The Capital of Macaroni

Historical trends come and go in the District, and food trends are no exception.

After a history of culinary neglect, Washington is now considered to be a foodie haven, with new restaurants, star chefs, and now food trucks coming to the city in droves.

Season 7 of Top Chef was set in the District.

It’s currently home to two Top Chef stars – recent All-Star runner-up Mike Isabella, who is opening his Italian restaurant Graffiato in Chinatown, and Spike Mendelsohn, who helms a burger joint (Good Stuff Eatery) and pizza place (We, the Pizza) next door to each other on Capitol Hill.

The District even hosted a season of Top Chef, just a block away from where I live.

But for a town that used to be known only for its steakhouses and formal French restaurants, D.C. has had to import much of its food culture from other cities.

Recent food fads like upscale burgers and cupcakes (not served together, luckily) have their origins in nearby New York.

Right now, macaroni and cheese is having a resurgence of popularity in the

District, as evidenced by the success of the gourmet food truck CapMacDC.

I was going to try it for lunch last week when it was parked by Farragut Square, but the line was a bit too long. (Their Goat

The CapMac Food Truck.

Cheese Mac with Lemon Herb Chicken sounded worth the wait though).

Surprisingly, macaroni and cheese is one dish that D.C. can claim with pride – and its history dates back more than 200 years. It was famously served at the White House by founding foodie and third president, Thomas Jefferson.

An article in the New York Times last week wrote about Jefferson’s love of macaroni and his popularization of the dish while president.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, Founding Foodie

Jefferson was well known for hosting lush private dinners at the newly built White House, to bring together members of Congress from both sides of the political aisle. The food was unlike any other served in Washington, incorporating exotic dishes from his time as ambassador to France – and the wine was always top-notch.

Letters and records show that macaroni – which was the word Jefferson used to refer to all pasta – was a favorite at his table. Jefferson first bought a macaroni machine from Italy while living in Paris.  While in Washington, the White House received a regular supply of pasta from a manufacturer in Trenton, New Jersey.

The article recounts at least one guest who didn’t share Jefferson’s love of this European import. A congressman from the opposing Federalist party wrote about the menu at a February 1802 White House dinner party, confessing that he didn’t like the pie filled with macaroni, which he mistook for long onions or shallots. (The concept of pasta had to be explained to him by the President’s secretary, Meriwether Lewis).

He was, however, a fan of the ice cream, a dessert that Jefferson also popularized.

While president, Jefferson was the recipient of a piece of food that has to go down in history as one of the strangest presidential gifts – a huge block of cheese made by a very patriotic Baptist congregation from Cheshire, Massachusetts. It was nicknamed the “Mammoth Cheese,” and weighed in at 1,230 lbs.

It was delivered all the way to the District, and presented to Jefferson on New Year’s Day, 1802. (I couldn’t make this stuff up – it was a favorite story of some the guides at Monticello when I worked there.)

There’s no confirmation of whether Jefferson combined some of the Mammoth Cheese with the macaroni, but it was reportedly hanging about the White House until the end of Jefferson’s first term, when it was decidedly past its sale date.

If you want to replicate Jefferson’s baked macaroni and cheese, take a look at this recipe from a fun blog on all the presidents’ culinary habits from The History Chef. The blogger adapts it from a recipe in one of America’s first cookbooks, The Virginia Housewife, written in 1824 by Mary Randolph, a relative of Jefferson’s.

I ate an amazing homemade version of truffled mac and cheese tonight (with

Truffled mac and cheese
Truffled mac and cheese with pancetta and mushrooms, and a Virginia wine to make Jefferson proud. (Photo: Robert Yule)

mushrooms and pancetta) as inspiration for this blog. When eating out in the District, my favorite mac and cheese is at the restaurant Bistro Bis near the Capitol, where they have a fantastic side dish of gratin of macaroni and gruyere cheese.

Let me know your favorite contemporary D.C. restaurant serving a mac and cheese that would do Jefferson proud…and I’ll report back when I finally get to try the CapMacDC food truck.

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