Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Feast at Harvest of Souls V

Three days later, and my calves still ache.

But I had a very good time cooking, and I was gratified that it went so well. Hey, I know, maybe I should blog about it!

After I agreed to cook, I got promoted at work, and the week of the event then turned out to be the week of the Flint Area Public Affairs Debate kickoff (I'm Baker's rep on the committee); the week of the first session of the Baker Colloquium (a reading group on philosophy); and some daylong meetings at work I was supposed to attend and managed to slip out of at the last minute. So my usual time for preparation was not all it could be.

There are some flaws in my methodology. There were some little things that we ought to have done that usually aren't necessary for the 40 seat feasts I've done so many times, but would have been nice for 60. I've written a lot of it down over the years, but I get casual because I've done it so often and it always works out. I should produce a short document and a checklist.

So, instead of setting up completely Friday night, and giving the serving trays a quick wash, I was still buying food and doing some planning that ought to have been done earlier in the week.

On Saturday, I always think things are going to be more leisurely than they are. I always bring little treats for the kitchen staff, and then inevitably, as the day wears on and I watch the clock, there's never time for that sort of thing, and they sit forgotten in the cooler or boxes. I barely eat at these things - no time. There are dishes I've cooked more than once over the years that I've actually never tasted. Last year, I think the only thing I had all day was half a can of Slim Fast. This year, I actually tasted most things - had to, really, as I'd never cooked some of the dishes before - and I had to have a lamb pie after it was all over.

Late in the morning, my partner arrived after a difficult experience on US 23. Lady A'isha al Zarqa has for the last two years journeyed all the way up from the Barony of the Flame to cook for Harvest of Souls. We had regretted that while she was in Stormvale, we never actually cooked together, and it has turned out to be a highly successful partnership. We planned this feast together - Middle Eastern food is her thing, of course - and while I always feel a little bad that she comes all this way and spends most of the day in the kitchen, at least I get to monopolize her!

We work together well. Very little planning or coordination seems necessary. She finishes my dishes, I finish hers, her decisions are always things I agree with, and vice versa (unless she's too polite to tell me otherwise.) She is a terrific cook - her lamb pies were the first thing mentioned by everyone the moment we announced the menu would be Middle Eastern. A'isha also had cordials with her - a fruit, an apricot and a cherry. Difficult to say which was best, but the mixed fruit had a subtle taste.

A'isha, of course, is why we did Middle Eastern this year. If she's coming all the way from Kentucky to work, I figured, we were doing her cuisine. Besides, I'd never done it and wanted to give it a try. As expected, her pies, the chicken and lemon dishes and the buttered dates were hits. The Melokhia soup, the cinnamon fish and the lentil/wheat dish were all well received. We didn't have time for hand-made vegetarian grape leaves, but the canned ones were a revelation - really quite good.

We had a lot of efficient help in the kitchen. John (of the green hair) was in and out all day and evening, doing whatever was asked of him. Margaid and Lily came in late afternoon and made the whole effort of salad and relish prep and then tray dressing and serving very smooth and easy. Melisande had to leave early in the day but made a key shopping run for us. A young lady named Elizabetta helped serve and kept John busy. Terryl was helpful as always and then washed tremendous numbers of dishes after the feast. Dante, Desi (in character as Death the whole darn time) and Gerard also served, and Gerard imposed order on a serving effort that started out a little chaotic. Skalla-Geirmundr was available all day for errands and various difficult jobs, especially keeping the slightly cranky gas stove range and ovens working and processing the onions.

Most of all, Sarah was in the kitchen all day (when she wasn't arranging classes and doing other work), washing dishes, helping arrange dishes, serving, making all the hummus, helping supervise, anything and everything. As usual, we would have had a difficult time without her.

Late in the afternoon, from about 4 on, it was panic time in the kitchen. These things are relative - I have done this too often to actually panic, or even get very uneasy. But there was a faint sense of unease - did I plan badly? Did I forget anything? Will the dishes come together and get to the table hot? Is that damn water for the rice ever going to boil?

No, not much, yes and yes.

That last half hour before a feast is always the tight moment. Everyone has questions, I'm tired and I probably look like an idiot while trying to switch tracks between a dozen dishes, the feast hall layout and the schedule. For that last half hour, every question gets an uncomprehending look while I find the right file folder in my head and then give an answer as definitive as possible. While I'm trying to come up with the answer, I'm also wondering whether the rice is burning or whether people have spread over more tables than we have planned for - you have to watch the diners, or they will do that. The food is all there for them, but trays that should therefore be split between half-full tables are instead whole and going to one table, and then someone tells us in the kitchen that there's a problem, and I have to go out in the hall and count heads and tables and correct. Yeesh.

Normally, we have someone who stage-manages the feast hall layout and ramrods the serving. I like for this to be Melisande, but she was sick, and Gerard stepped in, as I mentioned above, and got it squared away.

Of course, with A'isha doing half the work of head cook, and the very effective staff, it all went fine.

By 6, it was effectively all over. We missed the 6 pm deadline by a few minutes, but I doubt anyone noticed much. It was clear that we would get everything done and out of the kitchen in an orderly fashion. After that, it was all fun. I was trying to cook something when they wanted us for a toast and tried to send A'isha out to take her well-deserved plaudits, but she's too modest, so we both went out and took a bow.

There were requests for the recipes to be posted on the website. That seems like a good idea, so we'll do that this week sometime, if Mariska has time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I should say first that I am a food nut. I love all sorts of food and yet you can ask Mariska and Breac about how picky I am about what I eat.
I totally liked the feast, to the point some things I wanted more after there was nothing left.
I did have some minor issues. Some things tasted bland or unseasoned. I know for a feast like this you have to prepare for everyone and thats cool. But how can you have a middle eastern feast and not ever taste ANY garlic at all? Most dishes in the middle east have some sort of garlic nip or bite to them.
In many ways the dish is not complete without garlic of some kind.
But that is me saying this and I would eat middle eastern food 5 times a week if I could.
The dates were to die for. I never had them before. Dear God what was I missing!?
The one thing that stands out in my mind as something I would like to try again is the soup. I loved it. And from the looks of things it would be very healthy too.

One thing I have to apologize for was not helping in the kitchen after I had said I would. I had too much on my plate and was way to stressed out to be of any use. I almost did not attend. I do not forsee this happening again, I hope.

I missed out on A'isha's cordials though. Perhaps she could make some in the future and ship them up here? To bad she is not local. She seems to be a great asset and friend to Stormvale even from 100s of miles away.

Overall. The people who cooked and served were fine. Seems like Stormvale had alot of energy.

You mention Sarah and John of the Green hair. Both are young and have lots of energy, something Stormvale was a bit short on for sometime. But if its possible to find others like them, I think this would be a good thing.

I hope that somehow we can do a Saint Joan event. It would be cool.

Just my 2 cents at 7am.

Mike E.