Say (mac and) cheese

Everyone loves mac and cheese. Well, everyone I know, anyway… It’s one of those time-tested, kid-friendly comfort foods that work for any occasion.

To celebrate the holy marriage of pasta and cheese, Return of the Mac part III took over Noblesville’s Federal Hill Commons on Saturday afternoon for several hours of feasting (the first two events took place earlier this year in Indianapolis and Bloomington). Entrance times were staggered at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., although the line already snaking down the block when I arrived around 1:45. Fortunately, things moved quickly along once they started letting folks in. A gal who was directing traffic and seemed to be in the know said 1,600 attendees were expected.

I’d brought my 9-year-old son along as my plus one, which was probably not the best idea in retrospect. He does like mac and cheese (mostly in the form of Velveeta shells), but didn’t seem to grasp the concept that this was a festival dedicated solely to the aforementioned food group. While waiting in line to get in, he kept asking me if there would be burgers, fries or ice cream. However, he did seem happy to take advantage of a photo op with the coveted “Golden Noodle” trophy.

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Once through the gate, we grabbed paper plates and forks, then it. Was. On. With more than two dozen participating restaurants vying for bragging rights, the amount of tasting to be done was somewhat intimidating. Booths lined up in one long row and the competition was fierce. Most of the vendors toward the entrance boasted longer lines — thinking we’d be smart, my kiddo and I hightailed it to the opposite end to work our way backwards. We also had the foresight to snag a pink lemonade Nicey Treat pop for my son from the cart’s strategically stationed perch on the far side.

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Mac and cheese entrants ranged from newer spots like Joella’s Hot Chicken (which I’d sampled and enjoyed at the Indianapolis Monthly Best Restaurants party a month or so ago), LouVino and Four Day Ray Brewing to beloved Hoosier haunts like MCL, Clancy’s and Arni’s. You simply approach any booth you want in any order you want and grab a little 2-oz. cup of what each has to offer. About two bites worth per sample. Recipes ranged from traditional classic to newfangled modern interpretations garnished with yummy add-ons.

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I’d purposely skipped lunch, and was glad I did. I managed to work my way through a half dozen or so samples in short shift. Note to event organizers — some sort of scoring card or passport-style brochure detailing who’s serving what would have been nice to help patrons plan their attack and keep track of what they’ve tasted. I saw quite a few folks walking by with their plates loaded up with 7, 8 or 9 samples. After a couple bites, everything started to blur together for me and I had a hard time remembering exactly what I ate and where it came from. I did NOT envy the judges for having to sample every single offering to select a winner. Great googly moogly.

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The DJed 80s music was fun (and right in my wheelhouse). The kiddo beelined straight for the giant inflatable human hamster balls. After 15 minutes or so, I reminded him that we needed to get back to the mac and cheese.

In spite of the staggered admission, the whole scene was very crowded. And, it being a hot day with temps pushing 90, my little man started whining after 30 minutes or so. The line for water and soft drinks was long, and while I would have very much enjoyed a cold Sun King beer, it wouldn’t have helped my son’s thirst situation. I wished there would have been more beverage stations and drink options on hand.

I didn’t end up being able to taste as many of the mac and cheese offerings as I would have liked, but after the fact, was excited to see that two I specifically remembered enjoying had snagged top honors — The Local Eatery’s Creole mac and cheese with blue cheese, cheddar and mozzarella topped with a couple of Cajun-spiced shrimp was the judges’ top pick, while new-kid-on-the-block LouVino won People’s Choice with a Louisville Hot Brown-inspired recipe with creamy Mornay sauce, smoked chicken, tomato relish and bacon (and as a bonus, handed out $5 coupon to visit the restaurant for brunch). District Tap’s buffalo chicken mac and cheese was on point as well…

The heat and the kiddo’s complaining got the best of us both 45 minutes in. I must mention a note on the parking situation. We’d parked in the Kroger lot across the street — as the event organizers had said we could do, but while walking back to our car, a guy driving by made a snide comment to me about taking a spot away from paying Kroger customers. I wasn’t sure how to respond nicely, so I didn’t. But I seethed about it halfway home.

I’m not sure a hot summer day provides the best conditions to load up on this kind of decadent fare. Then again, there’s never a bad time to eat mac and cheese IMO.

I will be shocked if Return of the Mac doesn’t return next year. For more information, head on over to returnofthemacfest.com.

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Can you dig it?

If you’re a foodie like me, it’s impossible not to dig the scene at Indiana’s biggest and best annual farm-to-fork festival.

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Last weekend, Dig IN made the move from White River State to its new location in Military Park, a set up that seemed to work well. Lots of room to move around in between the six food tents, beverage stations and a couple live music stops. The only thing that seemed like an oversight was the lack of seating. My friends and I took a break from the feeding frenzy to cop a squat in the shade, but the ground was slightly muddy due to all the rain we’ve been having lately. Would have been nice to have some long tables or somewhere to sit and eat.

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And make no mistake about it. There is so, so much to eat here…. Four hours isn’t enough time to really do it justice; it’s logistically impossible to cram in samples from THIS many chefs and food stations. My friends did a much more admirable job than I did, I’m afraid. I tend to fill up quickly, especially after a pint of beer, and cried uncle way too soon.

Still, I feel like I got a good representative sampling. I strategically tried to make a meal of sorts by sampling some veg, soup, salad and meat dishes, and was mostly happy with everything I tasted. Of course… there were some favorites.

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First thing to cross my lips, a watermelon soup with pickled rind relish from the Local Eatery and Pub proved a pretty, and pretty refreshing, way to kick things off.

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Cindy Hawkins of Circle City Sweets splashed out into savory territory this year with a beautiful Dijon-forward tomato tart. Yummy, and a perfect way to highlight spectacular Indiana summer tomatoes at their peak.

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I also enjoyed the blueberry corn salad with cubes of crispy pancetta from Restauration in Lafayette, and really appreciated that the lettuce was served still chilly.

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My friend like the bison tongue misickquatash (a Native American corn succotash-style recipe, best I can tell) and fry bread from Taxman Gastropub more than I did, but I think just knowing it was tongue put me off mentally a bit more than I expected. The meat, however, was super tender…

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Madison’s from Pendleton pulled out some big stops by serving entire legs and thighs for their maple bourbon BBQ duck dish. A lot of meat for one sample, but the bite I enjoyed tasted deliciously smoky, like it had just come straight off a charcoal grill in someone’s backyard. Madison’s also seemed to have the longest lines of the day. Sadly, my friend waited it out to get hers, then accidentally dropped her duck leg in the grass after just a bite or two. #diginfail!

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Cerulean offered a BOLD bacon-wrapped pork belly with a dash of barbecue sauce. Seriously yummy, and seriously ballsy to serve it come-as-you-are. No bread. No garnish. Just in-your-face chunks of meltingly tender porky deliciousness.

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Easily nabbing “most fun station” honors, Revery from Greenwood parsed out samples of liquid nitrogen frozen popcorn. Genius move on a such a hot day, and super fun being able to see your breath when it’s 90 degrees.

There’s so much more of course, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even delve into anything sweet! The corn cake with peach, blueberry and corn husk cream from Vida looked beautiful (and how have I not dined here yet?!?!), and the line for coffee sugar cream pie at Bee Coffee Roasters was a mile long. Until next year, Dig IN….