Thursday, February 08, 2007

Choices on Feast Planning

There are several important decisions which have to be made about a feast early on.

How many to feed? A typical small event in Pentamere may expect 40-50 would-be diners under normal circumstances. A larger event may expect 50-100. Stormvale should consider 100 or more only if hosting a kingdom event such as crown or coronation.

Budget? Most of our feasts are budgeted based on a feast fee of $8-$10. For example, selling 40 $10 tickets will yield a gross revenue of $400. This gives us an indication of a maximum expediture for the feast. The head cook should remember that he should shoot for spending only 50-75% of this, in order to ensure that we will at least break even if we do not sell out, as not infrequently happens. There are, of course, other considerations. For a special feast, we may want to pull out the stops and spend the expected revenues, or even lose money. This should only be done with the full groups approval.

Menu? There are several possibilities for a menu. Stormvale prides itself on serving period feasts - even if the recipes are not strictly drawn from period cookbooks, we like for all our food to be composed of period ingredients. We have a lengthy list of favorite recipes from past feasts to draw on, and several members have extensive collections of recipes and books on medieval cooking. A theme is also a possibility - all Italian recipes, or Norse, or Middle Eastern. Remember to avoid New World foods - no potatoes, no tomatoes, no chocolate, no corn. If you want to be picky (and some of us do), you could be still more careful about food choice - iceberg lettuce and orange carrots would be out, for example.

Courses? You may have heard them called removes, but course is the medieval word. Most SCA feasts consist of from two to five courses. Often the first course are appetizers and the last are sweet dishes. For the main courses in between, it may be wise to structure them like mini-meals. For example, you might have one meat, fish or fowl type main dish in each course, along with a vegetarian dish, and something with some color, like greens or other vegetables, and no more than one exotic dish per course. It is probably wise to have no more than one salad, one soup and one savory pie per feast, though of course there are exceptions. But the idea is to have some balance and some sense of timing. You may be tempted to interject sweet dishes during the feast, because they did in the Middle Ages, but it is probably not a good idea - modern American diners have got it in their bones that they aren’t supposed to have sweets until the end of the meal, and they will feel full if they get the cookies or cakes too soon.

Vegetarians? A certain proportion of diners at any SCA feast will either need or prefer vegetarian dishes. It is wise to prepare at least one dish per course without meat products. Trying to be more accomodating than this is a chancy business. Many vegetarians are merely trying to avoid red meat, but others won’t eat fish or fowl, either, and some won’t eat any animal products, which removes eggs and dairy products from the equation. A casual glance at any collection of real medieval recipes would reveal that a meatless dish is easy to prepare, since the medievals had many holy days with restricted diets, but doing without eggs and dairy products is far more difficult, and it should be remembered that these ingredients enable the cook to prepare rich foods at low cost. Also, if you get carried away with vegetarian dishes, you will disappoint the many diners who expect meat as a necessary part of any meal.

Special Requests? It is customary to ask people with special dietary needs to contact the head cook, but it may not really be very wise to invite this. If you do, you may find yourself trying to prepare not one coherent meal but to be prepared to be a short order cook. You should try to accomodate people with especially detailed needs or problems - you want them to enjoy the feast, too. But you should face the fact that you can’t actually please everyone, and you’re not running a professional restaurant. If you can plan ahead to leave the cheese out of one pie, for example, great, but remember that you’re adding to your organizational burden and you’ll have to make sure that the one special pie gets to the special diner - and what if they don’t show up after all? You do this sort of thing at your extreme peril, and it may be better to simply anticipate the vegetarians and people with delicate stomachs and provide a suitable variety of dishes to begin with and not yield to complications.

Cholesterol and etc.? If you prepare a rich feast with lots of red meat, elaborate sauces and vast quantities of eggs and cream, some people will inevitably complain that it isn’t healthy. Remind such persons that you are preparing a special meal for a festive occasion, not trying to model a healthy diet for daily use. If they are really that worried, they can eat small quantities. If real butter, saturated fats or red meat must never touch their lips, they’re in the wrong place and they should go out for dinner.

Exotic Dishes? How adventurous should you be when planning the feast? Do visions of oxtail soup, oysters on the half--shell and grilled eel dance in your head? It is ok to try a few exotic foods, but you should space them out and stage them early in the feast when the diners are still hungry enough to eat nearly anything. If something unusual is in a main dish, you may want to consider serving it in small quantities. In particular, greens and seafood should be served with some care as to quantity. (Of course, you run the risk of getting just the crowd that will unexpectedly devour your steamed asparagus and fish with lemon sauce, and not have enough.) The fact is, SCA members are modern Americans, and are pretty picky about food. The same people who could name the parts of every suit of armor in Old French or are eager to wear only the latest Milanese fashions of 1470 are quite capable of becoming as stubborn as a child who will only eat hot dogs and macaroni and cheese when they get to the feast table. Few SCA members transfer their enthusiasm for the Middle Ages to food, so don’t shock their sensibilities. Feed them roast meats and fowls, and salads and soups and stews, with sweet dishes toward the end, and slip in a few exotic items here and there. You’re feeding people who may have trouble dealing with something as simple as the taste of ground meat and fruit in the same dish, a staple of many medieval recipes. Take it easy on them - they had a long day on the list field or need some carbohydrates before they go dancing, and they’re only going to be just so adventurous. They’ll probably enjoy and appreciate the one odd thing you do in each remove, but if it’s all weird, you’re going to bomb. We served a fine cooked pig’s head, complete with snout and ears, to an astonished tournament winner one time, which was funny, but you had to feel for the young lady who turned green when it was put down next to her in a crowded feasthall. On the other hand, don’t cater to the people who would be happy with pizza in the feasthall - this is a medieval feast, not just an everyday meal. Don’t be afraid to cook medieval dishes - just choose at least a few that will look, smell and taste sufficiently like modern food that people will eat it. This is supposed to be a meal, not an arts and sciences exercise.

Beverages? Water and lemonade are conventionally served at all our feasts. Apple cider and other fruit juices are also possibilities, but cost becomes an issue. Most people will bring their own wine, beer, cola or other tipple of their choice, so water and lemonade will usually do the job. We could consider serving alcohol if we do not charge directly for it, do not spend shire monies directly on it, and are careful to card. We have done this for the high table on at least one occasion.

Service? Most of our feasts are served on platters directly to tables seating either six or eight. There are other possibilities. Smaller feasts in particular may be easy to serve buffet-style (which presents portion-control problems), or the feast could be served tavern fashion, with diners ordering from a menu or choosing dishes from different booths (this might be manpower-heavy.) Another option is the so-called Above/Below the Salt arrangement, in which an elaborate feast is prepared at a higher price for some diners and simpler fare for a lower price for others. Stormvale has not had very great success with this idea, since most people who bother with the feast at all often prefer to pay more for the more elaborate feast. The idea has been used with success by other groups, however.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Perhaps you could provide links to Medieval food sites. I am interested in finding information on foods used during campaigns