August 15, 2022

A la Carte: A New Twist on an Old Favorite with an Unexpected History

Lee White

Sometimes I try to come up with recipes that have themes or special times of years, such as holidays like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July or Labor Day.

But I sometimes I forget, before Columbus landed first in the Bahamas and later on the coast that would become America, that the native Americans were here first.

I also forget about the white people, who came soon after Columbus, who herded Black Africans, took them from their homes and families to work, against their will, in the white people fields and houses in the 17th century.

A new documentary from Netflix called “High on the Hog” tells the story of these enslaved people, who tried to keep their own lives and traditions alive along with their culinary journey.

In this documentary, I learned that Thomas Jefferson  and George Washington owned Black chefs, who went with the masters to Paris, brought back French techniques and recipes, which they blended with the ingredients available in the New World. For their own food, in the slave quarters, they took the ingredients the white owners didn’t want — the leftover pieces of vegetables and fruits,  the peels of potatoes and, most of all, the bits of beef, sheep and chickens the owners threw away. 

The recipe below was adapted from a recipe I found in a cookbook from 2001.

Until I saw this documentary two weeks ago., I never knew the first recipe for macaroni and cheese was created by enslaved Black people working in their masters’ kitchens. 

I hope you stream “High on the Hog” on Netflix.

Queens (N.Y.) Mac and Cheese
Adapted from Macaroni & Cheese: 52 Recipes, from Simple to Sublime (Villard, New York, 2001)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

6 tablespoons butter, plus extra for baking dish
1 pound elbow macaroni
3 12-ounce cans evaporated milk (2 percent milk works well, too)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoon Red Devil sauce (or less, to your taste)
4 cups (1 pound) coarsely grated sharp Cheddar cheese
½  pound Velveeta or American cheese, cut into one-half inch cubes
½  cup heavy cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs), or fresh bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 3 and ½ -quart deep baking dish or 9 by 13 baking pan.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and cook the pasta until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain, pour into a large mixing bowl and toss with 4 tablespoons of the butter.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring milk to a scald and add to the macaroni. Add mustard, Red Devil sauce and Cheddar and stir well (the cheese should start to melt. Add Velveeta and cream and stir well. The macaroni and chunks of cheese should be swimming in the sauce. Add egg and mix well. Season with salt, if necessary, and plenty of pepper.

Pour into the prepared baking dish that has been place on a sheet pan to catch spills (the baking dish will be completely full. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and dot with remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Bake until golden brown and bubbling, 25 to 30 minutes.

About the author: Lee White has been writing about restaurants and cooking since 1976 and has been extensively published in the Worcester (Mass.) Magazine, The Day, Norwich Bulletin, and Hartford Courant. She currently writes Nibbles and a cooking column called A La Carte for and the Shore Publishing and the Times newspapers, both of which are owned by The Day. She was a resident of Old Lyme for many years, but now lives in Groton, Conn.