I am, in this post, going to be so un-cool and nakedly, ridiculously “wannabe” that you will be ashamed to be reading what I write. You will avert your collective eyes from the pathetic, needy train wreck that is Annie, and cluck gently to yourselves. All I ask is that you examine your own psyche as you read, and ask yourself this: if you had a chance to fulfill a long-cherished dream (a day on the catwalk, an appearance on Face the Nation, a game as starting quarterback with the Steelers ) if you wouldn’t just carpe the diem, willing to appear foolish rather than let the opportunity pass.
If you are a food person (I am currently against the use of the term “foodie” for no very good reason) you know that you secretly believe you could be a chef. Like me, you watch “Top Chef,” and “Iron Chef” and all of those other chefs, and say to yourself “I could do that.” You glorify and envy the cut and burn scars of real chefs, and you wonder what kind of chef-ly footwear you would choose, and if you would wear whites, or choose something more expressive of your unique, chef-ly self. You sneer secretly at the rubber chicken at the wedding reception, knowing that you could have fed 200 guests something tender, flavorful, and creative. Admit it.
When I was asked to be the “Backup Hospitality Person” at a local church, I had all of this in my mind. I was asked to provide food and flowers for a memorial service reception. The event, which took place yesterday, was at noon, and about 100 people were expected. I made lists, I made lists on my lists, I made phone calls to line up volunteer helpers from the church, and I did reconnaissance in the large, professional kitchen where I would be working. I’ll admit that I considered ordering a knife roll.
My menu for yesterday’s event was chicken salad, egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches, a bowl of mixed fruit, and cookies to be provided by the brigade of Church Ladies who are the Protestant equivalent of The Keebler Elves. (Well, with better shoes). I estimated my planning, shopping, cooking and serving time at about 8 hours total, priced the necessary items, and submitted an estimate to the client. I was limited to shopping at the places where the church had an account, so I went first to Gordon Food Service, where I discovered that in this part of the world they do not carry the fresh herbs and other produce lovingly depicted on their website. The only produce (and I use that term loosely) is bagged carrots and onions, and gargantuan bags of iceberg lettuce and cole slaw mix. They also have vats of something called “Extra Heavy Duty Mayonnaise” which is described as having extra egg content, and astonishing powers to bind ingredients and keep them bound. Kind of like Superglue for food. Once I recovered from my mayo shock, I admit that I was sidetracked for quite a while looking at chef jackets.
Naive creature that I am, I decided that the grocery store at which I also had shopping privileges (L & L in East Lansing, if you’re interested) might give me a better array of produce. I looked, and on the day I was there I saw what looked like fresh melons, grapes and berries, an encouraging assortment of packaged herbs, and the usual array of onions, garlic and other basic items. On my way home from that trip, my cell phone rang. It was the senior pastor at the church telling me that a member, a prominent and well-loved member of the community, had died the previous night, and asking whether I was available to “take care” of the reception after the funeral. It was to be held in two days, the Monday before the Wednesday of the already-scheduled reception. I said “sure,” with visions of culinary fame dancing in my head. He said “300-500 people,” and the adrenaline thing started. That meant a 4:00 “light snack” for 300-500 people on Monday, and lunch for 100 on Wednesday, and what the HELL was I thinking? I called the family, they requested crackers and cheese and cookies, and I contacted the volunteer list again, only to discover that most of them could not spend hours at the church on both Monday and Wednesday, and that most of them were also unable to bake another 3 or 4 batches of cookies in a single week. I was staring down the barrel of 50 dozen cookies and 40 pounds of cheese, feeling very much like those 12-year-olds who take the family car for a spin, only to be apprehended by the local constabulary about the time they run into the sign in front of the Dairy Queen.
I made more lists, and sent out an SOS to my friends, who came through in admirable fashion. My friend Anne, in Nashville (who really is a caterer) told me how much I needed to feed the projected crowd, gave me a great recipe for a cheese ball and a fruit tea, and reminded me that “it’s not brain surgery; it’s just food.” This became my mantra. She also told me that I might just have to break down and buy cubed cheese, as well as a couple of wheels of Brie, because otherwise I would be cutting cheese for the ensuing 72 hours. Bakers came out of the woodwork as the days passed, and my friends Amy and Julie volunteered both to bake cookies and to help me at the reception. They are not Church Ladies, not at the church in question, anyway, and their willingness to spend a day slogging in the kitchen just to help me out has earned them enough karma that they will both surely be reincarnated as the pampered children of affluent families that own horses and live near the beach.
