pasta was a luxury.
The Industrial Revolution domesticated it. A diabolical machine called the Marseilles Purifier, one of the first steam-powered, hydraulic presses, in 1884 turned out pasta shapes by the ton. Prices fell fast, although the rich still imported theirs handmade from Italy.
The Kraft invention came as a godsend to American housewives, weary of the monotony of peanut butter and jelly for lunch. Boxes sold for 10 cents, and all you needed was boiling water, a quarter cup of milk and a pat of butter.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that mac and cheese is on a roll. Retro is in, and consumer-friendly restaurants are responding to Baby Boomers’ locked in their past. It’s not that unusual to find a $12.95 bacon and three-cheese version on bistro menus.
Experimentation is in full glory. Chef Josian Citrin at Melisse in Santa Monica, Calif., adds white truffles and rakes $130 a plate. He insists they sell “tons of it.”
Despite all this racket, homemade mac and cheese remains a cheap dish, using the classic Velveeta recipe. And kids love it. If you switch to Asiago and gorgonzola, the price will rise fast. While children aren’t accustomed to this mac and cheese, I don’t hesitate to serve a “gourmet” version to friends (a shock for those accustomed to fluorescent-orange mac).
The drill is to start with our basic recipe and add your own twists and turns. Mine is gemelli pasta (two spaghetti strands braided together and cut). This dresses things up. Fusilli (corkscrew) or fusilli col buco (spring) would present just as well. The more surfaces on the pasta, the better.Jim Hillibish is a food writer for the Canton (Ohio) Repository. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.