Mac-n-Cheese 1784: An Origins Story

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

The Spruce / Nyssa Tanner

When I say "mac and cheese," you think of an American staple of elbow pasta and cheese baked together to create that magical moment of ooey-gooey heaven when it meets your taste buds. There are many permutations of this dish, from the simple and traditional with breadcrumb topping; to the extravagant and outlandish with lobster or truffles, and all of the vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options in between. 

Skillet mac and cheese
Mac-n- cheese evolution, circa 1973.

Tom Kelley / Getty Images

If given the chance, you might think of the same variations of other American staples like ice cream, french fries, and the simple whipped cream. However, if I were to ask you what all of these dishes have in common, you might not be able to tell me. Well, get ready to learn something and look like an American food scholar at your next virtual or socially distant gathering.

You're saying, "Get to it, Kysha! Who is this person who set us on this comfort food trajectory?!" His name is James Hemings. Born into slavery in Virginia, he is the brother of Sally Hemings, the famous enslaved companion of Thomas Jefferson and mother to his children, for which James would become Jefferson's property at just eight years old.

Along with crème brûlée, these dishes were brought to us by the first American to be trained as a French Chef, the first American chef to cook at an American diplomatic embassy who cooked the most famous dinner in American History to reconcile enemies, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, on June 20, 1790. Pretty impressive, right?

 George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.

Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images

What would become of this American food hero in France and beyond? Stay tuned as we welcome The James Hemings Society to share his story and how his legacy has inspired generations of Black cooks and professional caterers, who were key to establishing fine dining in America as we know it today.

Now you can carb load and add another scoop of the good stuff to your waffle cone with pride—American pride. Thank you, Mr. Hemings!

James Hemings' culinary journey began over a decade later at the age of 19 when in July of 1784, our first president, George Washington, appointed Jefferson as commerce minister to France. Jefferson, with his daughter Martha, set off to France and brought James with the expressed purpose to train him in the art of French cuisine.

Article Sources
The Spruce Eats uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.