The Aspen Mac and Cheese Fest is this Saturday, September 12th.
Kids all across the country grew up watching cartoons and seeing ads for Kraft mac and cheese featuring a big yellow dinosaur riding a noodle. Fond memories indeed. Bill Porter, the food critic for the Denver Post, says that is for a good reason.
“If you had a happy childhood, you probably have warm feelings about mac and cheese," says Porter. "Even if you didn’t have a happy childhood, a bowl of mac and cheese was probably at least one of the things that when you look back on, you can recall fondly.”
In the Macaroni and Cheese Festival in Aspen this weekend, ten restaurants - ranging from the upscale Eight K Restaurant in the Viceroy in Snowmass, to more casual affairs like Smoke Modern Barbeque in Basalt - all compete to be crowned the king of the queso. The master of the mac.
Jamie Theriot, the owner of Smoke, has fond memories of macaroni and cheese that stem from his first few times in the kitchen.
“I did start to experiment with boxed mac and cheese, so it could have been my first foray into culinary creativity at age 16," says Theriot.
Experimenting with things like canned tuna. He would dump a can into his boxed macaroni and cheese and mix it all together.
Theriot is from Louisiana. His personal favorite macaroni and cheese? The crawfish etouffee version that he makes at Smoke. And like almost every other dish, regional variations have appeared over time. Bill Porter of the Denver Post (and a North Carolina native!) explains what that gooey comfort food is like in the South.
“You can find pimento cheese mac and cheese," says Porter. "Here in the Southwest, we like to add roasted green chiles to our mac and cheese. Some people like to put bacon in their mac and cheese.
You might expect a food critic like Porter to have a highbrow attitude to food, even ones like mac and cheese. But although he prefers the homemade version, he doesn't see anything wrong with a little boxed macaroni from time to time. He spices his up with some extra cheddar cheese and some roasted chiles. His wife likes to add peas to hers.
The macaroni and cheese that Smoke BBQ will be bringing to the festival this weekend is their “burnt ends macaroni and cheese”. It's one of their top selling items. Those little burnt bits that come from the end of a brisket? Take those and mix it into some elbow macaroni. Smoke sous chef Louis Ruiz can whip up a batch in under five minutes. First, some burnt ends, some scallions and bit of diced tomatoes all get thrown into a hot pan.
Ruiz then throws in the a heaping portion of melted pepper-jack cheese, mixed with some jalapenos. Then, the noodles. Two big handfuls into the pan. Ruiz says he has made the dish so many times, he doesn’t need to measure anymore. It's all up to your tastebuds from there.
Laura Werlin, will be one of the judges at the competition this weekend, tasting a bit of the estimated fifty pounds of mac and cheese that Smoke is making, along with what the other competitors bring to the table. She has literally written the book on mac and cheese, called "Mac & Cheese, Please!"
But unlike Porter and Theriot, she didn’t have that childhood connection to the comfort food.
“I hated noodles when I was a kid," says Werlin. "Any kind of noodles, I did not eat.”