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A cheesy nirvana

by Eric Ginsburg

eric@yesweekly.com | @Eric_Ginsburg

Aline 20 deep snaked through the well-lit Old Winston Social Club, wrapping around the bar as people waited to sample over a dozen homemade macaroni and cheese dishes. Not everyone packed into the bar came for the food, but considering the quality of the cuisine and the fact that it was free, it’s a wonder there were even a few stray open seats.

Mid afternoon on a Saturday. UNC’s football team with a strong lead on a TV overhead. A warm but hazy day. The Temptations playing, and quality beer within reach. It’s difficult to picture a more comfortable backdrop for the bar’s Mac & Cheese Fest.

The only downside that emerged from the third annual event: The different entries to the competition weren’t labeled, only numbered, making selection a guessing game for attendees as well as judges. A less-than-ideal situation for anyone who would want to know what they’re eating (several chefs incorporated meat), try and replicate their favorite entry or write about it without relying on some guesswork.

One complaint was registered about the festival, but it was filed by my sister in Boston, who was irate that I didn’t tell her about this early enough for her to fly down and partake. Rest assured — she has already vowed to be there next year.

The varied combinations of cheese, macaroni elbows and distinguishing ingredients smiled up at me from the buffet line, begging to be lifted out of the tins and onto my Styrofoam plate. Some glistened in their shiny new coats while others seemed comfortable in a creamy slather.

Being that the line was too long to chance a second trip, I carefully portioned small scoops onto the plate, stacking some selections on top of others. Walking to a seat with my heaping pile of research, I didn’t feel bad that I missed a few entrants — this plate would already be more than I could chew.

Anything with an identifiable added ingredient made my plate’s roster while other basic-looking applicants still made the cut while space allowed. One green option kind of creeped me out, but uniqueness got the nod. I’m still not sure what it was. Another with shells instead of elbows looked a peanut-buttery brown with a mystery meat, two wrong guesses that turned out to be pleasing bits of mushroom.

Meat did factor into several entries, including hot dog, bacon, seafood and barbecue pork. Can’t go wrong with bacon and mac & cheese, but only one person utilized the ingredient.

I don’t know if there is official culinary-style lingo to describe competitive macaroni & cheese faceoffs, but I imagine it talking about how the cheese can act like glue, or mortar, that the sauce can help the pasta stick together or glide. Cheese can hug its counterpart or behave like globs of filler.

The array here offered all of the above.

A panel of esteemed judges (that included Nikki Miller-Ka, the subject of this week’s cover story) announced its verdict at 3 p.m. Two hours after the official start time, an eager army of patrons had vanquished almost every bite on the buffet.

Honorable mention: a pumpkin mac & cheesecake (the only dessert option).

Third place: a dish with blue cheese, dill and asiago.

Second place: Last year’s champion, Sarah Efird, with a pork butt barbecue with spicy mac.

Will Kingery, chef and owner at King’s Crab Shack and Willow’s, took home the winner’s silver macaroni bowl. His pancetta, lobster and smoked gouda entry earned him a space on a hall of champions plaque at the front of the bar. Kingery said his friends on hand quickly insisted he spend his other prize, a $75 gift card to Old Winston Social Club, on their next round of drinks.

Kingery’s mac was certainly delicious and unique — though someone else made a seafood dish last year — but I’d put the barbecue on top and the mushroom option in the top three.

I walked away full with some goals for next year in mind. I want to enter, either with a cheesy ham and peas recipe or something involving kale. I wouldn’t mind being a judge. Not surprisingly, the most unrealistic is my first choice: I want Efird, last year’s star and my first place pick this year, to open a mac & cheese restaurant.

WANNA go?

Old Winston Social Club, 1131 Burke St., Winston- Salem, 336.723.0060. For winning recipes or information about next year’s fest, visit macandcheesefest.com.

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