I went to Gordon’s and bought huge, huge quantities of cheese and crackers, as well as an economy vat of mixed nuts. I ordered flowers and supplemented them with Queen Anne’s Lace and various other flora that Rob and I stole from the side of our walking path on Saturday evening. I bought 15 dozen bakery cookies, and fruit, for garnish. I spent all of Sunday in the inferno-like church kitchen, baking cookies, making cheese balls, and pulling serving pieces. I learned, the hard way, that only one of the many sinks in the kitchen has a Dispos-all, and that it was necessary either to work next to that sink, or to dig repulsive scraps from the bottom of a wrong sink by hand, and carry them to the right sink. I could not find the scissors, and spent an agonizing period of at least an hour hacking the stems off of daisies with a dullish Chef’s knife. I went back Monday morning and started all over again, and worked from 8:00 in the morning until 7:00 that evening. The reception went splendidly, there were 500 people, and I believe that they all left comforted by the time they spent drinking iced tea, nibbling cheese and crackers and remembering the life of a beloved husband, father and colleague.
Tuesday morning I was on the road at 8:00 to buy food for Wednesday’s event. After a trip to Gordon’s to buy a dozen chicken breasts, a giant can of tuna, three dozen eggs and 10 loaves of bread, I went to the grocery store to buy the “fresh” items. There were approximately 7 canteloupes on display, all of which were approximately the texture of water ballooons. I needed 3, and desparately searched for any that did not easily meet in the middle when squeezed. I bought onions, and garlic, and plastic packets of tarragon and parsley, trying hard not to think about what beautiful specimens I could have purchased from a local Farmer’s Market, or even from my own grocery store.
Back in the inferno, I set about poaching chicken, hard boiling eggs, and mixing 15 pounds of cole slaw in a gargantuan cauldron. When it came time to use the onions, I discovered that a quarter of those in the bag were afflicted with some Ancient Onion Disease which left them pulpy, black in spots, and with an odd, pickled scent. Even those that passed visual inspection lacked the potency of, well, an onion. The packaged herbs were dessicated and shriveled in ways not visible at the time of purchase, and I spent perhaps an hour hunting stem by stem for usable leaves. The cantaloupes were nothing more than pulp in a flexible shell; I salvaged any pieces that looked as if they might retain their shape for 24 hours, and pitched the rest. This did not, in any way resemble the experience of the contestants on Top Chef Masters who are carted off to buy food at Whole Foods, where they selected from an embarrassment of fresh produce. I had no time to return to the store and present the evidence, and even if I had, it was clear at this point that they had nothing acceptable with which to replace it. I had no other venue available to me to buy new supplies, and if I had, I would have gone over the agreed-upon budget. The adrenaline kept a-coming.
As I cooked, I listened to music out loud; I usually do this at home, and I didn’t want to wear headphones while cooking alone in the basement of a huge, old building with all of it’s doors to the outside open for those attending various evening meetings. As I diced the poached chicken and swayed to “Red, Red Wine,” finally relaxing into my task, a gentleman in a suit appeared in the doorway to tell me that he was holding a meeting in the room next to the kitchen, and that they would like to have their doors open because it was so hot. I offered to turn down my music, and was glad that I had done so when I later discovered that they were having an AA meeting. Fortunately, my mix did not also include “Mexican Wine,” “Margaritaville” or “Cold Gin.”
Wednesday, I had lots of help. Cookies poured in in waves, Church Ladies appeared to assemble sandwiches and plate cookies, and the adorable husband of the female pastor came to help me haul large objects and do all the dishes. The luncheon was a success, the family was pleased, and I had a blissful hour of the contentment that comes from feeding people who appreciate your effort. Of course, after the last guests left, there was the loading of the bus carts, the packaging of leftovers for the local Womens’ shelter, and the washing of the dishes.
After cooking, shopping, setting up, serving and worrying for four days and nights, I am left with a better idea of my potential as a chef, or (more possibly) a caterer. I planned good menus, and I made good food; of those things I am sure. I vastly underestimated the time it would take me to do anything, and I am left in the position of sticking to what I quoted on the second event, which means I worked more than 8 hours for nothing. I learned that it would have been better to have left any sketchy looking food at the store and changed my menu, although I honestly couldn’t have foretold the icky onions or herbs until I actually tried to use them. Next time I will have a credit card, which will give me the freedom to buy what is freshest and best, instead of being at the mercy of a store that can’t stock decent produce in high summer in a state full of farms. I have cuts and burns, I have sore feet, and the days of adrenaline coursing through my veins has left me kind of a poor excuse for a human being. I’m also pretty sure that, even though it would be easier to purchase pre-made food and heat it up, I won’t. I just need to plan better, cook more efficiently and quote higher.
Finally, and maybe most significantly, I know now that I can do this. I can do it with no knife roll, no chef’s jacket and no Batali clogs. I also know that the pleasure of seeing a family sitting together sharing food and memories on a terribly sad, hard day, and knowing that I provided them with some ease and comfort on that day, erases all of the psychic wounds associated with rotten melons and blistered feet. I would do it all again tomorrow, and I’d do it better.