Thursday, January 10, 2013

Macaroni & Cheese, c. 1774

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Isabella reporting:

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!


Anonymous said...

A good meal.
My grandmother and aunts made noddles that same way. I remember watching the dough be rolled flat on the table , cut into different sizes, and left to dry.
The pumpkin dish sounds interesting,

greg6833 said...

Health regulations or not, I would eat every bite! The pudding and the pork look delicious. And are those plantains with the pork? YUM!

Gerri Bowen said...

Did mac 'n cheese remain popular? I agree about the day glo orange! :)

JJ Drinkwater said...

I don't see a mac & cheese recipe in that edition of Hannah Glasse. Where was Waiilimsburg's recipe from?

Isobel Carr said...

What a bummer that people can't eat the food. Are the staff allowed to eat it? We certainly cook much rougher at our 16thC historical events, LOL!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Greg, I don't think those are plantains - maybe slices of the pork? - though I'm not positive. I took a LOT of pictures, and clearly not quite enough notes!

Gerri, I suspect it was the novelty and the cost of importing the pasta that made the 18th c. mac & cheese so fashionable. It doesn't seem to appear on 19th c. stylish menus, so perhaps as the macaroni-making machinery became more common, lessening the need for imported pasta, that it became more homey and less impressive.

JJ, I'm not sure which 18th c. cookbook was being used in the Palace kitchen that day, but here's a link to a list of the cookbooks that they do use for recipes and as references:

Isobel, the "no one eats the food because of health regulations" is probably the standard reply to hungry visitors. True, it wouldn't be wise to eat an egg-based sauce or meat that had been sitting out for hours on display on a hot VA summer day, or a dish that had had visitors breathing and sneezing around it, either.

But I suspect that leftovers that don't make it from the pot onto the display-plate probably do make it into the cooks' dinners...and I have seen more than a few kids among the visitors filch a chocolate comfit from the plate when the cooks weren't looking!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

BTW - I hope you'll check out the update to this post, above in red, as well as the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Foodways Blog, History is Served. Lots of excellent info - and recipes!

carolina said...

I know in the past, the cooks at Colonial Williamsburg have used a receipt (recipe) entitled "Macaroons with Cream" for their macaroni & cheese dish. It's from Wm. Verrall's "A Complete System of Cookery" (London, 1759). There's also one in Mary Randolph's "The Virginia Housewife," but seeing as it wasn't published until 1824, it's not 18th century (even so, it's used repeatedly at CW, for some reason). Also, I've seen several references lately to Hannah Glasse's cookbook from 1774, but I wonder if it's a mis-print or an editing error, as it was first published in 1747. There is a 1774 edition, but it was published in Scotland. And as far as I know, there's no mac & cheese receipt in any editions of her book.

Anonymous said...

1795 Vermicelli manufacturer in Philadelphia gave instructions for pudding that was vermicelli one pound six ounces parmisan(parmesan) or any good cheese grated and four ounces of melted butter this recipt came with the product not in a cook Book he was Lewis Fresnaye in business 1795-1805

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