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Fully Loaded Macaroni and Cheese

America’s favorite comfort food is… French?

When Thomas Jefferson visited Paris, he was so impressed with the macaroni gratin that he brought back a machine for making his own pasta.

He is even known to have served a “macaroni pie” at a White house state dinner in 1802. Like many Yankee Doodle dishes, this one owes a lot to its French origins. It is no coincidence that July 14, the date of France’s biggest national holiday, is also officially Macaroni and Cheese day in the U.S.

Perhaps that’s why Chicago has a special affinity for this cheesy pasta dish, and takes it very seriously.

$60 for a ticket to the city’s annual Mac and Cheese Fest is serious indeed, but very worth it. (VIP tickets are $100, and include 10 drink tickets and a souvenir t-shirt.)

Each October, chefs all over the city gather at the UIC Forum to offer more than 50 gourmet tastings of their versions of this classic French-American dish. French cheeses are a popular choice, especially Gruyère and Brie (though Jefferson preferred Parmesan).

This is Chicago, though, and we’re fearless about food.

You might find versions made with corn, crawfish, pancetta, lobster, chorizo, jalapeños, pulled pork , crab, shrimp, chicken, beer or turkey Andouille sausage (not all together). The winning dish receives the coveted Golden Noodle award.

Ironically, France does not appear to share America’s love of this dish-formerly-known-as-French. Cheddar cheese (the most popular choice in the U.S.) is scarce on the Continent, and expensive when found. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of French cheese that melt beautifully into a béchamel sauce. So even if you’re a suffering expatriate longing for some American comfort food, you still have plenty of options.

Photo: Melissa, creative commons