Is mac and cheese a Thanksgiving dish? Was Thanksgiving dinner different during Victorian times? If you were to sit down at a Thanksgiving table in 1883, you would see the familiar turkey, cranberry sauce and pies. But, what might surprise you would be, first, macaroni and cheese, and next, how it was viewed as an ‘upper-class’ kind of dish.

A lot has changed since 1883. Macaroni and cheese sure has. In the 19th century, many people still hadn’t heard of macaroni or tried it. They didn’t know how to cook it, eat it, or when to serve it.

So, like all exotic, confusing foods, mac and cheese made its way to holiday meals–like Thanksgiving dinner.

What Did Victorians Do to Mac and Cheese?

In 1883, today’s mac and cheese hadn’t firmed up its modern-day identity yet. Sure, the Victorians cooked casseroles filled with macaroni and cheese. But, they also cooked up entirely different dishes, and still called them macaroni and cheese anyway.

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Not everything was different in 1883. If you were to look around the Thanksgiving dinner table in the 1880s, you would have seen many of the same foods we see today, like:

  • roasted turkey
  • stuffing
  • cranberries (but not the canned type yet)
  • pies
  • mashed potatoes
  • roasted sweet potatoes, and
  • pickles

You might have also seen things like cole slaw, fried oysters, and some Victorian variations of mac and cheese.

What exactly is a Victorian variation of mac and cheese?

Victorians made macaroni and cheese by first boiling the macaroni, which sounds normal enough. But, then they sometimes added a tablespoon of canned tomatoes and then a layer of freshly grated cheese.  

On top of this, they alternated layers of boiled macaroni, canned tomatoes, and grated cheese until they filled their serving dish. 

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When the resulting meal came to the Thanksgiving table, we’d probably recognize it more as a type of lasagna or baked ziti–not the macaroni and cheese we know today.

But, that’s not to say that mac and cheese didn’t exist at all for our ancestors. Stories have survived of US President Thomas Jefferson purchasing a pasta-making machine in the last years of the 1700s and then importing macaroni and Parmesan cheese a few years later.

Jefferson apparently also found mac and cheese exotic and unfamiliar. He had it served at state dinners during his presidency.

The More Things Change…

Thanksgiving has long been a staple of US culture, dating back to the pilgrims’ first New World harvest in 1621. Macaroni and cheese has been here for a long time too. Today, both are important parts of US cuisine and culture, even if we don’t see mac and cheese on Thanksgiving Day as much as we did long ago.

3 thoughts on “Macaroni and Cheese? For Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving Dinner in 1883

  1. What you describe as 1883 “macaroni & cheese” would be called baked ziti or plain baked macaroni today. Lasagna is made with lasagna noodles, ricotta, grated cheese, either or both meatballs & sausage & tomato sauce (gravy). Lasagna survives in traditonal Italian homes for Thanksgiving as does raviol.

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