Making the perfect bowl of macaroni and cheese without butter or milk might seem like a difficult feat. But at the inaugural Vegan Mac n’ Cheese Smackdown last year, dozens of local cooks gathered to put their own dairy-free spin on the classic comfort food.
“You’d be really surprised at how amazing it can taste,” says Nathaniel Corn of Baltimore Vegan Drinks, a local networking group that co-hosts the competition. “It’s confusing when people say vegan cheese isn’t real cheese, because cheese is such a processed food anyway. So, to me, it’s no different if it’s made from cashew or coconut milk instead of cow’s milk.”
Thousands will pack the athletics building at Baltimore City Community College to experience the cook-off’s return on Saturday, February 18, from 3-7 p.m. But after the success of last year’s competition, organizers have decided to extend the vegan-friendly festivities throughout the entire weekend this time around.
“It’s really exciting to see the vegan movement grow in Baltimore,” Corn says. “We’re kind of spoiled to have so many restaurants embracing it.”
The first-ever Baltimore Vegan Weekend, Feb. 17-19, will kick off with an informal Friday night food crawl, followed by the signature macaroni and cheese event and a number of Sunday brunches at local cafes.
More than 25 participating eateries are set to showcase vegan specials for Friday night’s city-wide dining promotion. Dairy-free dishes to look out for include a steak-less cheesesteak at One World Cafe in Charles Village, vegan crab cakes at The Land of Kush in Mt. Vernon, pesto pizzas at Two Boots in Midtown, and the “Tofu Brah” rice bowl with tempura broccoli at Ekiben in Fells Point.
Organizers are expecting the attendance for Saturday’s smackdown to outnumber last year’s crowd, which drew in more than 1,000 people. Contestants’ dishes will be judged based on taste and texture, and awards will be given in categories including best overall, people’s choice, and “Most Like Grandma’s.”
“There’s such a level of ingenuity that people bring to it,” Corn says, mentioning that last year’s recipes ranged from gluten-free options to a mocked bacon macaroni and cheese. “Mac and cheese is kind of like pizza. Sometimes it’s really good, but it’s always good.”
Proceeds from the fundraiser will benefit Thrive Baltimore, an organization that offers community cooking demos, nutrition lectures, and food tastings with a sustainable focus. Thrive will host an after-party following the cookoff at its Station North headquarters, complete with live funk music spun by DJ Jay Rags and plenty of snacks including vegan nachos and chocolate chip cookies.
To wind down the weekend, seven local eateries will offer vegan brunches on Sunday, with specialties ranging from Belgian waffles at NuBohemia Cafe in Mt. Vernon to a tofu scramble with a side of plantains at Sweet 27 Bakery and Cafe in Remington. In Hampden, Paulie Gee’s will be featuring 15 varieties of vegan pizzas from 12-4 p.m.
Corn says that extending the event is an ideal way to showcase the growth of the movement overall, mentioning that the number of vegans nationwide has doubled in the last five years.
“It has a lot to do with people being more educated about their food and where it comes from,” he says. “It’s nice to see restaurants coming up with new recipes and people trying new things. People getting together over food is such a bonding experience.”