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Saturday, November 18, 2023

Manasseh Cutler, Mac and Cheese Bad Boy

Manasseh Cutler was served macaroni and cheese at a state dinner hosted by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. He did not like it and said so publicly. Cutler was a scientist, pastor, and architect of the new territory that enabled the settlement of Marietta and statehood for Ohio. He is considered a co-founder of Ohio University, chartered in 1804. The iconic oldest University building on campus is named Cutler Hall. 

Campus Martius historian Bill Reynolds alerted me to a curious protest about the mac and cheese thing. A presumably humorous petition (excerpt below) was launched by a student at OU, citing Cutler’s dislike of mac and cheese as an underreported blot on his record and issuing a call to action:


….Macaroni and cheese has grown to become integral to the 21st century college diet,…. and it (is therefore) wholly unacceptable for one of macaroni and cheese’s first and strongest detractors to represent one of our country’s finest institutions of higher learning. We call upon Ohio University to remove mentions of (Manasseh) Cutler in their advertisements, and to consider renaming Cutler Hall on College Green to a more appropriate name, such as “Mac-and-Cheese Hall...”


Let’s examine the charge against Manasseh Cutler. First, macaroni was then used as a general term for pasta. So it’s a stretch to declare beyond a reasonable doubt that Cutler would have disliked today’s mac and cheese. He did record his dislike of a macaroni dish served by President Thomas Jefferson. His journal on February 6, 1802 states, “Dined at the President's – ... Dinner not as elegant as when we dined before. (It included)….. a pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with….onions (which) tasted very strong, and not agreeable.” Another diner explained to Cutler that it was an Italian dish, and that the “onions” were really pasta noodles.


Despite its ancient origins, pasta was not well known in early America. Jefferson became a fan while he was ambassador to France in the 1780’s. He even procured a pasta making machine from Italy and made a detailed drawing of it. His serving of pasta to guests while President helped popularize it.

Thomas Jefferson’s pasta machine drawing and detailed instructions on it's operation


Second, the student petition accused Manasseh Cutler of being “utterly uncultured” for snubbing macaroni. Hyperbole? Probably. In reality, Cutler was utterly cultured, one could say, and one of the most educated, articulate, and well-connected men of his time. Cutler graduated from Yale, taught school, practiced law, was ordained a minister, studied medicine, and conducted scientific research. Uncultured? Absolutely not.


Manasseh Cutler represented the Ohio Company of Associates who petitioned Congress in July, 1787, for the land purchase that led to Marietta’s settlement. One historian wrote, “Never was there a more ingenious, systematic and successful piece of lobbying than that of the Reverend Manasseh Cutler.” His influence can be seen in Ordinance of 1787 provisions which prohibited slavery, encouraged education, and granted freedom of religion. "Make the land worth having," Cutler told Congress. "Unless you do, we do not want it." 


Through his and others’ efforts, a new territory with truly American governance was created. The result was land for veterans, new settlers, five future states, and commitment to education – Ohio U. was the first university. 

The Ohio University petition is amusing, and allows us to recall Manasseh Cutler’s many accomplishments. The name “Cutler Hall” is truly well deserved.


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