The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

The origin of chili mac?

Friday, February 12, 2010, 15:18
Section: Food & Drink

A former coworker linked this article on Facebook, which makes the very dubious claim that DC invented chili mac, a dish I grew up eating.

What makes it dubious, for starters, is that the Hard Times Cafe’s “chili mac” was actually Cincinnati chili — chili served over spaghetti noodles, although the Hard Times version was less sweet than the Cincinnati versions I’ve tried over the years. The chili mac I had growing up was two cans of Hormel chili (one with beans, one without) served over a bunch of elbow macaroni, with dried Kraft Parmesan cheese shaken on top. (Today, at home, we use Stagg Dynamite Hot chili and refrigerated shredded Parmesan.) Hard Times did do the shake cheese thing, though.

My mom, who served it to us as a way to stretch the family’s food budget until payday, learned it from her mother, whom I don’t think ever went anywhere near Washington, DC, until after I was already born.

Looking online, I see a lot of people claiming that chili mac is a derivation of Cincinnati chili, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, etymology-wise. Wouldn’t it be “chili-ghetti” or something, then?

There’s an appalling (to me) lack of scholarship on this subject. Chef Boyardee (who turns out to have been an actual guy originally named “Boiardi”) had a single can version of the dish starting in the 1970s and the U.S. Military now has a version as an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat ration), but that also seems to be a recent thing, with no precursor in the older c-rations the military used to eat.

But the origins of chili mac may actually be almost as old as normal chili, and date to the same part of the world: The oldest citation I’ve found is this claim that it’s a Texas recipe dating to at least 1918!

I am excessively curious about this. Does anyone have any additional insight into this?


  1. My great uncle advertised the best “Chili Mac” in town in Texarkana, Texas at his Francesco Montanari Cafe before 1920

    Comment by Thomas Taroni — April 4, 2013 @ 14:28

  2. I, too, am very interested in this little bit of food/cultural history. My family is from Newark, New Jersey on my mother’s side since about 1890. Chili Mac (canned or otherwise) has been in my family for as long as any of us can remember (90 year old great grandmother included) we use cheddar cheese and maybe some chopped onion if it’s there. Sometimes the beauty of it is what you have on hand.

    Comment by Sabrina — April 12, 2016 @ 0:08

  3. My grandfather Henry E. Liesmann invented chili mac at the St. Louis Worlds Fair in 1904. I have the article around here somewhere. First called Chili de Spaghetti it was later shortened to Chili de Mac

    Comment by Rick Liesmann — July 17, 2017 @ 14:22

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