Dozens of unique takes on a classic dish graced Charleston's first mac and cheese cook-off Saturday, but Becky Bradley wanted to offer up a taste of what she believes helped her daughter speak.
Bradley served dairy-free and gluten-free mac and cheese to the visitors of her booth at Charleston's Capitol Market. Bradley, a Charleston resident, said she began cooking differently six years ago, hoping dietary changes would help her then three-year-old autistic daughter, who was nearly non-verbal.
"She went from one to two-word utterances to full sentences in about six months — short sentences, but she progressed really fast," Bradley said. "Now she's nine, and she's really not considered on the spectrum any longer, because she's done so well."
Bradley said while she believes the change in diet helped, she attended Saturday's event in support of another important part of her daughter's development - The Childhood Language Center, where her daughter has attended weekly speech therapy sessions for years. The CLC, which hosted the cook-off, offers free counseling and therapy to nearly 100 children in the state.
"We're strictly middle class, and even if insurance covers the sessions, the co-pays alone might be $25 a week — that's $100 a month," Bradley said. "It's really been a godsend. We've been able to do other things for her without worrying about paying for therapy."
Holly Martin, executive director of the CLC, said the organization wanted to create a new fundraising opportunity that would be fun and engaging, and added that 100 percent of the proceeds from the cook-off go directly to the CLC.
"We were looking to revamp a signature fundraiser, and wanted something that would be very family friendly and involve the community in a fun space," Martin said. "We were very lucky the Capitol Market agreed to partner with us on this and make this possible."
Participants in the day's events included 14 corporations, eight non-profits, two restaurants and 20 hometown cooks. Hundreds of people gathered outside the market to purchase tasting tickets, which were available between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Laurel Kirksey, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association's West Virginia chapter, said many of her coworkers came together to work on the agency's dish - a spicy mac and cheese with jalapeno cheddar, fire-roasted tomatoes and a breaded topping.
"We literally took our favorite piece of each of our recipes and combined them," she said.
Kaarmin Ford, development director of the Alzheimer’s Association, said Saturday's event was a great opportunity for the CLC and other area non-profits to connect with the community.
"We wanted to come out to support the Childhood Language Center, because it's such a good cause, and to put ourselves out there as well, and let people who might be dealing with Alzheimer's disease know we're here," she said.
Andrea Morris, volunteer and community support coordinator for the Children's Home Society of West Virginia, said the group's dish, "Mean Miss Judy's Mean Mac and Cheese," named for one of its longest-serving cooks, had a little of everything - ricotta, mozzarella, cheddar, cream of chicken, chicken breast and seven different spices.
"We thought this was something that was cool, fun and different, and we wanted to be a part of it," Morris said.
For Martin, the event helps bolster an organization she believes strongly in. The CLC provides a number of therapies, including speech therapy, feeding therapy and swallowing therapy, to children with a range of issues, including autism, Down's Syndrome, cerebral palsy and cleft palate.
"For autism or many other conditions, there's no known cause or cure, but therapy can help take them to the point of integrating in society and achieving their goals," she said. "It's really amazing what they do - to take a child who perhaps can't eat food with texture, or communicate without a picture, that they can carry them to a point where they're having a conversation or eating normal food."
Sponsors for Saturday's event included Brick Street Insurance, Preservati Law PLLC, Summit Community Bank, Laurance Jones, Gibbons & Kawash, John Kennedy Bailey Law, BB&T, Fahlgren Mortine, Bricks Without Straw, Columbia Pipeline Group, New York Life, Focus One and the Capitol Market.
For more information on the CLC, visit www.childhoodlanguagecenter.org.
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.