Many Southern Thanksgiving tables groan under the array of traditional favorites, from the sublime to the even more sublime. Turkey? Of course. Sweet potatoes? You bet. Gravy? Count on it. Mac and cheese? Um, maybe. It might be curious to some Southern families, but to others, the Thanksgiving table, no matter how lavish, is lacking without a dish of macaroni and cheese.
On the other 364 days a year, a quick-fix box of mac is fine, so fine that we Americans purchase around 2 million boxes daily. But come Thanksgiving, nothing other than homemade will do. A fragrant, bubbling dish of macaroni and cheese is often the signature contribution from the reigning queen (or king) of the family kitchen. To assume the mac-and-cheese mantle is a rite of passage from one generation to the next.
Compared to other dishes among the Thanksgiving litany, mac and cheese has a lot going for it. It’s easy, affordable, vegetarian, and familiar, especially to little ones (and a fair number of older ones) with limited culinary curiosity. Mac and cheese always ranks high on the list of ultimate comfort foods, and if there’s any day that encourages unlimited comfort and carbs, it’s Thanksgiving.
Some cooks don’t consult a recipe any more than the rest of us need to review the alphabet before we sign our name. But when the stakes are holiday-high, less assured cooks seek guidance, or at last second opinions. Mac and cheese now ranks among the most-searched recipes in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.
Yes, the phrase “thanksgiving pasta” has soared in recent years, but the idea isn’t new. Documented Thanksgiving menus dating back to households in the 1800s included macaroni and cheese, although it was a layered pasta dish that included tomatoes, making it closer to what we call lasagna than to anything that could pass for mac and cheese these days. Like many expensive foods once confined to the tables of the gentry, pasta and cheese were exclusive, meaning that the cooks who prepared it were usually excluded from eating it. To have so much as a taste was something rare, and when it grew more accessible over time, eventually became associated with special occasion foods appropriate for holidays.
In 2015, FiveThirtyEight, well-known analysts of survey data identified what they termed “the most disproportionately common Thanksgiving side dish by region” across the United States. The chart (not a pie chart, although that would have been fitting) revealed that 35% of households in the Southeast considered mac and cheese to be “far more necessary” at Thanksgiving than does the rest of the county. Cornbread nudged out mac and cheese in Texas and central Southern states, but still, mac and cheese represented well. (West of the Rockies, including Alaska and Hawaii, the choice was salad. Hmph.)
The soul of tradition, however, isn’t manifested or measured on a national scale, but on individual tables. Families choose all sorts of ways to make their mac and cheese, but any of them that meets the expectations and satisfies the appetites of those gathered together is worthy of thanksgiving, and sufficient in its grace.