The Horrible History of Macaroni Cheese
“Pieces of cheese which are too near the rind, or too dry to put on table, may be made into Welsh rare-bits, or grated down and mixed with macaroni.” (Mrs Beeton)
Yeah, thanks for that, Mrs Beeton. I wish I hadn’t looked you up, ’cos the concept “macaroni cheese” brings back a very bad memory.
No, oddly enough, not of really nasty Colonial versions I've eaten in both New Zealand and Australia, over the years. Of that time when I was in France and Gégé innocently asked me to make something that we typically ate at home in NZ.
Yikes. We’re in Paris, surrounded by gorgeous and completely fresh produce, and he's a superb cook, why does he want to experience the sort of frightful food we were favoured with throughout my childhood? Added to which, I’m not much of a cook.
Not to mention have never been able to afford really nice ingredients. Well, lovely fresh cabbage (ulp) was always available back in EnZed throughout the Fifties and Sixties, true. Likewise potatoes, carrots, kumara, silverbeet, um… Eggs. Apart from that, it was mostly lamb, and I already know our flat can't afford that in France. Specially Gégé can’t, he finished his degree a few years back and now he's got a half-pie at-home job marking English “homeworks,” I haven’t had the heart to tell him it’s not a recognised English plural, for a Correspondence School. Weakly I suggest Vegemite on toast. No, he had that in England, made the mistake of thinking it was like jam—slathered the toast with it, right. Um…
He has to dash off somewhere but he makes me promise that I’ll cook something that we normally eat. Well, folks, if he ever manages to get out to EnZed to see his cousins (my sister-in-law’s family, which is how I got to stay with him and his girlfriend for a bit), he won’t be able to say he hasn’t been warned.
Of course there’s nothing in the fridge, because there is no fridge, he doesn't need one: this is Paris, our odd little quartier just off the Grands boulevards in the Dixième features a wonderful market just down the road from us, and a super delicatessen, I think that’s a charcuterie, just back a block or so and round a corner, that has the most completely superb pâté de campagne. Possibly generically resembling the EnZed meatloaf. In the same way as a bright red juicy tomato bears a generic resemblance to the deadly nightshade. Yeah. Uh…
Look, it’s gonna be macaroni cheese, because I can't think of anything else that’s different from French food and that I might possibly find the ingredients for and that I can cook. So I go off, not to the market, but the supermarché in the Place de la République, also quite near. There’s nothing approaching cheddar for sale, of course, but this stuff with holes in it looks sort of the right consistency. Emmenthal? Never heard of it. And they do have macaroni: the beauty of the supermarket is that you can walk round it and find things without betraying your total ignorance to the tolerantly pitying shopkeeper. –Had some of that, the first week I was here, when he sent me out to get milk. Sink or swim.
Of course it's a total fiasco, he turns a sort of greenish shade at the mere mention of the stuff. Yeah, okay, the cheese has turned out to taste sort of sweet, totally nauseating, can't really blame—Oh. No. His girlfriend explains kindly that he had macaroni cheese once in England, ate too much of it and made himself very sick.
Right, got that. I can't remember what the Hell we did eat that night but it wasn't macaroni cheese, that's for sure.
Oh, well, Katy, you tried. Hard cheese, eh?
At least I can flatter myself I was within a fairly long tradition of good old (or bad old) English cookery. Bits of nasty cheese were inflicted on macaroni from as early as the first half of the 19th century by British cooks. (We can assume it's an established tradition by 1861, when Mrs Beeton’s book came out.) Here’s the complete quote. (It’s her entry number 1638, that isn’t a date.)
1638. In families where much cheese is consumed, and it is bought in large quantities, a piece from the whole cheese should be cut, the larger quantity spread with a thickly buttered sheet of white paper, and the outside occasionally wiped. To keep cheeses moist that are in daily use, when they come from table a damp cloth should be wrapped round them, and the cheese put into a pan with a cover to it, in a cool but not very dry place. To ripen cheeses, and bring them forward, put them into a damp cellar; and, to check too large a production of mites, spirits may be poured into the parts affected. Pieces of cheese which are too near the rind, or too dry to put on table, may be made into Welsh rare-bits, or grated down and mixed with macaroni. Cheeses may be preserved in a perfect state for years, by covering them with parchment made pliable by soaking in water, or by rubbing them over with a coating of melted fat. The cheeses selected should be free from cracks or bruises of any kind.
CHEESE.—It is well known that some persons like cheese in a state of decay, and even “alive.” There is no accounting for tastes, and it may be hard to show why mould, which is vegetation, should not be eaten as well as salad, or maggots as well as eels. But, generally speaking, decomposing bodies are not wholesome eating, and the line must be drawn somewhere.
Continuing Colonial Tradition, or Death by Cholesterol?
Mrs Beeton has 3 recipes for the dish we’d call macaroni cheese: she calls it “Macaroni, as usually served with the Cheese Course.” Unlike modern dishes, hers don’t consist of pieces of macaroni slathered in a cheese sauce and then browned in the oven. But don’t get too excited: two of them are absolutely revolting, including gravy in the mix. One boils the macaroni in a mixture of gravy and milk, and one pours a pint of the gravy over the boiled pasta before sending it to table with grated Parmesan on the side.
