Using nuts, soy and seasonings ranging from sriracha to Old Bay, home cooks and caterers alike brought their creamiest, cheesiest entries to the Vegan Mac and Cheese Smackdown.
Organizers estimated as many as 3,000 attendees came out for the second annual event, held Saturday afternoon at Baltimore City Community College, to sample from 28 cooks. The cookoff was part of the inaugural Baltimore Vegan Weekend, a series of events throughout the city celebrating vegan cuisine.
The event drew both repeat and new contestants, as well as a number of first-time attendees.
The people's choice winners from last year's smackdown, who call themselves Flying Pig Labs, returned with a slightly modified recipe. Wife and husband P. Jeanie and Doug Ciskowski of Southern Maryland have been vegans for 30 and 17 years, respectively. Jeanie entered the contest last year after spending about a month developing her recipe.
"You need a smooth-melting cheese and a sharp flavorful cheese," she said. She uses Daiya, a brand free of dairy, gluten and soy, to achieve the creamy texture, and her own cultured cashew cheese for the sharp, cheddar-like punch.
This time she used a bit more cashew cheese in her bid to defend the couple's title.
Other contestants, like Rebecca Daniels-Smith of Prince George's County, were entering for the first time. Daniels-Smith went vegan about 18 months ago and has worked on a perfecting a simple white cheddar-style mac and cheese over that time. Her entry, VGGF (Vegan Geek's Gluten Freeks) centered on gluten-free macaroni and Miyoko's Kitchen cashew cheese, a vegan mozzarella.
"I found this vegan mozzarella cheese, and it became like the holy grail of all recipes because you can do anything with it," Daniels-Smith said.
A panel of judges picked their favorites in eight categories, including best-from-scratch, most-like-grandma's and gluten-free.
Saturday's event marked the second time Pep Foods Inc., a local vegan collective, and Baltimore Vegan Drinks hosted the mac-and-cheese cookoff, which attracted more than 1,000 people in 2016.
Brenda Sanders, one of the event's organizers, attributed the event's growth to the allure of the vegan lifestyle.
"Folks are just ready to try something different. People are ready to get healthier, people are ready to change what they've been doing and do something a little different," Sanders said. "This whole health movement is really picking up steam in Baltimore right now."
The vegan lifestyle was new to Kevin Braughton, 43, who attended the event with his children Holly, 8, and Alec, 6. They adopted veganism as a family at the start of the year.
Braughton, a Severna Park resident, said the transition to vegan eating has been easy.
"Once you get over the first two times, 'Gosh, I wish I had a cheeseburger,' you begin to realize how much other food is out there and how enjoyable it is," he said. "And the more you eat it, the more you end up craving that rather than some of the old stuff."
Longtime vegetarians, like Howard University student Rachel Kenlaw, turned out for the smackdown, too. Kenlaw, 21, was raised on a vegetarian diet and said she eats mostly plant-based foods now.
"This excited me because everyone likes mac and cheese, and I'm starting a health and wellness-type blog because of the position I'm in at my school, and I was like, this is the perfect place to try some new things out," she said.
She tried eating meat for a few years, she said, but switched back to a mostly plant-based diet in college.
"I saw how my body reacted to [a plant-based diet] and I was healthier and I was actually getting sicker when I was eating meat," she said.
Baltimore's Vegan Weekend kicked off Friday with an informal restaurant crawl, and included events to celebrate vegan cuisine. After the mac-and-cheese competition, Pep Foods and Baltimore Vegan Drinks were scheduled to host an after-party at Thrive Baltimore, Pep Foods' new event space and community resource center.
Events continue Sunday . Five restaurants, Harmony Bakery and Cafe, Land of Kush, NuBohemia Cafe, One World Cafe and Red Emma's Coffeehouse and Bookstore, are hosting vegan brunches. And Paulie Gee's Pizzeria and Bar will also host a vegan pizza fest from noon to 4 p.m. The Hampden restaurant will serve at least 12 specialty vegan pizzas, plus appetizers and desserts.