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Ancient cheesemaking (Jacques Ribieff / Adobe Stock)

Gods, Goats And Cheesemakers In Ancient Times

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During a trip to France, cheesy pasta dishes were served to America’s President Thomas Jefferson. Enthralled by the dish, the president went on to have both the pasta and Parmesan cheese imported to his plantation, and served the very first macaroni and cheese in the United States at a state dinner in 1802 to the apparent delight of the guests except for one, the Reverend Manasseh Cutler. The reverend may have mistook the pasta as onions as he described the dish as “ a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots.” In short, he did not like the dish. Nevertheless, this state dinner made Jefferson famous as the man who introduced ‘Mac-and-Cheese’ to the American population, in addition to his many other more obvious claims to fame.

Cheese-making, Tacuinum sanitatis Casanatensis (14th century) (Public Domain)

Cheese-making, Tacuinum sanitatis Casanatensis (14th century) (Public Domain)

Pasta and cheese recipes had been around for at least 500 years by the time Jefferson introduced it to the United States. Pasta and cheese casseroles were already mentioned in the 14th-century Italian cookbook, Liber de Coquina ( A Book about the Kitchen), which included a Parmesan and pasta dish. A cheese and pasta casserole known as Makerouns was also recorded in the Forme of Cury, a 14th-century medieval English cookbook. The dish was created with fresh, hand-cut pasta sandwiched between melted butter and cheese. Although one cannot necessarily directly trace Makerouns to a previous Italian document, the dish would have been one of the culinary currents during the International Gothic, a period of vibrant cultural exchange in Western Europe that saw a massive travel of artists and artifacts in the large aristocratic network. Perhaps closer to Jefferson's time is the first modern recipe for macaroni and cheese, which appeared in Elizabeth Raffald's 1769 recipe book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. Her recipe calls for a Bechamel sauce with cheddar cheese that is mixed with macaroni and baked until golden.

A Sumerian scene showing milking cows and making dairy products. From the facade of the Temple of Ninhursag at Tell al-'Ubaid (2800-2600 BC) (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Sumerian scene showing milking cows and making dairy products. From the facade of the Temple of Ninhursag at Tell al-'Ubaid (2800-2600 BC) (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cheese In Ancient Mesopotamia

Before its popularity as an essential ingredient of a pasta dish, cheese has been a part of culinary history for much longer. Cheese is mentioned in the Bible, with the most famous story recounting David bringing cheese to his troops before slaying Goliath ( 1 Samuel 17). Cheese was also mentioned in Sumerian records as early as 4000 BC.


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Martini Fisher is an Ancient Historian and author of many books, including Time Maps: Evolution of Languages and Writings / Check out :

Top Image: Ancient cheesemaking (Jacques Ribieff / Adobe Stock)

By: Martini Fisher

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Martini Fisher comes from a family of history and culture buffs. She graduated from Macquarie University, Australia, with a degree in Ancient History. Although her interest in history is diverse, Martini is especially interested in  mythologies, folklores and ancient funerary... Read More

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