Up to this past Saturday, I had never attended a food competition, let alone one dedicated to the classic, go-to comfort food that bears my namesake: mac and cheese. Attending the 5th Annual Charleston Mac Off in the Grove at Patriots Point, I learned about many things, including journalistic integrity, limits, and the need for prowess on the foodie battlefield. You see, there’s a certain strategy and tact one must use in order to properly navigate and dominate the 22 macaroni and cheese creations available… and I had neither of those.
I thought it best to approach a recap of the event with my personal judgment of top mac and cheeses in unbiased, fair form—so I would need to try all of them. With each tasting simply called a “sample,” the task didn’t seem daunting, so I decided, after imbibing in one of the event’s signature cocktails, to dig right in. Only until I was more than 15 samples deep and standing near Roti Rolls’s tent, anxiously trying to shovel their kimchi mac and cheese (which is delightful by the way) into my begrudging gob, did I realize I had pushed myself too far. I realized my zeal was no match for copious amounts of rich, creamy carbs and dairy, and I had to raise the white cheddar flag before it was too late—but I made quite a stand.
It’s easy to get lost in the quality and variety of the participating restaurants’ dishes. Some took traditional routes, others went in swinging (think meats and fried things), and some were a little more daring or crafty. I found top-spot contenders in many variations, and it would have been hard to choose a winner even if I hadn’t hit a food wall.
Even though I was physically unable to force all of those noodles into my stomach, I probably couldn’t have even procured every sample on my time constraints, with four-time champion Crave’s line for samples bisecting the event space.
Platia Food Truck’s Greek yogurt and feta mac and cheese had me ready to hop on my social media soapbox and ask why this beautiful concoction had never graced my taste buds before: “Has this always existed?!” I might’ve bellowed. And while ingenuity is always welcome, Cherrywood BBQ’s four-cheese, red pepper, and basil approach somehow had me waxing nostalgic even though I grew up on Stouffer’s and Easy Mac. Make no mistake, though. Despite my shortcomings in mac and cheese history, I have had my share of good and bad ones over the years and was ready to scrutinize every fork full. Some, while amazing, made me question their integrity as a mac and cheese product, with the addition of meats and other things diluting the main focus of the dish.
That’s where some of the beauty of the event shines through as well: Besides simply being able to eat all of these dishes while enjoying live music, cocktails, draft beers, and other vendors, I’m able to participate. I can discuss favorites with others and vote on who goes home with that distinguished honor. We can figure out together or by ourselves whether the culinary world is overstepping or nailing it. I came in with a modicum of a diet remaining, and while I’ve got to get back on that wagon, I left full and happy. I don’t think it would be such a staple as a comfort food otherwise. And though I was originally disappointed in myself for not finishing what I started (and, honestly, having even tried by myself in the first place), I left with reverence for the local culinary mastery and the ability to take something so simple and classic and make it something so refreshingly awesome.