I knew it was crazy to want macaroni and cheese for dinner the night before I was scheduled to judge 23 macaroni and cheese dishes at Return of the Mac: Indy’s First Mac and Cheese Fest. But there I was, on the phone to a friend, arguing cheddar vs. American cheese.
That’s the thing about macaroni and cheese: We can’t get enough. On Sunday, 3,000 people showed up for Return of the Mac at Pan American Pavilion. The line wound around the plaza almost to Georgia Street.
They were after the gooey goodness area restaurant and catering chefs concocted in giant skillets and huge baking pans. There was mac and cheese with kimchi, mac and cheese with duck, mac and cheese with barbecue chicken and slaw and good, classic elbow macaroni and cheese adorned with nothing but bread crumbs. Folks used pork rinds to scoop mac and cheese. Deep-fried mac and cheese balls sat opposite sweet macaroni and cheese with a dollop of sour cream on top. One chef put braised bison in his mac and cheese.
The People’s Choice winner was Nada‘s roasted poblano and jalapeno mac and cheese with garlic breadcrumbs. Pioneer won the judges trophy for its campanelle pasta with provolone, smoked mozzarella and slow-cooked tomato sauce with from-scratch meatballs and fennel sausage.
Those who couldn’t get their taste buds on all that decadence mourned at home or followed the action on social media: #indymac. All tickets were sold in advance, and they went quickly. The first sales round in December was wiped out in a couple hours. When organizers moved the event from Circle City Industrial Complex to the larger Pan American Pavilion, a second round of ticket sales sold out in one minute, said Return of the Mac organizers Josh Baker of MOKB Presents and R.J. Wall of Chefs Night Off supper club.
Some of those who scored the $25 general admission and $35 VIP tickets were reselling them online for $300 to more than $400. Wall and Baker plan at least two more mac and cheese festivals this year, one on Indy’s north side and one in Bloomington, dates and locations to be announced.
“It’s macaroni and cheese,” Wall said. “Everybody loves it.”
Macaroni and cheese ranks as America’s fourth most popular comfort food after pizza, chocolate and ice cream, according to a 2016 Harris Poll, but its popularity is rising. A 2016 Noodles & Company survey found that 85 percent of Americans — regardless of political party affiliation — said curling up with a bowl of macaroni and cheese brought them a greater sense of security than any presidential candidate from the 2016 election season.
Sara Haniford, Allanna Reed and Katie Kelly drove three hours from Crown Point to attend Return of the Mac. “Because we love mac and cheese,” they yelled simultaneously while balancing three plates loaded with samples.
“It’s the American classic,” Eat Here Indy food hound Austin Burris said. “It’s kind of moved from a side dish to a main dish in the last few years. And it used to be just the cheese. Now, it’s peppers and meats and a whole bunch of different accessories and ingredients that go into it. And I’m a more the merrier kind of guy.”
So anything goes with macaroni and cheese?
“Ah, no,” Burris said. “I don’t’ want any fruit in my mac and cheese. I don’t want a dessert mac and cheese. Leave it in this place. Don’t come out with the chocolate mac and cheese, and say ‘We’re just trying something.’
“Don’t do it.”
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