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The Maestro of Macaroni and Cheese

LO's Rhonda Allen competes for top recipe in nation tonight at Kell's

Millions of people across the USA cook macaroni and cheese.

But few do it like Rhonda Allen of Lake Oswego.

In fact, Allen is in the absolute elite when it comes to this ultimate comfort food because she is among the six finalists for the Tillamook Macaroni and Cheese Recipe Contest.

Tonight at Kell's Restaurant in Portland, Allen will be cooking up her Tillamook Macaroni and Cheese Chile Relleno Pie and competing against other M and C wizards from Washington, New York, California, Michigan, and Arizona. The event gets under way at 6 p.m.

Allen has her own personal name for her creation: 'The Macaroni and Cheese Epiphany.'

On the eve of triumph, Allen is stunned by her unexpected success, yet confident.

'There were thousands of entries nationwide,' Allen said. 'Four weeks after I submitted the recipe it was tested by the Tillamook cooks. They called me and said, 'We like it!''

This the first time for Allen to enter a contest of any kind and certainly her first aspiration to greatness as a chef of macaroni and cheese.

'I always got it out of a box, like most people,' she said. 'I never even made a cheese sauce before.'

But a friend of Allen, who had previously entered the Tillamook contest herself a couple times, urged her to give it a try.

The result is macaroni and cheese in a cornflake crust with pepperjack and stuffed chilies, which 'looks like a pie in a pie dish.'

'It's very easy to make,' Allen said, 'and in these times when we're crunched monetarily it can be a side dish or a main dish. Plus it's vegetarian.'

In an effort to achieve perfection, Allen has tried her recipe on many of her friends, with the ultimate goal of winning the grand prize of $5,000 and 25 pounds of Tillamook cheese.

But can Allen deliver when the pressure is on, with competing cooks, judges and an audience of macaroni and cheese afficionados and the eyes of the entire macaroni and cheese world upon her?

She thinks so.

'I think I'll be calm,' Allen said. 'I have an open kitchen here where I can cook and talk to people at the same time. I'll try not to think about it. I'll think of it as a normal cooking experience.'

A resident of Lake Oswego for only two years, Allen has already established herself as a public-spirited citizen. She is active on the Oswego Heritage Council, but her most notable community role is serving as the manager of the doggy daycare program for the Lake Oswego Farmers Market, which allows people to buy produce while their dogs meditate on the sidewalk.

But if Rhonda Allen wins the Tillamook Macaroni and Cheese Recipe Contest, Lake Oswego will have as good a claim as any city to being the macaroni and cheese capitol of the USA.

To find out more about the contest, and vote for Rhonda Allen, go to the Web site at http://www.macaroniandcheeseandcheese.com/contest/.