1861: Light and Tasty—but Anglicization Creeps In!
Mrs Beeton’s other recipe sounds very nice and it’s much lighter—and in fact closer in inspiration to the Italian style of eating pasta with grated cheese than to our modern heavily sauced dish. True, it involves a certain amount of fiddling around (Isabella wasn’t a cook, the martyred woman in the kitchen did all that). Here it is: it’s her first recipe of the three (no. 1645), so as well as typically being more fiddly than the other two of the set, it also includes more detailed instructions, also typical:
MACARONI, as usually served with the CHEESE COURSE. I
INGREDIENTS.—1/2 lb. of pipe macaroni, 1/4 lb. of butter, 6 oz. of Parmesan or Cheshire cheese, pepper and salt to taste, 1 pint of milk, 2 pints of water, bread crumbs.
Mode.—Put the milk and water into a saucepan with sufficient salt to flavour it; place it on the fire, and, when it boils quickly, drop in the macaroni. Keep the water boiling until it is quite tender; drain the macaroni, and put it into a deep dish. Have ready the grated cheese, either Parmesan or Cheshire; sprinkle it amongst the macaroni and some of the butter cut into small pieces, reserving some of the cheese for the top layer. Season with a little pepper, and cover the top layer of cheese with some very fine bread crumbs. Warm, without oiling, the remainder of the butter, and pour it gently over the bread crumbs. Place the dish before a bright fire to brown the crumbs; turn it once or twice, that it may be equally coloured, and serve very hot. The top of the macaroni may be browned with a salamander, which is even better than placing it before the fire, as the process is more expeditious; but it should never be browned in the oven, as the butter would oil, and so impart a very disagreeable flavour to the dish.
In boiling the macaroni, let it be perfectly tender but firm, no part beginning to melt, and the form entirely preserved. It may be boiled in plain water, with a little salt instead of using milk, but should then have a small piece of butter mixed with it.
Time.—1-1/2 to 1-3/4 hour to boil the macaroni, 5 minutes to brown it before the fire. Average cost, 1s. 6d. Sufficient for 6 or 7 persons. Seasonable at any time.
Note.—Riband macaroni may be dressed in the same manner, but does not require boiling so long a time.
I’d definitely boil the macaroni in water rather than milk, but otherwise it’d be yummy—provided you stick to Parmesan! It’s interesting that already in 1861 Cheshire cheese is being mentioned as an alternative. This turns the recipe into a much heavier, and much more anglicized dish.
If it seems a long time to boil the pasta, bear in mind that during the 19th century macaroni wasn’t the short, curved segments we know today, but much longer: “Ordinary macaroni is made in the form of long tubes, and when macaroni pudding is served in schools, it is often irreverently nicknamed by the boys gas-pipes.” (A.G. Payne, 1891)
1891: Vegetarian but Not Non-Dairy: Echoes of Mrs Beeton
In his 1891 book, Cassell’s Vegetarian Cookery, under “Sparghetti [sic]”, in Chapter III, “Savoury Rice, Macaroni, Oatmeal, &c.” A.G. Payne has several recipes for macaroni cheese, under various names. He writes:
“Some years back this was almost the only form in which macaroni was served in this country. Macaroni cheese used to be served at the finish of dinner in a dried-up state, and was perhaps one of the most indigestible dishes which the skill, or want of skill, of our English cooks was able to produce.”
His versions vary as to the expensiveness of the ingredients, but they’re all pretty cheesy and buttery. One recipe is the same as Mrs Beeton’s first version (without acknowledgement), except that it’s heated through in the oven. He warns: “If you leave the macaroni cheese in the oven too long the dish will taste oily and the cheese get so hard as to become absolutely indigestible.” Yep, good point, had that. Here’s another of his:
Take half a pound of macaroni and boil it in some slightly salted water, and let it boil and simmer till the macaroni is tender and absorbs all the water in which it is boiled. Now take a dessertspoonful of raw mustard, i.e., mustard in the yellow powder. Mix this gradually with the macaroni, and add five or six tablespoonfuls of grated Parmesan cheese and a little cayenne or white pepper according to taste. Turn the mixture out on to a dish, sprinkle some more grated Parmesan cheese over the top, bake it in the oven till it is slightly brown, pour a little oiled butter on the top, and serve.
This sounds tasty! But you really would risk overcooking it in the oven: the cheese mightn’t get to the “absolutely indigestible” stage but the pasta itself, with so little covering it, could easily end up “in a dried-up state”. It kind of raises the question, Was he a cook? Very likely he wasn’t: the middle classes didn’t cook, and especially not the men, in the 19th century.
The Bowdlerisation of Isabella: Late 19th to Mid-20th Century Colonials
I know Philip Muskett wasn’t a cook: the book on which his name goes first is:
The Art of Living in Australia, by Philip E. Muskett; together with three hundred Australian cookery recipes and accessory kitchen information by Mrs. H. Wicken (London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 
His humungously long bits are pretty unreadable: the 19th century produced some ripe specimens of pontificating gits but he ranks up there as one of the worst.
