Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale.
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale.

Thomas Jefferson did many important things.

He wrote the Declaration of Independence, with words about liberty and equality that continue to inspire us, even if we haven’t always lived up to all of them.

He nearly doubled the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase, setting us on a path toward becoming a continental nation.

He founded the University of Virginia, the mention of which should give us all a reason to pause for remembrance.

There is one other thing Jefferson did, though, that continues to have lasting repercussions to this day – and which is universally and unequivocally regarded today as a glorious thing, but for which he has not received his due.

Jefferson championed macaroni and cheese in America.

The man from Monticello might have been wrong about many things – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” does a devastating job at turning the near-deity that we Virginians grew up learning about into a someone more, umm, accurate – but he was sure right about mac and cheese.

Thanksgiving is a particularly apt time to take note of this because macaroni and cheese is said to be the most popular side dish in Virginia for holiday meals. Don’t take my word for this. The internet says so and the internet, as we all know, is always right. That’s a joke, by the way. But in this case, the internet really is right. Two years ago, the career advice site Zippia analyzed Google searches from every state to determine the most popular Thanksgiving side dish in every state. What this has to do with career advice, I have no idea, but let’s not worry about that. What Zippia found was that from Delaware to Georgia, the most popular side dish was macaroni and cheese.

Other states made other choices. Much of the Northeast, from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, picked stuffing. Many states split between green bean casserole and mashed potatoes. Iowa, true to its roots, favors corn. Kansas, which has to be slightly different, picks creamed corn. Louisiana likes cornbread dressing. West Virginia is big on rolls. Indiana goes with deviled eggs. Maine, being just plain weird, wants side salad. That’s one of those answers that makes you question your fellow citizens. We in Virginia, though, are firmly in the mac and cheese belt and for that we can thank ol’ TJ – at least indirectly.

The website for Monticello – monticello.org – contains sections on all the big stuff. His accomplishments: “The Declaration of Independence.” “The Statute for Religious Freedom.” “Louisiana & Lewis and Clark.” His moral failings: “Jefferson & Slavery.” His political views: “Thomas Jefferson Quotes.”

But then we come to the one labeled simply “Macaroni.”

First, let’s deal with the messy historical details. History is never as clean and simple as we’d like it to be. While some say that Jefferson introduced mac and cheese to the United States, we don’t know for a fact that’s true. What we do know – and can say – is that Jefferson championed mac and cheese in America. He also wasn’t necessarily the one cooking it. The person who truly invented the mac and cheese we know was Jefferson’s chef – more importantly, his enslaved chef – James Hemings. Sorry to interrupt your Thanksgiving festivities with some of the less pleasant aspects of American history but, as I said, history is messy. The modern analogy would be the birth of rock ’n’ roll. Elvis made it famous, by singing songs written by Black musicians. Jefferson gets the credit for serving a dish that Hemings developed. Of course, the long roots of rock ’n’ roll go back even further, to the blues, and eventually back to the music of west and central Africa. Likewise, the history of mac and cheese goes back to at least 14th century Italy.

The “Elvis” movie this year doesn’t start back in Africa, but it does start with a young Elvis listening to Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup bang the blues. To tell the story of mac and cheese, we won’t start back in 14th century Italy. Instead, we’ll start in the late 1780s when Jefferson was the American minister to France. While there, he carried on a brief romance with a married woman (Maria Cosway), he may have impregnated Sally Hemings, and he forged American foreign policy with the French. He also discovered pasta. Or maybe his chef, James Hemings, discovered it and introduced it to Jefferson. History is hazy on that point but Hemings is as big a part of this story as Jefferson is. 

