People of a certain age might remember a distinctly late-nineties and early-aughts culinary fad: the fancy mac and cheese. It involved taking a cheap, slightly embarrassing, nostalgia-laced standby of industrialized 20th-century food, and mixing in a couple of common-denominator markers of luxury, like lobster meat or truffle oil. (Yes — the truffled-lobster mac and cheese was a thing. I lived to tell the tale.)

As veteran cheesemonger and food writer Gordon Edgar shows in his Zocalo essay, macaroni and cheese is an American staple with a history that stretches back to colonial times. As such, it repeatedly finds itself in contested territory. Who does it belong to? How (and through whose labor) did it become, well, mac and cheese? And how far can you stretch and — Food-Network-speak alert — “elevate” it before it stops being itself?

Being a judge at a macaroni and cheese competition in San Francisco taught…

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