A “feather in your cap” is a symbol of honor and achievement and has been so regarded in a number of cultures. Using the phrase figuratively has been common in the UK since the 1700s.
Richard Hansard, English writer and traveler, recorded it in his Description of Hungary, 1599: “It hath been an antient custom among them [Hungarians] that none should wear a fether but he who had killed a Turk.” Many Native North American tribes also had the tradition of adding a feather to the head-dress of any warrior who killed an enemy.
The most familiar use of the phrase is in the children’s rhyme Yankee Doodle:
Yankee Doodle went to town,
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his cap,
And called it macaroni.
There are, of course, many versions of the lyric. This version may have originated with the British forces in the American War of Independence, in order to mock the revolutionary militia. “Doodle” was 1700s British slang for fool and “macaroni” was slang for a dandy or fop. The latter originated with the Macaroni Club, a group of London aesthetes who demonstrated a preference for foreign cuisine in an attempt to establish their sophistication. Presumably they thought that Yankees were stupid enough to believe that putting feathers in their caps would make them appear fashionable.
The use of feathers related to hunting can be found in the cultures of highland peoples in Scotland and Wales where it is still customary for the hunter who kills the first woodcock to pluck out a feather and stick it in his cap.
A single white feather has been, for a long time, a symbol of cowardice. “No one will defend him who shows the white feather.” 1829.
Times do change. The North American craze for mac ‘n cheese has long since eliminated any regard of macaroni as foreign cuisine. Which is a good thing, because few of us would be willing to pay gourmet restaurant prices for our favorite comfort food. Actually, chocolate is my favorite comfort food, but I can’t think of any way to combine it with mac ‘n cheese. Guess I’ll just have to have one of them for dessert.