Is there a better comfort food than good ol’ mac and cheese?
Easy to make, it’s a near-universal staple of busy family dinners or meals for one in college dorm rooms.
With just a couple of minor tweaks here and there — a little salsa, some ground beef or tuna, maybe a little bacon — plain old orange-colored pasta out of a box can be elevated to something greater than its individual ingredients.
There are thousands of homemade varieties. What’s the best version of mac and cheese is open to debate — or is it?
Starting at 11 a.m. Saturday, the Laurance Jones III Childhood Language Center on Quarrier Street will once again try to find out with its annual Mac & Cheese Cook Off at the Capitol Market.
“Isn’t this just the best event ever?” asked Megan Cutlip, the Language Center’s executive director.
For true mac and cheese fans, it just might be.
On Saturday, 25 teams will bring upward of 300 pounds of pasta for the crowd to sample and the judges to score for bragging rights and the chance to be named the best of the best.
None of this will be garden-variety, just-out-of-the-box cheesy mac. Cutlip said the businesses and restaurants who come out bring out their best stuff. They get creative.
“We always get some great entries,” she said. “West Virginia Eye Consultants do a ball of deep-fried mac and cheese that looks kind of like an eye. We had an accounting firm last year who came with toppings. They brought crushed-up Doritos and crushed-up Cheetos — the kids loved it.”
To help determine who has the best dish, patrons have up to three tokens they can spend to announce their choice, but the cook-off brings in a couple of local judges.
“Steve and Jeannie from V100 are judging. We’ve got Tony the Tailor from down the street. He’s just a big mac and cheese fan, and Candace Nelson,” she said. Nelson is a food writer and Sunday Gazette-Mail contributor best known for her book, “The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll.”
Who judges varies a little from year to year and Cutlip said they always end up needing a judge or two by the morning of the cook-off.
It’s never any trouble finding replacements, she said.
“And we always get a couple of kids to help out,” Cutlip said. “Mac and cheese is kids’ food. It’s important to get their perspective.”
The Mac & Cheese Cook Off is a benefit for the Laurance Jones III Childhood Language Center, which offers free speech therapy to children.
“We’re a free clinic,” Cutlip said. “If you have insurance, we’ll bill it, but if you don’t or they don’t take it, you never see a bill.”
The director of the speech center said the clinic sees about 130 kids each week and there’s a waiting list to get in.
“It’s a huge need in this area,” she said.
Cutlip said the Mac & Cheese Cook-Off was the brainchild of the center’s board president, Matthew Sutton. She said he wanted something that grabbed people’s attention, but in a way that reminded the public that they were a kids’ organization.
“He wanted it to be kid-friendly,” she said. “And what’s friendlier than mac and cheese?”
Now in its sixth year, the Mac & Cheese Cook-Off is growing. Last year, Cutlip said they had 19 teams and about 3,000 people came by to sample the mac and cheese. This year, they’re up to 25, but Cutlip said they’re hoping to grow it to about 30. “That’s kind of our cutoff, we think.”
Cutlip couldn’t say who she thought could win the cook off. There’s a lot of talent in the field. A few teams have been competing for a while, but you couldn’t discount dark horse candidates.
Last year, Big Joe’s, a pub and burger restaurant on Capitol Street, took home top honors.
“It was their first time out,” Cutlip said. “They won with a buffalo chicken mac and cheese. They’re coming back again and have a new recipe.”