Kathy and I were invited to a Mac-n-Cheese-Off this past weekend, which yes, DOES sound like the best thing ever. It was especially the best thing ever for me, since I love mac & cheese so much I almost live off of it. Only, seriously: half of ALL of Kathy's and my meals (okay maybe more than half) are box mac & cheese (Velveeta shells and cheese when we're feeling fancy). It should be noted that this is also due to being extremely poor: a 59 cent Fred Meyer/Kroger brand box of mac & cheese is a solid meal for both of us, making it approximately 30 cents a portion! And by 'solid meal,' I mean, 'contains no nutritional value whatsoever but makes us feel satisfactorily full'! I mean, we are so poor, people, that we rarely even reach high enough for Kraft these days. (Kraft can be close to a dollar! Excuse me.) I used to mix in peas with our box mac to include at least some semblance of nutrition, but haven't mustered up the energy to even do that in months. We DO completely smother our mac in hot sauce now, though, so...maybe, uh, we get some vegetables via peppers? Maybe?
But this was a competition, and people who are actually serious about Real Food (not Poor People Food) were going to be there. As evidenced by this conversation I had with a classmate who was also going, a few days earlier:
Me: "Mine's going to have bacon in it!"Ajay: "So's mine."Me: "Dammit."Me: (regrouping) "Mine's going to have blue cheese in it!"Ajay: "Mine's going to have cream cheese in it."Me: "Dammit."
So, I made this recipe which I had read about on Cat's blog, and it was delicious: super creamy, super cheesy, and REALLY blue-cheesy. As you probably know, this was no problemo for me, but the blue cheese flavor was quite potent, so I don't know if everyone would go for it. (And her recipe calls for 6 oz; the biggest container of crumbled blue cheese I could find was 5 oz, so I actually used LESS than I was supposed to.) As mentioned, I added bacon to the mix for some extra cholesterol, and I also used whole milk which I normally never buy. Can't you just feel it clogging your arteries now? Doesn't it feel great?
Ajay had attended this same event last year and told me, "I have NEVER been so sick of mac & cheese." The idea of being sick of mac & cheese was so absolutely blasphemous to me that my mouth dropped open and I stuttered, "Uh, I don't think that's POSSIBLE, dude." To which he responded, "Oh, you just wait."
Okay. So. As much as it pains me to say this, I was wrong, he was right. There were fifteen delectable macs at this shindig, and even though I only took a few small bites of each, by the time I reached number nine, I was hurting a little. It should be mentioned that I was also consuming large portions of beer, so it was pretty much Carbs Fest 2011. There were cajun macs, macs with veggies, macs with some really interesting and unique cheeses, macs of all pasta shapes and sizes. There was even a mac with beets, which was surprisingly good. The only sad thing about this competition is that it's kind of hard to keep 15 macs hot with one tiny kitchen, and some of the macs--including mine, which was #11 to come out--were only lukewarm or kind of cold, and a mac really loses its creaminess, and hence its deliciousness, with temperature. However, I still enjoyed them all! Even when I was feeling horrible! There were others who actually gave up, but I said, hells no! I will conquer you, overabundance of starch! Because I am a Guccini, and eating until we're on the verge of throwing up is what we do!!
In the end my blue cheese mac didn't even make it to the top five, but I was okay with it, because I was able to take the leftovers home, which I of course consumed the next day for lunch. And I hadn't really had anything for breakfast, which made this about a 24 hour cycle of sole mac & cheese/beer consumption. You could perhaps call this a personal low--or, high! My mind was trying to tell me high, but my body was kind of leaning towards low.
In any case, this weekend led me to revisit memories of some of my favorite macs of all time. I feel like mac & cheese has become a somewhat popular appetizer/happy hour type dish at many restaurants, and most of those I've had end up being just eh. But here are two macs which have really made my life better, one from each city I've loved.
#1: The Mac & Cheese at Sweetwater, Boston
Sweetwater is the Trashiest of Trashy Bars Which Owns My Heart. It's located in the alley near Emerson on Boylston, which is literally an alley but is officially called, creatively, The Alley. (It's hard to describe, but it's funny somehow, trust me. As in, people would specify their location as, "Hey, we are in The Alley." Okay, I can tell you don't get it. Moving on.) We spent many hours there in the last few years we lived there, most during their Tuesday night trivia. Sweetwater trivia was such a legendary part of our Boston social lives that it deserves its own entry and I won't get into too many details. But even though this was the trashiest of the trashy, I dearly loved some of their incredibly overpriced food. One of those items was their Sweetwater tenders--that Sweetwater sauce, so tantalizing! The other was their mac & cheese, served with garlic bread AND a salad. I really cannot describe what made this mac & cheese so good, other than it was always swimming in a bowl of abundant creamy white cheddar-y cheese. I love this mac so much that when we visited last summer and made the necessary Sweetwater trek, I ordered it even though I had just eaten dinner a couple of hours earlier--a McDonald's dinner, at that. And then after the mac, I ordered the Sweetwater tenders. And then we went to a late-night diner and I ordered the largest plate of sweet potato fries that man has ever made. This night has affectionately been referred to as That Night Jill Ate Four Dinners.
(Interestingly, upon just visiting Sweetwater's website, they describe themselves as "a well-kept secret for local professionals." And by "local professionals," I am assuming they mean, "lots of drunk and obnoxious Emerson students.")
#2: The Spold & the Tomato Basil Pesto Mac at Montage, Portland
Montage is one of the best restaurants I've been to in Portland (and believe me, there are a lot of good restaurants up in here). It's also in one of the strangest locations--in an industrial-type area which is literally under a bridge. The Morrison Bridge, to be exact. Perhaps a good location for a punk club, a little stranger for a somewhat-fancy cajun restaurant, but, hey, it works. This place has a whole mac & cheese portion of its menu with a delicious variety to choose from. I'm sure all their other food is delicious as well, but the macs are SO GOOD that I could never stray. My favorite two are the Spold & the Tomato Basil Pesto. The Spold is a combination of their The Old Mac, which is described on their website as thus: GARLIC, HEAVY CREAM, PARMESAN, and their Spicy Mac, described as: CAJUN GRAVY, JALAPENOS, TOMATOES, PARMESAN. Um, what could be a better, more heart-stopping combination? And the Tomato Basil Pesto mac speaks for itself. You might think it sounds healthier, but don't you worry your little head, it is still smothered in cheese. As any self-respecting mac should be. Seriously, some of the best food I've ever had.
Also, they wrap up your leftovers into really elaborate animals and shapes made of tinfoil, as my mom and sister are displaying here. Which, you know, is extremely wasteful, but, fun!
While my pretty-sick-of-mac&cheese feeling lasted through the day after the party, I should reassure you that it passed quickly. In the few days since then, after our leftovers ran out, I've consumed one box of Velveeta and one box of Fred Meyer brand mac. Thank God. My body is only used to foods whose color resembles radioactive waste, so it's good to be back to normal.