Big Easy Gets the Big Cheese

When someone asked mountain-climbing legend George Mallory in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, allegedly he replied, “Because it’s there.”

Indeed, the “because it’s there” drive within us all has compelled individuals throughout history to push the envelope of human accomplishment. Without it, Johnny Knoxville and the “Jackass” crew would not have tried to drive a rocket-powered shopping cart, Lindsay Lohan would not be angling for the worst celebrity mugshot ever, and Betty White would not be striving to become the world’s oldest cougar.

The Guinness Book of World Records exists because of humankind’s desire to boldly go where no person has gone before.

Sometimes, however, there is actually more than mere hubris behind the longing to be the biggest, fastest or dumbest, or setting the record for most drunken, incomprehensible tweets from a nightclub at three in the morning.

To wit, take Vermont’s Cabot Creamery. Late last month in New Orleans, on Sept. 23, Cabot produced the world’s largest mac and cheese: It was 2,100 pounds, including 286 pounds of Cabot cheese, 575 pounds of cooked macaroni, 1,100 pounds of milk, 56 pounds of butter, 61 pounds of seasonings, and 26 pounds of flour (supplied by Vermont’s own King Arthur Flour). This smashed the old record, which was a lightweight 414 pounds. They cooked it at lunchtime in the Big Easy’s Fulton Square.

I am a big fan of mac and cheese and applaud what Cabot and renowned Louisiana chef John Folse accomplished. First of all, they used a cast iron kettle from 1797 to make a batch of mac and cheese big enough to serve all of Bristol and Lincoln. That’s impressive. They also had NBA cheerleaders and roller derby dames ladling out the mac and cheese once it was cooked, and we all know that pretty girls and complex carbohydrates mix well together.

But it’s actually the story behind the Paul Bunyan-size kettle of carbs that I found most appealing, a tale that — like so many New Orleans stories these days — goes back five years to Hurricane Katrina. According to Roberta MacDonald, senior vice president for marketing at Cabot, after Katrina devastated the city, Folse called Cabot and said if the company sent food, he’d prepare it. “In three days, thanks to many New England food companies and our trucking company, Cabot sent three truckloads of food to New Orleans,” MacDonald recalled.

Five years later, when Cabot decided to go for the mac and cheese record, they decided to partner once again with Folse — and with New Orleans. An all-you-can-eat helping of the massive mac and cheese cost a person $5 and all proceeds went to the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity. Leftovers were given to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans. And the meals were served in colorful ceramic bowls made by hand at the Magnolia School, a nonprofit organization that works with adults with developmental disabilities. “The (bowls’) simple beauty was a real bonus to the event,” MacDonald said.

Cabot also holds the record for the world’s largest grilled cheese sandwich: In 2000, they were responsible for a 5 foot by 10 foot sandwich that weighed in at 320 pounds. That creation was produced in Everglades City, Fla.

I asked MacDonald if the company had any plans to try to topple a cheese record here in the Green Mountains. “We did contemplate the World’s Largest Cheese Ball, and rolling it down one of our ski slopes, but somehow that just didn’t sound real tasty — and both of our records were truly tasty,” she answered.

Still, I hope someday Cabot will set a record here in Vermont.  The world’s largest cheese fondue hails from Wisconsin and began with 1,250 pounds of cheese and 12 kegs of beer. We can top that. Likewise, the world’s largest cheese blini and cheese quesadilla are ripe for the taking. Sure, the price might be an angioplasty. But I love my cheese — and I celebrate the great work that Cabot accomplished last month in New Orleans.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on October 2, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.