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Issue 02: The cheese dish that binds us

Nia Raquelle Smith explores the many iterations of the comfort combination of macaroni and cheese, and delves into her Caribbean history to find some surprises. Illustration by Namoi Gennery.

For years I've watched, and at times even participated in the diasporic food wars of friendly – and sometimes not so friendly – banter where cultural knowledge of Black people is exchanged across the globe. These interactions present opportunities for people to connect with distant kin and, for many Black Americans, learn about their culture or cultures they're often disconnected from or have no knowledge of.

Unfortunately, unlike the cheese that binds it at times, one dish, in particular, has pulled us apart – macaroni and cheese. Macaroni and cheese (or macaroni cheese as it is called in the United Kingdom) versus macaroni pie has been one of the most recurring dishes at the centre of the diaspora food wars. One thing is for sure: I needed and wanted to get to the bottom of what exactly is macaroni pie and why was I constantly being corrected for calling macaroni pie, macaroni and cheese.

So what is macaroni pie?

New York City is home to the largest Caribbean, and specifically Jamaican American, population in the United States. Despite Black and Caribbean Americans exchanging cultural traditions since the first Black people were brought to this country via the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the advent of social media has made diasporic discourse available in real-time to all who choose to participate.

Even though I was born and raised in the world's melting pot, New York City is pretty segregated, even culturally, amongst people of similar racial makeup. My ethnic background of Caribbean Latin and Southern Black heritage allowed me to be in both worlds simultaneously. Even with this passport to both worlds, and several Jamaican relatives, I was still unfamiliar with macaroni pie beyond my experience at the local Jamaican restaurants.

Macaroni pie is essentially baked macaroni and cheese. The key ingredients of elbow macaroni pasta, cheese, flour, butter, milk, salt, and pepper create a casserole. The main difference between the comfort food known as mac-n-cheese and its distant cousin from the regional south of the United States, is the béchamel sauce and the cheese used. The cheese, flour, milk, butter, and seasoning are used to create the béchamel sauce used in the typical baked American macaroni and cheese.

Typically American cheese, which is a processed cheese developed in the US in the 1910s and has a low melting point, is used to create the béchamel sauce. According to Jamaican American celebrity chef and caterer Kwame Williams, a mild cheddar is used to make macaroni pie.

The other notable difference is the texture and structure. While one might hear pie and assume there is a crust, the term pie is merely linguistic semantics due to differences in dialect. The pie is about the ability to cut and serve the baked macaroni and cheese, like a pie. Williams, a former restaurateur, also noted that the recipe will have minor changes and secret ingredients from house to house, varying from spices such as nutmeg to chopped vegetables like garlic and onions. There's also the use of canned milk, specifically evaporated (although sometimes condensed is used, if that's what is available), due to the limitations of refrigeration early on and socio-economic status in Jamaica. The texture is often dense and it's structure sturdy. The pie is less cheesy and can be eaten cold. Sometimes meat is added, but that is less common during modern times.

During our extensive conversation, Williams and I both became overwhelmed with a flurry of curiosities, most notably about who brought macaroni pie to the Caribbean?

Which island did it first?

After doing some extensive research, I learned that macaroni pie, which may come to the surprise of many of my Jamaican social media followers, is not inherently Jamaican. In fact, the earliest recording of macaroni pie is from the early 1700s in Barbados, another British colony. My ignorance was further dispelled to learn it was eaten all across the Caribbean.

But this only told part of the story, and I still needed to know more. Feeling that the wool had been pulled over my eyes for so many years, I began feverishly contacting loved ones and peers of Caribbean lineage to learn everything I could about macaroni pie. As I started talking to whoever would respond to my inquiries and digging deeper, I learned that macaroni pie was eaten in the furthest parts of the Caribbean, in Trinidad and Tobago, and as far away as Europe in Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and Greece with their own respective variations, of course.

While modern versions may include flour, it is doubtful that flour was a commonly used ingredient by people of lesser means, as the tropical climate is not ideal for growing wheat, thus making it more expensive to access. According to Trinidadian American content creator and influencer Ava-Marie Warden, flour isn't used in the typical Trinidad recipe.

In St. Kitts and Nevis, the preparation is similar to that of Jamaica, according to engineer Gregory Ward, and is generally eaten with vegetables, rice and peas (pronounced rice and pea), and a protein of your choosing. In Antigua, macaroni pie is eaten with the same components, and "it is relatively common to put gravy from stewed meats or sauce from grilled meats on the macaroni," says healthcare professional Tamel Edwards. I made the mistake of asking people from other islands if they did the same, and the response overwhelmingly was that this was blasphemy.

My interviews with friends, colleagues, and loved ones indicated one common thread – that the macaroni pie is often served as a side to the rice and pea and not the protein. Chef Williams mentioned the American influence is probably partially responsible for Jamaicans expanding that protein of choice to fried chicken in addition to stewed chicken and beef or oxtail.

The common linkage amongst these islands is that they were all colonised at some point in time by either the British, Spanish or the Dutch, and were a part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Based on this known fact, slavery is possibly responsible for spreading the macaroni pie across the Caribbean, as the islands are close to each other. Additionally, many enslaved persons worked side by side with Irish and some Scottish indentured servants, who were often given land after their time ended. These servants were sometimes given the opportunity to work on ships that travelled between islands. It would make sense that macaroni pie would be a dish that travelled well during this time, given its physical composition and ability to remain tasty while cold.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive way to know. One thing is for sure, this side dish is the unknown star in meals across the Caribbean.

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