Recipe: Bess Truman’s Mac and Cheese

Former First Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace Truman was known for her cooking, and many of her recipes today are not only preserved by the Truman Presidential Library, she offered them for publication in charity cookbooks to the many volunteer organizations she worked with.

First Lady Bess Truman, Source: Library of CongressThe story goes that a young Harry Truman was visiting his relatives in Independence, Missouri when his aunt asked him to return a cake plate that Bess’ mother Madge had sent over.  Bess answered the door, and thus began their nine year courtship. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Trumans called Missouri home, and Bess Truman’s recipes reflect the Midwestern food culture of the time. Not for the faint of heart, her recipes are the kind that stick to your ribs and prepare you for a day of heavy labor. Even when the Trumans resided in the White House, the first lady often prepared these classic average-American meals for the family and close friends.

Of all of Bess Truman’s recipes, her Mac & Cheese recipe is most often reprinted – though a search around the internet will show that few actually make it. Understandably so. This is a heavy dish, particularly for those used to mac and cheese from the little blue box (you know the kind: add three tablespoons butter to ¼ cup of milk, and stir with powdered ‘cheese’ packet). Just take a look at the ingredients: for one cup of pasta, there are two cups of milk and two cups of cheddar. Add an egg and half a stick of margarine to top it off, and you’ve got a dish that’ll sit in your stomach like a brick.

In the absence of any seasonings (ground pepper, mustard, etc.), I was skeptical how this would turn out. It wasn’t at all bland, actually. The milk, egg and cheddar bind together around the pasta, and the flavor will largely depend on the quality and type of cheese you use. The margarine on top helps prevent the cheese from burning. You could use butter instead of margarine, or simply cover loosely with foil. On a side note, I believe this is the first time I’ve actually ever purchased margarine…

A few tips on this for those who want to brave it at home. Use a decent size casserole or loaf pan. When you start adding milk and cheese, you’ll see that this takes up more room than one might expect from reading the recipe. Also put a cookie sheet underneath it to catch drippings that will bubble out.

The Recipe

8 oz macaroni (1 cup)
½ pound grated cheddar cheese (roughly two cups, loosely packed)
2 cups of milk
1 egg
¼ cup oleo (margarine)

Cook macaroni according to the directions on the box. Drain and cool. Spread a layer of macaroni in a baking dish. Then add a layer of cheese. Repeat layers.

Combine the milk and egg separately. Pour over macaroni and cheese. Dot with oleo/butter.

As Truman notes in the recipe, you can make it up to this point and then refrigerate it a day in advance.

Unfortunately, the recipe stops here with no baking temperatures or times. You’ll want to bake it slowly so the cheese melts, but doesn’t burn. I went with 325 degrees in a pyrex loaf pan for about 45-50 minutes. Let it stand about ten minutes to solidify a bit before serving.




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