Digging into Mac & Cheese

by JENNA UTERSTAEDT '25

Did you know that 71 percent of adults prefer to eat mac and cheese with a fork compared to 28 percent who would rather eat this delectable dish with a spoon? Nonetheless, this doesn’t keep Americans from enjoying this long-loved dish. Whether you like Panera's version, classic box style, or your mom's family recipe, there is something mac and cheese brings to the table that captivates a huge audience of food lovers. So what is the origin? How did this cheap meal become a staple in our day-to-day lives?


Americans have always wanted to find a way to save money on food and preserve food to make it last longer. A significant example of this is cheese.


Mac and cheese enthusiast Gordon Edgar writes, “Cheesemaking, which began 10,000 years ago, was originally about survival for a farm family or community: taking a very perishable protein (milk) and transforming it into something less perishable (cheese) so that there would be something to eat at a later date." One main goal of these farmers was to get the most solid food from a gallon of milk possible.


Fast forward a couple hundred years and a new kind of calcium packed snack is on the market: processed cheese which was created 110 years ago. Edgar again states, “Processed cheese is basically cheese that is emulsified and cooked, rendering it much less perishable." This made cheese a significantly cheaper option and is important in the history of why mac and cheese is a low cost protein dish.


There are many variations of this kind of reinvented cheese, including sauces and Velveeta (which is no longer considered cheese). This quick protein helped as a great and reliable food source for soldiers. Although it traces back to Italy, it didn’t start becoming a hit in America until it was cheaper.


This is just the start of the rise of mac and cheese in America, but if you look at the big picture, many think it came from a dish called macaroni pudding, a snack from New England. This was mainly made up of elbow pasta and many different add-ins like sour cream, raisins, and eggs.


But the factor that caused this treat to rise in America could very well be the Great Depression. Journalist Karen Harris writes, “The convenient and cheap Kraft mac n cheese provided hungry families with a source of protein and carbs for just pennies a serving. It was filling, everyone liked it, and when times were good, the housewife could add bits of meat or chopped vegetables to it as a way to spice up the plain mac n cheese. The new boxed meal was so popular that Kraft sold more than 8 million boxes of mac n cheese in its first year alone." This could have been because this meal helped give soldiers affordable food in the war.


Another impact the war had on mac and cheese was that more women entered the workforce. Because they would only have time to make a quick meal, they also contributed to the popularity of mac and cheese.


Today macaroni and cheese is still a favorite meal in the eyes of many people. Around 1 million boxes of Kraft mac and cheese are bought each day, andhis doesn’t even factor in competing brands. Macaroni and cheese may not be the most healthy option, but that doesn’t stop people from enjoying their favorite comfort food. It continues to be a low price option which keeps kids and adults craving more. So from its peak in the Great Depression to now when it is prominent in kids and adult daily diets, it still is the mac and cheese we know and love.



sources:

Edgar, Gordon. "A Brief History of America’s Appetite for Macaroni and Cheese." Smithsonian Magazine, 29 May 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-americas-appetite-for-macaroni-cheese-180969185/.


Harris, Karen. "Mac N Cheese: The History Of America’s Favorite Comfort Food." Historian Daily, https://historydaily.org/mac-n-cheese-the-history-of-americas-favorite-comfort-food.