Civil War Macaroni and Cheese

Today, as I write this, marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of America’s Civil War, with the bombardment of Fort Sumter . I recently took my 13-year old nephew to visit our nation’s capitol, including visiting Robert E. Lee’s house at Arlington National Cemetery, and a day wandering the battlefield at Gettysburg. The National Military Park Museum at Gettysburg is not to be missed, by the way. Not only does it give you a clear and thorough understanding of the 3-day battle that took place there, but the photos and relics on display give us a fascinating glimpse into what life must have been like back then. And it wasn’t really that long ago. My grandmother was born in 1899. The last Civil War veterans died in the 1950s. My grandmother would have encountered many a Civil War veteran in her younger days.

So, what did they eat in the 1860s? How did they eat? Most people lived on farms or in rural areas, so they grew, shot, foraged, or fished their own food. Many people didn’t have stoves. Many cooked their meals over an open fire in a fireplace or hearth. Which is all the more reason why I was so surprised to find a recipe for “Maccaroni Cheese” in a collection of Civil War recipes (Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book) along with recipes for okra soup, indian pudding, gumbo and brown bread. Mac-n-cheese in the 1860s, really? Really! Turns out that our founding father Thomas Jefferson helped popularize “maccaroni” in our country, “maccaroni” being a general term he used for pasta. And according to Wikipedia, versions of macaroni pasta with cheese and butter were published in cookbooks as early as the 14th century.

According to the Civil War Recipes book, the following “maccaroni cheese” recipe first appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine in 1861 (circulation 150,000). It’s only one sentence long, and as you will see, is wildly open for interpretation:

Boil the maccaroni in milk; put in the stewpan butter, cheese, and seasoning; when melted, pour into the maccaroni, putting breadcrums over, which brown before the fire all together.

How much milk? What kind of cheese? How much cheese? What seasoning? Well, if recipes are guidelines, then this recipe isn’t much more than just that, a guideline. For our interpretation, we use 2 cups of milk for every cup of elbow macaroni pasta. We use equal amounts of pasta and cheese, and use cheddar for the cheese. The seasonings we use are nutmeg, pepper, and cayenne. Mace would have been commonly available in the 1860s, nutmeg is more often used now. Pepper and cayenne would have been widely available too. The result? A triumph! Actually, it’s kind of hard to go wrong with mac and cheese, but we had never cooked the macaroni directly in milk before, so didn’t quite know how it would work, or if the proportions were right. For us 2 cups of milk for every 1/4 pound of pasta worked fine.

Update 1-27-12 I’ve discovered another recipe from Godey’s published in this blog. The author says that Parmesan cheese would have been more common to use in a mac and cheese from this era. Good to know!

  • Prep: 5 minutes
  • Cook: 45 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 pound elbow macaroni pasta (2 to 2 1/2 cups)
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 2 cups, packed, grated cheddar cheese (about 1/2 pound)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Nutmeg
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup bread crumbs
  • Cayenne (optional)

Method

1 Heat the milk in a large saucepan until steamy. Stir in the dry macaroni pasta. Let come to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. Pay attention while the macaroni is cooking in the milk as the milk may foam up and boil over if the milk gets too hot. Cook the macaroni for 15 minutes or until done. The macaroni should absorb almost all of the milk.

2 Preheat oven to 400°F. As soon as the macaroni is close to being done, melt the butter in a separate saucepan, stir in the grated cheese, black pepper to taste and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. Once the cheese has melted, pour the sauce into the macaroni and milk mixture and stir to combine. Taste and add salt if needed.

3 Place macaroni and cheese mixture into a baking dish. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs. Sprinkle lightly with cayenne (if using). Bake in a 400°F oven for 20 minutes or until the top is lightly browned.

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