All we know is that Jefferson fell in love with pasta and many other things Italian (the married woman he had the brief fling with was part-Italian). In 1788, Jefferson dispatched his private secretary, William Short, to Italy on a culinary fact-finding trip. Short came back in 1789 with details for making cheeses, information on grapes and wine – and a macaroni mold. Package delivery was not as reliable then as it is now, so it appears that the macaroni mold did not actually catch up to Jefferson until he was back in the United States. For our purposes, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Jefferson had a macaroni mold at Monticello and regularly ordered pasta from Europe. He even drew a design of the device and wrote out an account of how it worked: “The screw is turned by a lever inserted into the hole K, of which there are 4. or 6. It is evident that on turning the screw one way, the cylindrical part F. which fits the iron box or mortar perfectly well, must press upon the paste and must force it out of the holes …” Thomas Jefferson, technical writer. Jefferson also wrote out a recipe for macaroni – without cheese – although Monticello.org says the odds are this was really a recipe from one of his chefs.

Bottom line, Jefferson loved his macaroni and when he became president, he pushed a pro-macaroni agenda on official Washington. This did not always go over well. One guest wrote of a presidential dinner: “Dinner not as elegant as when we dined before. [Among other dishes] a pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not agreeable.  Mr. Lewis told me there were none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions was made of flour and butter, with a particularly strong liquor mixed with them.” Mac and cheese? How about mac and liquor?

After he left the presidency, Jefferson retired to Monticello, where he busied himself starting his “academical village,” giving advice to his successors (whether they wanted it or not), and ordering vast amounts of macaroni. In December 1809 he wrote to a Richmond merchant: “I have mentioned the article of Maccaroni, not knowing if they are to be had in Richmond. I have formerly been supplied from Sartori’s works at Trenton, who makes them well, and would be glad to supply you should the Richmond demand make it worth your while to keep them. I paid him 16. cents the pound.” (He went on to order 20 pounds).

Richmond did not seem to take to macaroni as warmly as Jefferson did. In 1810 that merchant wrote back to inform Jefferson that “the only Maccaroni in town is held by Mr LeForest which he says came direct from Italy, he asks 4/6 [per] lb which so much exceeds the price mentioned by you that we supposed it would be best to acquaint you of it before purchasing …”

Engraving of Mary Randolph.

The American interest in macaroni and cheese might have died with Jefferson had it not been for another Virginian – one who could not vote or exercise other basic rights. We now introduce Mary Randolph into the story. 

Randolph was born into the politically connected Randolph family (and then married into another branch of the same family), which gave her certain social advantages, such as the opportunity to become a publishing mogul in the early 1800s. In 1824 she published “The Virginia House-Wife,” which culinary historian Karen Hess once called the most influential cookbook of the 19th century. One of its recipes was for, yes, mac and cheese – the first known publishing of such a recipe in the United States. 

How did Randolph come by such a thing? We don’t know, but she had multiple ties to Jefferson, both by blood and marriage. Her father was distantly related to Jefferson’s parents, who took him in and raised him when he became orphaned; her brother married Jefferson’s daughter. Mary Randolph married a Randolph cousin, who was U.S. Marshal of Virginia until Jefferson replaced him – that particular Randolph was a Federalist, and therefore a Jefferson critic. (Yes, this sounds a bit like the Targaryen genealogy from “Game of Thrones” and “House of the Dragon” – just minus the dragons.) Still, Randolph had enough ties to Jefferson for us to suspect that maybe he had some familial influence there. Of course, being a white upper-class Southern woman in the early 1800s, Randolph herself may not have been doing any of this cooking; she may have simply relied on recipes from enslaved Black cooks. 

What we do know is that after Randolph published this recipe, mac and cheese recipes started popping up in other cookbooks. In the parlance of our times, Jefferson’s exotic dish started going viral.

How macaroni and cheese became a Thanksgiving dish – and one that’s concentrated in just six states from the Mid-Atlantic to Southeast – is something of a mystery. All we know is that it is. And when it’s served on your table this holiday, take time to give some extra thanks – to James Heming for developing the recipe, to Thomas Jefferson for championing it, to Mary Randolph for popularizing it. If you think about it long enough, the story of mac and cheese tells the story of America. Just don’t think about it too long or there may not be enough left for seconds.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.