Mac My Cheese in Ottawa, a celebration of macaroni and cheese

Photo; James Morgan

There seems to be a festival for every reason these days. Outdoor music festivals, once gathering places for counterculture are now mainstream. People now pay money to run through mud or have dye sprayed at them and then have their photo taken when it’s over. Festivals celebrating food have also gone beyond traditional small-town events honoring apples or maple syrup. The Mac My Cheese Fest, a festival celebrating macaroni and cheese is taking place in Ottawa this weekend.

Things got underway on the plaza in front of City Hall on Laurier Avenue on Friday, but the festival continues until Sunday. I took a trip down at around noon Friday to see how things were going and to snag something for lunch. The food trucks assembled on the plaza created a sense of déjà vu to a previous food festival honoring poutine at the same location. In fact, most of the food trucks were mobile French fry stands (chip trucks, or chip wagons in the eastern Ontario vernacular) that had switched to mac and cheese for a couple of days.

Variations on a theme

I looked around at the offerings and noticed every stand was serving a version of classic macaroni and cheese, but each place was also serving highly modified versions. Among them were jerk chicken, Montreal smoked meat, and lobster. My tastes aren’t that adventurous.

My ancestors were people who roasted and boiled everything, and kept all items separate on their plates.

Duffers Chip Wagon, an eastern Ontario landmark ubiquitously found at every festival, fair, and auction sale, was serving up something called The Miss Piggy, a name I’m not sure was previously approved by the Muppet people. It didn’t contain the standard elbow macaroni, but rather the longer, corkscrew variety called Scoobi-Do, a name suspiciously like that mystery-solving cartoon dog who travels around in a van with hippies. Anyway, on top of the Scoobi-Do was a slightly herbed cheese sauce which was then covered with a large amount of crumbled bacon, which despite how great it tasted, made me think that I really was eating Miss Piggy.

The Miss Piggy from Duffer’s Chip Wagon. Photo; James Morgan

How did our love for this simplest of dishes come to be?

I did some quick looking around and found that like many things in North America, it had European origins. President Thomas Jefferson was remarkable in many ways, but he’s also credited for popularizing macaroni and cheese in the United States after first enjoying similar fare in Europe. Jefferson even had the humble dish served at a state dinner, which would be unimaginable at such events today. Mac and cheese reportedly have a long history in African-American families as well.

In Canada, I grew up eating the various recipes my Mother tried. They were usually written down on an old recipe card or in cookbooks from Betty Crocker or various community organizations. I’ve eaten versions where the sauce was thick, almost cakey, and clearly had flour or cornstarch added. Others had a much less viscous sauce. I always enjoyed the texture and crispiness whenever bread crumbs were sprinkled on the top before baking. A family friend who enjoyed practical jokes was once visiting our home for dinner and she sabotaged the cheese sauce with blue food coloring, which gave the finished product a less than appetizing appearance.

Cheese, not cheese powder

And, there are the more instant versions of macaroni and cheese. In the 1930s, Kraft started making its macaroni and cheese dinner. It was marketed as a cheap meal during the Great Depression. A box of macaroni, a package of brightly colored powdered cheese, a bit of milk, a little butter, and there was supper. Adding chopped up frankfurters was optional. And of course, there are the other instant versions involving liquified versions of cheddar that come in a pouch inside a box of macaroni.

In Canada, the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner has become known simply as Kraft Dinner, and the company even brands it as that. It’s become associated with college students and the poor. During my periods of doing time in academic institutions and being poor, I refused to eat the stuff. I was never a fan to begin with, and I just didn’t want to submit to the stereotypes and ghettoization some associate with student life. I don’t think I’ve had a bowl of Kraft Dinner since 1996, but I never mind the good old-fashioned homemade stuff, whether its baked in an oven, or served up from a food truck.

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