Civil War Macaroni and Cheese

CasseroleCheeseMac Cheese

Easy mac cheese recipe based on an authentic American Civil War era recipe for maccaroni cheese.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

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.

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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.

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

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

You must use whole milk for this recipe. If you use low fat or non-fat milk, the mixture may curdle.


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


1 Cook the macaroni in milk: 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 Make the sauce with butter, cheese, spices: 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.

3 Mix the sauce and cooked macaroni: Once the cheese has melted, pour the sauce into the macaroni and milk mixture and stir to combine. Taste and add salt if needed.

4 Top with breadcrumbs and bake: 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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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

Elise Bauer

Elise Bauer is the founder of Simply Recipes. Elise launched Simply Recipes in 2003 as a way to keep track of her family's recipes, and along the way grew it into one of the most popular cooking websites in the world. Elise is dedicated to helping home cooks be successful in the kitchen. Elise is a graduate of Stanford University, and lives in Sacramento, California.

More from Elise

63 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. Rob

    Do you have to bake it?

    Show Replies (1)
  2. Lynda

    I discovered, inadvertently, that left over spaghetti bolognese, with a little milk (or evaporated milk) added and baked for 15 or so minutes, makes the most divine dish. It turned the spaghetti from delicious el dente into the soft stuff one gets from a can – but much, much nicer.

  3. Astrid

    Has this recipe been changed at all? I have made this for years for my kids… tonight, two batches failed… the cheese sauce broke as soon as I added it to the mac & milk. Twice.

    Whole milk, full- fat white block cheddar I grated, and the same high protein pasta I have always used. Grated fresh nutmeg and white pepper.

    If anyone has any ideas, please share. As I said, I have made this for years. The sauce has never broken. Nothing has changed as far as ingredients I used and have always used.

    I am baffled and very disappointed.

    Show Replies (2)
  4. dog

    not the best… just ok

  5. Elisa

    This is one of my favorite recipes of all time. My mom made this for me for years, and as a sophomore in college, I’m constantly homesick for it and make it for myself. A great soul-warming dish.


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