In 2015, I left my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to jumpstart my career, wring life of its meaning, and experience what the world had to offer outside of the Deep South. The most notable difference, excluding accents and geographically rooted slang, was the cuisine. While living in Boston, I grew to love dining on fresh catches of the day, followed by bread bowls overflowing with clam chowder, and my life-changing first encounter with broccolini. And then there were things I couldn’t fathom, like breadcrumbs on macaroni and cheese.
Macaroni and cheese, as I knew it growing up in the South, is a magical dish usually consisting of medium-sized elbow noodles that are married with fresh seasonings, milk, and grated cheeses. What emerges from the oven after a few hours of preparation is a thick, almost custard-like meal that oozes comfort. But “Southern Macaroni and Cheese” as it appears on menus outside the South looks nothing like what I had grown up preparing with my family. Disappointed with the hastily made rendition in front of me, I’d end up critiquing everything, from the thick cavatappi noodles, to the watered-down cheddar sauce, to the haphazard topping of bread crumbs, or if bacon had been randomly scattered throughout the dish. I hadn’t considered that, upon leaving home, I’d often encounter knockoffs of the Southern experience across the East Coast — a blatant misrepresentation of my culture.
The history of macaroni and cheese in America is pretty complicated and has been heavily disputed. It is believed that Thomas Jefferson, who likely encountered the Italian-originating dish during his travels to France, popularized it in the United States by serving it to his wealthy guests. Of course, that narrative erases the man who may have tweaked the recipe and prepared the dish: enslaved chef James Hemings, who was classically trained in France, and deserves credit for the macaroni and cheese that many enjoy today. James Lewis Kraft would later dilute this recipe with a patent to emulsify and process cheese, birthing what we know as Kraft macaroni and cheese. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Kraft Foods introduced its boxed macaroni in 1937, “when America was in the throes of the Great Depression.” World War II rationing systems would further popularize the blue box, turning mac and cheese, for many, into a cheap subsistence meal.
One thing that separates Southern versions of macaroni and cheese from others is the concept of intentionality. No matter where you’re from, my family’s recipe might appear fairly similar to yours — but what differentiates the final product is the purpose of our approach. To make our mac and cheese was an all-hands-on-deck process and involved first isolating ingredients, utensils, and kitchenware. Some of us were in charge of handing off ingredients; another might stir the concoction (the most coveted role); another might be in charge of seasoning, and so on and so forth.
Our macaroni and cheese involves small- to medium-sized elbow pasta (nothing larger) and carefully seasoned milk, spices like black pepper, ground yellow mustard, paprika, and salt, heated together in a pot. While the milk warms, someone begins grating blocks of cheeses (everything from Gouda, cheddar, colby jack, Monterey jack, pepper jack), bits from each block falling into assorted heaps. In another small pan, a dollop or slice of butter is melted and flour whisked in, swiftly, forming a roux. As kids, if we were old enough, one of us would take the warmed milk and slowly add it to the roux, mixing constantly until combined seamlessly. More butter is introduced along with some of the grated cheeses; the rest is folded in, slowly, with a long wooden or plastic spoon. An egg is then tempered using the sauce; eggs make terrific binders and are incorporated to hold the macaroni and cheese together.
Once the pasta is somewhere between al dente and soft, a member of our kitchen crew passes a large casserole dish to our head chef, who lines the bottom of the dish with it. One of us excitedly begins pouring the cheesy roux, making sure it covers this first layer of pasta. Another one of us, or whoever is closest, takes what’s left of the grated cheeses and crumbles them over the pasta and roux. We’d all repeat this step until there was no more room in the dish; the last layer is always grated cheese. The head chef places the dish in the oven for about 20 to 25 minutes at 350 degrees, until golden-brown on the top.
The Southern macaroni and cheese I know involves an almost-sacred dance between chef and ingredient; we bring munificence to the preparation. That preparation was born out of our need to survive, to outlast the spaces we were forced to live in and small harvests that left our pantries bare. My intent when I make mac and cheese is inseparable from the barely legible and hastily scribed generational rituals that were passed down to me. Those rituals blend a painful past with a future that I and others can now savor more freely. As simple as it seems, my family’s macaroni and cheese recipe deepens my connection to a history I can only imagine and relive in books and monuments planted in an earth that wasn’t always as forgiving as the future. In being intentional with each ingredient, with our cooking and preparation, I/we are honoring our Southern heritage, as well as those who came before us.
In the South, we heal, forge community; I grew up learning to tell stories through my family’s recipes. “Southern food is a living record of the people, places, and cultures that have contributed to the evolving landscape of our unique little corner of the world,” writes Angela Garrison Zontek in Due South. “Too complex and varied to ever achieve a conclusive origin story, the history of Southern food is best examined by considering its major influences — the integration of cultures, natural bounty, and love for the community.” Cooking meals isn’t just for the sake of cooking, it’s also for the preservation of culture. This is evident across the South, especially in Black and Indigenous communities, and has been a notable trend across centuries in movements like the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, the National Black Food & Justice Alliance, and many others like them.
Having lived in Boston; Manchester, New Hampshire; Takoma Park, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and now Chicago, since departing my hometown, I’ve noticed a great deal of misrepresentation and exploitation of the South and its culture. This is to be expected, as the South has a dark past. Many still refuse to unpack the complicated history of the region, once a Confederate sanctuary and harbor for slavery, and instead trudge ahead through its more redeeming qualities, like cuisine. Instead of honoring the South’s heritage, the region is stripped for parts by outsiders and presented as a commodity elsewhere. In an interview with NPR, John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, reflects on how popularizing foods from specific regions can ruin the integrity, culture, and even the intention behind a food: “If we’re going to canonize fried chicken in the roster of great American dishes, we also canonize [Georgia] Gilmore, a great fried chicken cook from Montgomery, Alabama, who leveraged the talents of the stove to drive change in our region.”
But one thing that isn’t complicated is that at its core, Southern food is an intentional art form, much like the oral traditions of our ancestors, much like the sweet and savory recipes that continue to be passed down from generation to generation. This is not to say that we cannot change what was written, reimagine our history to rewrite the future; instead, it means we remain fervent in our practice; in protecting the core of our essence, even if it means questioning those who only see our breadth in the form of cheap noodles, powdered cheese, and water.
NaBeela Washington is an Alabama-raised editor, poet, and budding art collector. Chelsea Akpan is a freelance cartoonist who brings bold colors and exaggerative shapes together to create distinct and playful work.