While visiting Colonial Williamsburg over the holidays, I stopped by the kitchens of the Governor's Palace to see what our friends there were preparing. As usual, the day's dishes were set out on the kitchen table, above, as if waiting for a footman to come whisk them away to the royal governor and his guests. Sadly today they remain there, too, since modern health regulations prohibit the food made in an 18th c. kitchen to be consumed by 21st c. diners.
Among these dishes (counter-clockwise from the top) were: a pumpkin stuffed with eggs and seasoned bread crumbs; a boiled pound cake - close kin to a boiled pudding - in a sweet wine sauce; a chine of pork; and a tureen of rich onion soup. And what's that on the last plate? While none of the other dishes are common fare to most Americans today, this one definitely is: baked macaroni with cheese, topped with buttered bread crumbs.
The 18th c. recipe for macaroni and cheese was much the same as a modern one (at least a modern one that doesn't rely on day-glo-orange pasteurized cheese food), but the dish's place in the culinary world was much different. Today's mac and cheese is a homey comfort-food. The Georgian version would have been considered a luxury dish, redolent of fancy foreign cookery. Pasta was one of the tastes acquired by English gentlemen on their grand tours to Italy, and dried macaroni came home with them to England along with leopard-patterned waistcoats and paintings of ancient ruins. Pasta and Italian food in general became so closely connected to extreme male fashion and pretensions that foppish gentlemen were often derisively called macaronis themselves.
But to more epicurean English gentlemen, baked macaroni was a dish to impress, with the dried pasta either imported from Italy, or the work of a well-salaried, foreign-trained cook. Thomas Jefferson was a great fan, instructing his agent abroad to send him a macaroni-making machine for use at Monticello (here's his surviving letter.) In more modest households, cooks with a copy of Hannah Glasse's popular 1774 cookbook The Art of Cookery, Made Plain & Easy might not have been able to create the forced or rolled tubular shape of macaroni, but they could make the long strands of vermicelli (vermicella) with the recipe below - though one hopes they didn't share Mrs. Glasse's comparison of the pasta to "little worms" with their diners.
To make vermicella
MIX yolks of eggs and flour together in a pretty stiff paste, so as you can work it up cleverly, and roll it as thin as it is possible to roll the paste. Let it dry in the sun; when it is quite dry, with a very sharp knife cut it as thin as possible, and keep it in a dry place. It will run up like little worms, as vermicella does; though the best way is to run it through a coarse sieve, whilst the paste is soft. If you want some to be made in haste, dry it by the fire, and cut it small. It will dry by the fire in a quarter of an hour. This far exceeds what comes from abroad, being fresher.
Photo copyright 2012 Susan Holloway Scott.
Update: Quite by coincidence, History is Served, the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Foodways blog, posted a recipe today for how "To Stuff a Chine of Pork", in both an 18th c. version and a modern interpretation. This isn't the recipe that is pictured above, but still looks mighty tasty!