But Mrs Wicken’s recipes are very, very interesting, showing how Mrs Beeton’s approach, which of course assumed you had a cook in the kitchen, had already been simplified and in far too many cases horribly bowdlerised, by the last decade of the 19th century. Poor Isabella! She gets the blame far too often (typically from our modern pontificating gits) for what later writers did to her recipes.
Here’s Mrs Wicken’s recipe, and here we see featured the dreaded white sauce. This version was to reappear virtually unchanged in the Green and Gold Cookery Book, circa 1949. (I've left out the individual costs, which make confusing reading.)
2 oz. Macaroni; 1/2 pint White Sauce; 3 oz. Dry Cheese; Pepper and Salt
Total Cost—4 d. Time—10 Minutes [excluding the boiling time].
Put the macaroni into boiling salt and water, and boil for half an hour or until soft; strain off the water and cut into pieces about 1-1/2 inch long. Make the sauce by directions given elsewhere [below]. Mix in half the cheese and some pepper and salt. Take a dish in which it can be served, and lay at the bottom some macaroni; then some sauce and a little of the dry cheese. Continue in this way till all the materials are used up, leaving plenty of dry cheese for the top. Put in the oven for five or ten minutes till a nice colour. Serve hot.
1/2 pint Milk; 1 oz. Butter; 1/2 oz. Flour; Salt and Pepper.
Total Cost—2 1/2 d. Time—Minutes.
Put the butter into a small saucepan, and when it is dissolved put in the flour; mix well and pour on the cold milk and stir till it boils. Let it boil for two minutes and it is ready.
Yep, this is the version that’s become the traditional Antipodean macaroni and cheese, all right: I’ve had it on both sides of the Tasman. Some versions add mustard powder, à la Mr Payne, or Worcestershire sauce. Redundant slices of tomato also turn up: this dates back at least to the 1940s, as shown by:
Green and Gold Cookery Book, Containing Many Good and Proved Recipes, issued by combined Congregational and Baptist Churches of South Australia in the interests of King's College. 15th ed. (rev.), Adelaide, R.M. Osborne, [ca. 1949]
The book was a stand-by of the Australian cook of the first half of the 20th century, with recipes reprinted over and over again for around fifty years. It has the sense to put the slices of tomato in the dish; I’ve had it during the second half of the century with them laid decoratively on top, thus allowing the skin to become hard and nasty and the flesh to end up, you goddit, “in a dried-up state”!
No, well, if done properly “Mac and Cheese” as the Aussies seem to call it these days (God knows why—do they think it sounds U.S. and with-it?) is a tasty, filling meal for the family. But the modern versions are stuffed with cholesterol, with very often only starch to balance it! In the Antipodes the use of a true hard cheese such as Parmesan went out some time during the 20th century—too dear, largely unobtainable—and by 1949 it's just “cheese”, not even Mrs Wicken’s “dry cheese”. Today you can buy Parmesan in the Australian supermarkets, but it’s far too dear if you have to feed a family, so it’s usually a fatty supermarket cheddar, which is pretty much guaranteed to harden the arteries. The march of progress, eh?
And It Goes Marching On, Into the 21st Century...
All right, if you don’t believe me, go to the Aussie cookery website, “BestRecipes”, http://www.bestrecipes.com.au and click on the thing top right which looks like a magnifying glass. (Revamped web page suffering from the usual malaise spread by pointy-headed IT nerds: very hard to see how to search it). After you’ve clicked, the search box will come up. The search engine is complete crap, it will find everything indexed as either cheese or macaroni in response to “macaroni cheese”, but at least it seems (no guarantees) to put the relevant items first.
The modern Antipodean cook has done her best to give her version of the stand-by a unique touch: so we get “oldsheila”, a longstanding contributor and a great home cook, adding bacon, onion, garlic and some potato to her macaroni, tasty cheese and cream mixture, “Swiss Macaroni”. –Fascinating to see this linguistic usage, actually. English-language cookery books of the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century often call a dish “Swiss” if it features dairy products. As here, it certainly doesn’t have to be a Swiss cheese!
Bacon turns up again in “Macaroni Cheese” from “Mrs Tempest”, together with both Parmesan and tasty cheese, in a white sauce made with both cream and milk. “Mum’s Macaroni Cheese” by “bumble_kat” includes onion but otherwise it’s the completely basic modern version, unspecified “cheese” in sauce mixed with the pasta. I’m sure she’s right, and it is yummy, too!
There are many other variations—one with tomatoes is almost solid mozzarella (must be an affluent family). Some make an effort to get some fibre in and include vegetables. One recipe I can’t even look at, the title’s more than enough, has apparently got shrimps. (Gulp.) All the variations you can imagine and some you couldn’t, in fact!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of macaroni and cheese, but do yourself a huge favour and eat it with a large helping of plain steamed broccoli or something equally fibrous and green.
Yes, Isabella, cheese is still being added to macaroni in the 21st century—though I dunno that you’d recognise the results!