In a world where bacon on a stick is commonplace and chili cook-offs dominate the winter season, it’s refreshing when an event comes along to suit all palates. Both vegans and carnivores alike are hungry to kick off Baltimore’s winter edition of Vegan Restaurant Week at the third annual Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Championship, taking place this Saturday, February 10.
The contest will be held at the Inner Harbor’s Radisson Hotel and will be hosted by Thrive Baltimore, a nonprofit specializing in food and environmental activism. More than 30 local and out-of-state vegan chefs, caterers, and mac ‘n cheese enthusiasts will compete for the best vegan mac and cheese title. Attendees will be able to sample each recipe and cast the deciding vote.
“Mac and cheese just brings people together,” said Brenda Sanders, food justice activist and co-founder of Thrive Baltimore. “It’s almost like it crosses culture. It’s one of those staples—the thing people go to when they think of comfort food—and there’s the novelty of it being done in a completely different way.”
This year’s event is slated to be the largest one yet with an expected turnout of about 4,000 people, double the amount of last year’s attendance and four times than that of its debut two years ago. Sanders recalls seeing the line stretch three blocks down in 2016 and is excited that this year’s competition has expanded beyond the Baltimore region.
“This event is a big one, a fun one, and an exciting one,” she said. “It’s also is an opportunity to educate people that there are better alternatives for health, our environment, and for bringing communities together.”
Sanders credits her nonprofit and other similar local organizations for the growth of veganism over the last few years in Baltimore, and her mission for the event is to bring awareness to a healthier, more animal-friendly lifestyle available to all. She hopes to meet the food disparity needs in low-income communities, and all proceeds from the event will go towards that goal.
The contest is honoring the city’s second Vegan Restaurant Week that’s running from February 9 to 18 in which over 20 local restaurants will be promoting veganism. Some will even be offering special menus, including The Sweet Side Cafe in Hampden, The Land of Kush in Mt. Vernon, Encantada at AVAM in Federal Hill, and The Nickel Taphouse in Mt. Washington.
“People are definitely ready for a change, and I’m really excited to be a part of bringing an alternative to Baltimore,” Sanders said.
Whether it’s the overarching festival or the mac and cheese event, most of the attendees are not even vegan, but they leave satisfied. Sanders explains that there are just as many ways to make mac and cheese as there are plant-based milk products available on the market. She is especially excited for the rich, creamy cashew-based recipes featured by some of the contestants.
“In Baltimore, we love something that is a little bit weird, a little bit different,” Sanders said. “And so we’ll come and check it out.”