Origins of Macaroni and Cheese

macaroni package label

Macaroni package label, circa 1920.

Legend has it that Marco Polo brought pasta to Europe when he returned from his trip to China in the late 1200ís. Legend is wrong. Thirteen years before Marco Polo returned from China one Ponzio Bastone, of Genoa, bestowed a bariscella piena de macaronis (basket full of macaroni) on a lucky relative in his will.

Among many earlier references to pasta, the Roman poet Horace wrote about the simple life in Tivoli:

"I wander through the streets ... often in the forum I stop at a fortune teller's. Then I take myself home to a bowl of leeks, chickpeas and lasagne."

Before the Romans, the Etruscans had utensils for making pasta. A bas-relief in a tomb at Cerveteri, north of Rome, shows all the tools for making pasta, including a jug for water, knives, a rolling pin, a large pastry board, and a fluted-edged pastry wheel for cutting. These are essentially the same tools used for making pasta by hand today.

Cheese has probably been around for at least 6,000 years. Shepherds may have discovered it when the early civilizations flourished Mesopotamia or the Indus valley. Who knows? After all, it doesnít take much more than just hanging out for a few days to get milk go sour. I speculate about shepherds because they usually have a lot of time on their hands. They also have a big stake in the milk itself. Anyway, today, there appear to be around 2,000 varieties of cheese, most of which taste just fine with macaroni.

Elbow macaroni, one of the most popular pastas, is perfectly designed for cheese sauces. Its tubular form provides lots of surface absorb the cheese coating. I donít have the foggiest notion who invented what we now know as Macaroni and Cheese. It was probably an American trying to figure out what to do with the processed cheese invented by Joseph Kraft in 1912. Besides, Italian cooking tends to go easier on the cheese.

(Most of the actual truth on this page is from the delightful Pasta Classica, by Julia della Croce, Chronicle Books, 1987. Most of the lies are my own.)

a sketch of KarenKaren's comment.
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