Farmers' market serves up mac and cheese contest

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BENNINGTON — It's time to rev up your slow-cooker and tune up your grater: the second annual macaroni and cheese cook-off is almost here.

A lifeline in the midst of bleak winter, the Bennington Farmers' Market macaroni and cheese competition turns the spotlight on this essential comfort food. The rules are simple: Contestants enter their dishes for a donation of $5, and those attending the farmer's market get to sample the recipes for $1 a ticket — or $5 for six — and vote for their favorite.

The stakes have never been higher. In addition to last year's top prize, a wooden spoon with a gold ribbon, this year's first-place winner gets a $50 gift certificate from King Arthur Flour.

The competition will take place during the regularly scheduled farmers' market on Saturday, Jan. 20 in the First Baptist Church at 601 Main St. Ticket sales will begin at 10 a.m. and continue to around 12:30 p.m., at which time the votes will be counted, and proceeds will go to the Meals on Wheels program.

The idea for a macaroni and cheese competition arose last year, when organizers began casting about for an alternative to the chili cook-off they'd held in 2015. "Somebody suggested comfort food," said Audrey Pietrucha, one of the organizers, "and then somebody came up with macaroni and cheese."

The response to last year's event showed organizers they'd made the right choice. "It was a huge success," Pietrucha said. "The people who came to sample the macaroni and cheese were very excited. We knew we'd found our niche."

Just over a dozen cooks contended for last year's trophies, Manchester Woodcraft wooden spoons decorated with a gold, silver and brozne ribbons. Chosen by the voters was a macaroni and cheese with shredded venison, created by Jezi Roberts.

"Everything was good," Pietrucha said. "There were definitely some different takes on it, like the feta cheese one. There are all kinds of wonderful variations" on the cheese-and-macaroni formula, she continued. "You can put anything in it — hamburger, shredded chicken, vegetables. You can have an Italian version, or a Mexican version with taco meat and vegetables — the possibilities out there are endless." In fact, a quick search turned up more than 150 books dedicated to the art of macaroni and cheese, and that's not including mac-and-cheese themed books of poetry, murder mysteries and romances.

Macaroni and cheese has had quite a history on America's dining tables. Originating in northern Europe in the mid-18th century, it was brought to the U.S. in the 1790s by Thomas Jefferson, who had it served at state dinners. It went downmarket from there, eventually becoming a family staple during the Great Depression, when Kraft began selling its pasta-and-dried-cheese-packet-in-a-box for 19 cents. In the past decade or so, it's seen a return to gourmet status, with variations like lobster macaroni and cheese, or mac and cheese with truffle oil.

There are really just two rules for the Farmers' Market competition. One: The dish should contain some kind of macaroni or other pasta product, and some kind of cheese. And, two: no boxed mac and cheese, please (not that it would win anyway). Aside from that, the sky's the limit.

With the decision based on popular vote, Pietrucha acknowledged that there is the possibility for ballot-box stuffing, with friends and family members of contestants purchasing single tickets. But organizers have decided they're okay with that, particularly when all the money raised through ticket sales is destined for a good cause.

"Last year, we raised more than $400 for Meals on Wheels," she said. "This year, we'd like to beat that."

Contestants are to arrive at the church by 9:30 a.m., and to plan on being there to serve. Tables, serving utensils and electricity will be provided.

If you're thinking of entering, here's a tip: The bigger the pot of macaroni and cheese, the more servings, and the more servings, the more possible votes. "Don't be shy," Pietrucha said. "Bring lots."


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