Mac and cheese is as American as apple pie and Thomas Jefferson, the founding father and third president of the U.S. often gets credit for introducing the dish into American cuisine. But it was actually his enslaved chef, James Hemings, who perfected the dish as we know it today.
The story, passed down through the generations, goes that while traveling in Europe in the late 1700s prior to becoming president, Jefferson first tried a European version of macaroni pasta and cheese. He brought the recipe back when he returned to Virginia. But what is left out of that lore is that Jefferson was traveling with a slave who was his chef, and it was Hemings who came up with a version of mac and cheese for Americans’ taste. But Jefferson and his wife, Martha, took the credit.
Hemings, who became the property of Jefferson at age 8, was the “valet, chauffeur, and chef” to Jefferson, according to the James Hemings Society. In the spring of 1783, Jefferson had Hemings train under a French chef in Annapolis. Hemings then got even more training with chefs at the Chateau Chantilly, the “five-star kitchen of 18th century France.“
Upon completion of his training, Hemings was made the head chef in 1787 at the Hôtel de Langeac, which was Jefferson’s private residence in Paris. When Jefferson and Hemings returned to Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia, Hemings continued to cook continental European-style macaroni and cheese.
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Photos: Thomas Jefferson (Monticello) / Chef James Hemings (Rembrandt Peale/Wikimedia Commons)
“Pie called macaroni,” cooked by Hemings’ brother Peter was served at a state dinner hosted by Jefferson at the White House, introducing mac and cheese to America’s elite, according to How Stuff Works.
“Macaroni and cheese was featured in cookbooks and became a culinary delight among the wealthy, but it also was a dish for the poor. After slavery, Blacks often relied on relief organizations and food from the government, which often included macaroni and processed cheese, making a quick, easy and affordable meal,” Afro.com reported.