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Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Yes, you’re right “Macaroni.” Two hundred years ago this word was spelled “maccaroni” from the Italian word “maccherone” meaning a fool. Later in England it became to mean a foolish person who displays an excess of foreign fashion; which may have become the origin of the “Yankee Doodle” lyrics.

In both Europe and America, the word “maccaroni” represented ALL pasta, not just the short curved tubes we know today.

But who popularized pasta dishes in America? This might surprise you, but it may have been none other than Thomas Jefferson. While he was the U.S. Minister to France from 1785 to 1789, Jefferson travelled extensively throughout France and northern Italy. He became enamored with pasta in all its forms. He learned how to make “maccaroni,” and also Parmesan cheese. Jefferson may have become America’s father of “mac and cheese” to the delight of millions of today’s children.  

He decided to purchase a machine to make pasta but couldn’t find one to suit his needs. So after returning to Monticello with four crates of Semola four, Jefferson designed his own “Maccaroni Machine” to keep him supplied with noodles. He probably was not the first to bring macaroni back to America, but was certainly the most influential person to do so,

Here, in his own words is Jefferson’s instructions on how to use his “Maccaroni Machine” (pictured below):

“The best Maccaroni in Italy is made with a particular sort of flour called Semola, in Naples. But in almost every shop a different sort of flour is commonly used; for, provided the flour be of a good quality, & not ground extremely fine, it will always do very well. A paste is made with flour, water & less yeast than is used for making bread.

“This paste is then put, by a little at a time, into a round iron box (ABC). The under part of which is perforated with holes, through which the paste, when pressed by the screw (DEF), comes out, and forms the Maccaroni (ggg) which, when sufficiently long, are cut & spread to dry, the screw is turned by a lever inserted into the hole (K), of which there are 4 or 6. It is evident that on turning the screw one way, the cylindrical part F, which fits the iron box or mortar perfect well, must press upon the paste and must force it out of the holes. There is a set of plates which may be changed at will, with holes of different shapes & sizes for the different sorts of Maccaroni.” (Thomas Jefferson)

Not everyone was as thrilled with pasta as was Thomas Jefferson however. Here is a first-hand review of Jefferson’s pasta by William Cutler and his wife after a dinner at Monticello in 1802:

“Dined at the President’s. Dinner not as elegant as when we dined before. (Among other dishes) a pie called maccaroni , which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and NOT AGREEABLE. Mr. Lewis (the explorer Meriwether Lewis) told me there were none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions was made of flour and butter, with particularly strong liquor mixed with them.”

Notwithstanding the above critique, Thomas Jefferson is credited with popularizing pasta in the early history of America.

Thanks to monticello.org (Jefferson’s Monticello) and umuc.edu (University of Maryland, Italian Studies).

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