Mac and cheese, short for ‘macaroni and cheese’, is an affordable and delicious Italian dish that has become one of America’s favourites. Although there are lots of recipes available to make your own version, many people in the US still prefer to get theirs in a box. But who came up with this idea? And how did it become so popular? The answer is more pragmatic than you might think.
AN OLD PROBLEM
According to food historians, the first recipe for macaroni and cheese originated in the court of the king of Naples in the 13th century. The first reference to this dish in an English cookbook appeared five centuries later, in The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald (1769).
Delicious as it was, cheese wasn’t easy to keep in good condition. With no refrigerators, it would mould quite quickly, especially in the summer. In 1913, the Swiss food chemists Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler worked on this problem and finally found a formula that would lengthen the shelf life of cheese: processed cheese was born.
THE KRAFT BOX
Although Gerber and Stettler got the credit for inventing processed cheese, it was James L. Kraft, a salesman from Chicago, who first patented it as a product. Kraft had been working on several ways to preserve cheese, including sealing it in a jar, but none were commercially successful. He then realised that the same bacteria that made cheese mature were also what made it go bad. So he thought that killing the bacteria and adding an emulsifier would help — and he was right. Kraft wanted to find more ways of making processed cheese, and years later he came up with the idea for the mac and cheese box. The cheese sauce was powdered, so you just had to mix it with milk and butter and, voilà, dinner was dinner is served.
A MEAL IN NINE MINUTES
Kraft’s boxed mac and cheese was a huge hit. It debuted in 1937 and became very popular during World War Two, when food shortages were common and people looked for affordable ways to get their daily protein intake.
Even though processed foods are not very popular today, they really were at that time. Natural, raw foods weren’t always appetising and people were happy to consume products that lasted, were easy to make, looked good and, most importantly, tasted good too!