Attendees the real winners at Mac & Cheese Fest

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by Eric Ginsburg

It’s called the “Mac & Sleeze.”

Brae Hughes and her friends would just eyeball the ingredients for the most part, mixing together a mountain of cheese before potlucks at Appalachian State University. Though there isn’t an exact recipe and Hughes hasn’t made it in years, the basic tenets have remained the same — in addition to several kinds of cheese, namely varieties of cheddar, some mayo and a can of Campbell’s cheddar soup complete the dish, rounded out by crumbled Ritz crackers on top.

Hughes didn’t even intend to enter the Mac & Cheese Fest this year, the fourth that the Old Winston Social Club has held the free home-cooking competition, but a bartender encouraged her and she enlisted for the fun of it.

But after a panel of judges tried nine entrants in this year’s competition, Hughes was named the champion, taking home the silver bowl trophy that comes with placing first.

“I had no intention of winning,” Hughes said. “I guess simple came out on top this year.”

Sitting at one of the booths at the Burke Street bar in the middle of the afternoon last weekend, Hughes’ son was one of several kids enjoying the casual family atmosphere. As he set up a Jenga tower on the table in front of her, he said he preferred the entrants with meat, including one with bacon and another with lobster.

He wasn’t alone — Marc Pope’s lobster mac & cheese with pancetta, smoked gouda, sharp Vermont cheddar, parmesan, pepperjack and lots of heavy cream easily stood out among the other dishes. The judges ranked it second.

Pope was trailed by Caitlin Weaver, whose gruyere, gouda and cheddar mac & cheese with jalapeño, spices, a dash of cinnamon and a full pound of bacon came in third place.

The bar’s Mac & Cheese Fest is the most anticipated food event in the Triad, though maybe only in my book. Considering the brief afternoon affair has been held for four years in a row, it’s surprising how few people line up to try the arsenal of choices, especially because the food is free. I started thinking about it a good six months ago, but it wasn’t until less than a week beforehand that I got the news about the exact date and time — I had signed up for the Old Winston Social Club’s email list just for the occasion.

This year attendees were offered small Styrofoam bowls instead of plates, a move that makes sense considering the fare ran out within 20 minutes of the crowning of a champ and the buffet line opening. But for someone like me, who would cancel any plans to make time for an event like this, it just proved to be a hassle, as I scooped dual layers into each bowl, shamelessly absconding with four bowls.

The bigger problem, as in past years, is that the containers of mac & cheese weren’t labeled. Though attendees were told which numbered dishes corresponded with the winners, all of the entries still lacked a list of ingredients.

Most people chose elbow pasta, though one contestant elected to use shells. Weaver wasn’t the only one to add bacon, and Hughes had company in her straightforward approach.

The mysterious No. 1 mac & cheese dish, from an anonymous participant, was one of several to take a classic approach. It may have been the year of anticipation, since the previous mac fest, but I swear its classic brilliance catapulted it to the top of my list beginning with that first glorious bite.

Though it felt like there were fewer entries than previous years, one of this year’s strongest appeals was the slate of new winners. Not only were they new to the competition, but Hughes and Weaver didn’t even enter recipes they make regularly.

Weaver helped make a version of her mac & cheese last year at Thanksgiving — the single cousins in her family are expected to bring side dishes, and she was enlisted to help with the mac & cheese – but this was her first time making it on her own. Wisely adding jalapeños and bacon to the recipe, Weaver rightly landed in the top three.

I was a little disheartened that Sarah Efird, the 2012 winner and runner-up last year, didn’t participate. Both those years her recipes were my favorite, winning two years ago with a chili mac & queso and coming close with a pork-butt mac the following fest. Someone please give her the start-up capital to open a restaurant.

Last year Will Kingery of King’s Crab Shack took home the gold for a lobster, pancetta and gouda mac, and though it was among my favorites, it seemed almost wrong to have a professional chef and restaurateur alongside home-kitchen aficionados.

It’s hard to argue with a lobster mac, and with nobody besides Pope incorporating seafood on Nov. 15, his path was easily cleared into the top tier. His high-caliber entry would make an excellent side in any environment. Meanwhile Weaver’s creation, thanks largely to its unique spiciness and the inclusion of bacon was my favorite of the bunch, with the exception of that first blissful bite of mystery mac No. 1. It was the most well rounded and complex, strong enough to be an entrée at this year’s Thanksgiving.

But it only seems fitting that a cooking contest, dedicated to a national classic and orchestrated in the back of a bar, would give its top prize to something called the “Mac & Sleeze,” my second favorite overall of the day. Really what more could you want?

Stay posted on next year’s Mac & Cheese Fest or check out winning recipes at macandcheesefest.com.