It was a modern-day breadline—a privileged, giddy Recession-era enactment of real Depression-era starvation on Sunday, as four bars handed out taste-test samples of macaroni and cheese gawked at the turnout. On Greenpoint’s main drags, hundreds of hungry souls queued up for the first ever Greenpoint Mac-and-Cheese-Off—an event that was part pub-crawl, part Iron Chef cook off, and part light-hearted jab at the bad economic times that drive sales in cheap comfort food.
“Anything free—I’ll go to,” said Meredith Binder, currently unemployed, who came with seven friends to Red Star, the Franklin Street sports bar where the hop started off. Owner Maria Scicutella ran back and forth to resupply forks: “We didn’t expect this,” she said, harried. Organizer Diane Foley, of t.b.d. bar where the hop ended up, had expected to serve 150. The bar saw, she guessed, “about 1,000.” “From what I hear,” she said, “The G-train platform was a mess of humanity.”
t.b.d. is a bar that’s not used to this sort of a turnout. Open for just over a year, it was built expecting to serve the occupants of the Viridian, the huge condo complex with the star-power financing of Magic Johnson, on the same block. But then there was the subprime crisis, the Wall Street layoffs, the deepening recession. And as the Viridian and other condos around it now stand vacant, t.b.d. must resort to PR gambits to stay alive. Later this year, they’ll host a Kentucky Derby party, an April Fools Day Comedy Fest, and an Indie500 shindig to lure revelers to Greenpoint.
So why turnout for this? What magical strain had Foley tapped into?
It’s a “classic recession food,” former Kraft chairman Michael A. Miles told the New York Times in 1991, noting how mac ‘n’ cheese sales charted the rise and falls of the ’80s economy. The formula applies today: In December of 2008 sales were up over the previous year by twenty percent.
Cheese & noodles might have been a European concoction, with the carbs brought over by Marco Polo from Asia and the duo migrating North from Italy, but it finally became a real American combo in 1937, when it was packaged by Kraft into the quick-cook box we now all associate with childhood. Thanks in part to the tough-times of World War II, the recipe—10% fat American cheese—went on to win the hearts and shopping carts of overworked, single moms whose husbands were off at war and whose offspring needed comforting.
As health experts on TV talk shows hash over how to avoid the “Recession 15,” Americans turn off the bad news and turn to cheesy noodles, for cheap. It was in October or November 2008—when the economy really started souring—that a customer at her bar, t.b.d., proposed the idea of a Mac n’ Cheese off. T.b.d.’s mac ‘n’ cheese, the customer had said, was just “so awesome.” It should compete to claim its status as the best in Greenpoint! Though the bar had played around with serving different menu items since it opened last year, it was only ever the mac that sold out. So they went full force: offering a spinach and mushroom version, a jalapeno version, and a down-home plain version. People loved it. Maybe a Mac ‘n’ Cheese off would be a good way to get people up to North Brooklyn?
Outside the Red Star, avoiding the hoopla and watching the hordes stream in, stood Lisa Ly, savoring her first sample of the day. “I’m more frugal now than I’ve ever been,” she said, as if that was an explanation as to why she took the $2.00 Metro ride out from her apartment in Manhattan to Greenpoint, to eat what she could have purchased for $1.50 at the grocery.
“I understand it’s a gimmick to get us to come out here and buy drinks,” said Dave Conway, a local musician on a budget. “But it’s also nice. If I’m reminiscing over hard times with a full stomach and my friends and a beer—what could be wrong with the world?” Unfortunately, by the time he got to Red Star, they were out. When that happened, the masses moved on to the next stop on the hop: Manhattan Avenue’s Habitat—eventually judged the winner by a team of Greenpoint judges for its sharp asiago cheese recipe. It was even more crowded there and samples were even smaller. Next was the Mark Bar, whose usual Sunday free food giveout—toasted bagels, flavored cream cheeses, and sliced tomatos, onions, and capers—didn’t entice like the prospective mac and cheese. (Are bagels too classy?) At Mark Bar, there were so many hungry drinkers, that the next day, the staff would send t.b.d. owner Diane Foley what she termed, “a love note.”
From the Mark Bar, the crowds moved on to t.b.d. on Franklin—the last stop, and the bar run by the event’s organizer Diane Foley, who herself ladled out their recipe of over-large shells, baked. Though they had decided on portion sizes to be uniform, she made them a tad smaller—to make them stretch. When the six trays had been tapped, so too was the keg of Bluepoint Toasted Lager, on special for $3 pints. Unsatiated customers ordered Mac and Cheese from the restaurant menu, where it’s always a favorite. And later that night, it won the popular vote—decided by ballot.
While the winners were announced at t.b.d. and the dance party raged, when the Mac ‘n’ Cheese left a subset of the audience did, too—navigating just down the street at another bar—Alligator Lounge II, which has always promised all customers a free pizza with a beer. It’s a free food gimmick that seemed to appeal to the same set that came out for drink specials and Mac ‘n’ Cheese. “Usually at this time on a Sunday, I’m alone, watching TV,” said bartender Rob Sundermann who saw business pick up at 4.30 and the place so crowded at 7.00 that it was tough to navigate. “Thank God for the Mac ‘n’ Cheese Off.”
“It just seemed to make sense,” said Foley. “We didn’t mean to make a profit off of the recession.” Not that that’s a bad thing.