Charleston Mac Off: America’s largest mac and cheese competition’s fifth run

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Photo courtesy of Whitney Garofalo
(Photo by Whitney Garofalo)

Being born and raised in the South comes with a few inherent and undeniable qualities. One of those is the appreciation of macaroni and cheese. Such a dish is so simple, yet so…good. However, there is a certain artistry attached to mastering the perfect, gooey, cheesy, melt-in-your-mouth mac and cheese. Sure, you can heat up a box of Velveeta or Easy Mac and be satisfied, but to be truly blown away by this seemingly uncomplicated dish of noodles and cheese, there is a certain caliber that must reached; one that is articulated by all the participants in this year’s Charleston Mac Off.

Upon entry, it was easy to tell that I would be thoroughly stuffed by the time I made my way through each of the vendor’s staggering lines of folks who were all swarming to get a sample of each restaurant’s unique take on macaroni and cheese.

The concept of the Charleston Mac Off is simple and much like any other food festival: each one ticket purchased is good for a two ounce sample of mac and cheese. But what actually goes into putting on the world’s largest macaroni and cheese festival? Alyssa Maute from Snappy Events, the organization that put on Charleston Mac-Off comments that, “A lot goes into putting on the largest mac and cheese festival. We have to recruit restaurants to compete in the competition, line up music and entertainment and go through a long list of event logistics to make sure that everyone is happy, safe and having a good time on the event day.”

But what makes this food festival unlike others of its kind is that it is the world’s largest festival centered solely on macaroni and cheese. Matue notes that centering an entire festival around this dish is because, “it’s about our identity as Southerners. Mac and cheese is a tradition and an item found on almost every menu in Charleston. It is a tradition and speaks to our Southern roots and values. This event also centers around the wonderfully talented chefs and restaurants we have in the Holy City. Year after year, Charleston gains national recognition for its culinary community. This event also hopes to bring tribute to our culinary community by taking a Southern tradition and putting a fun spin on it.”

Photo courtesy of Whitney Garofalo
Winner Crave Kitchen’s macaroni and cheese (Photo by Whitney Garofalo).

There was, in fact, other refreshments, snacks, and souvenirs available for purchase, but as far as the main meat of the festival–or, noodles and cheese, perhaps?–it was which competitor would be voted as Charleston’s best macaroni and cheese: a quite prestigious title in the Holy City.

From smoked bacon and gouda macaroni and cheese, to fried macaroni and cheese balls, to Greek yogurt infused macaroni and cheese, to conventional cheddary cheese macaroni and cheese, the Charleston Mac Off delivered variety to this traditional southern classic.

Personally, I found my comfort in participant Coleman Public House’s take on the dish. Creamy smoked gouda cheese, topped with crumbled pecan smoked bacon and parmesan, and drizzled with white truffle oil made for an explosion of smoky, cheesy goodness with earthy notes from the truffle oil.

But enough of my opinion, who was really voted the best macaroni and cheese by Charlestonians? Their four prior accolades speak for themselves–Crave Kitchen in Mount Pleasant took the cake with their fifth win as “Best Macaroni and Cheese” at the Charleston Mac Off.

Other notable mentions are Burton’s Grill’s win for “Best Local Ingredient” and Cherrywood BBQ & Ale House’s win for “People’s Choice Award.” located in Mount Pleasant and Kiawah Island, respectively.

As this was the fifth Charleston Mac-Off, Maute remarks that what made this year different was that, “This year we had 22 restaurants compete. The most of any Mac Off. Also, we added a “Home Grown Cooks Competition,” where independent cooks and locals could take a stab at the competition and submit their best mac and cheese recipes. I think people really enjoyed this aspect of the contest. They entered two 8×10 pans of delicious mac for our judges to taste test. Our winner this year was Charles Miller.”

And as predicted, I left stuffed full and barely able to walk but nevertheless thankful that Charleston is home to such a unique and growing event.

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