Civil War Macaroni and Cheese

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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!

Civil War Macaroni and Cheese Recipe

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  • Prep time: 5 minutes
  • Cook time: 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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Links:

Civil War macaroni and cheese recipe - from a Civil War re-enactor, using a different recipe from Godey's
Yankee Doodle - stuck a feather in his cap and called it "macaroni" (the fashion, not the pasta)
Wikipedia on Macaroni and Cheese
Quick Macaroni and Cheese here on Simply Recipes

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Showing 4 of 75 Comments

  • Sara S.

    I’ve made this several times (ok, MANY–I’m a mac and cheese fiend), and I have found that 4 cups of milk is consistently -way- too much milk for me. I suspect this happens because I’m afraid of the milk curdling, and therefore cook it at a rather low temp (and probably for longer than the recipe calls for, though I confess I have not timed it), so the pasta absorbs less of the milk but is tenderized by its acidity, kind of like it has been marinated. In any case, the texture of the pasta when cooked this way is incomparable–I just need to figure out how much milk to actually use.

    Would highly recommend sticking with whole milk, as per the recipe. It doesn’t turn out nearly as well with 2%. I shudder to think what it would be like with skim.

    I’ve also started subbing out a bit of the cheddar with parmesan and adding some dijon mustard to heighten the flavor. My favorite cheddar to use for this dish, or any mac and cheese, is Cabot’s Vermont Extra Sharp. Some of the others I’ve tried have been on the bland side.

  • Janel

    Was hoping for a good result on this recipe – yours are usually so awesome! But ended up with a gross mess of oily cheese in the extra pot, and then had to stir so much to get it to mix with the larger pot my noodle broke apart… to left overs today and it was gritty and gross… I will be following the broccoli Cheddar mac and cheese recipe from here on out! That one is perfect. http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/broccoli_cheddar_mac_and_cheese/

  • Jeff Sulman

    Looks like a simple but good recipe, I will try it for my next mac and cheese. My family stopped at Gettysburg three years ago on our way from my parents house in Connecticut to where we now live in Dallas. Way we planned on spending half a day there but ended up doing 3 1/2 and we still could have spent a few more. Wonderful place! It had helped that we read a lot about it before we went.

    Also, your comment about how long ago it occurred was interesting. Did you know that there were Revolutionary War veterans alive during the civil war? I remember when I was 13 during our nations bicentennial we got a copy of National Geographic that contained pictures of living Revolutionary Vets who were alive and taken during the civil war. This means is that your grandmother and could have known people, who know people who fought in the Revolutionary War!

  • Anna Vipp

    yummy thanks for sharing! (: and I Agree with your post Kathleen
    I have to say 100 Cheers for Thomas Jefferson

  • Lynda

    I made this recipe and reviewed it here: http://misslyndaj.blogspot.com/2011/12/civil-war-macaroni-and-cheese.html
    Happy Eating!

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