Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Party Of 100 For Dinner … Do You Have A Booth? Quantity Cooking Gets Real

We arrive in the church parking lot at 1 pm on Sunday. There’s the sensible Subaru. Here comes the snappy Mini. The bicyclist rolls in locks up. I arrive in my polka-dotted, dolled-up VW, sending, I am sure, this subtle statement: “Someone get this woman’s meds adjusted – stat!”

From our hatchbacks and our trunks, we pull out giant cans of tomatoes, loaf after loaf of bread, bags loaded with lettuce, parsley and basil.

It is time for the annual volleyball banquet, and I have volunteered to help cook dinner for 100 people

Since I’m often accused of creating every meal as if 100 people might show up and require instant feeding, it seemed like a logical leap for me to actually try cooking for a century of plates. But even for me, the woman who never buys just one of everything when a dozen will do, the quantities seem astounding. Twenty-five pounds of chicken breasts, for example, form a mountainous slab that begins to suggest that a toddler might be buried in there somewhere. Fifteen heads of romaine lettuce fill up the lane at the Cub, causing the checker to shoot me several of the furtive glances common to a Minnesotan in the late stages of intense and inexpressible curiosity. “The Romaine Lettuce Diet,” I volunteer. “I’ve already lost 250 pounds and just have 30 more to go.”

As we unpack on the warm afternoon, we introduce ourselves. As parents of the players on three school teams, we know each other by sight or by previous committee, but this is the first time we have ever cooked together before. It’s not exactly an Ice Storm / Key-Switching / Orgy in the Suburbs sort of moment, but locking yourself in an industrial kitchen for five hours with relative strangers, focused on the goal of producing something edible and above-the-ordinary enough to be considered celebratory – well, it’s an intimate activity and there’s no getting around that.

It turns out, I realize as the chatter begins, that all of us fall into the range of committed, but nonprofessional, cooks. Our depth of experience, travel and skill reveals itself through anecdote, technique and equipment brought from home. Our chairperson has brought his own knives. I begin to slice an onion with his Wusthof and instantly curse the veritable butter-knives with which I chop at home, then begin to wonder if I could smuggle these sharp little numbers out in my jeans.

The shopping and planning that has gone into this feast is impressive, lost only, I am sure, on the daughters who will be eating it in a few hours. Someone has uncovered the best place to get gelato, after several grueling taste tastes around town, and he has scored several pans. Another reveals the location of a hole-in-the-wall Italian deli, where the same canned goods have been on the shelves since Mussolini was in power, but which creates delectable cannolis in the back kitchen. He’s filling them himself. Of course. Another Dad has made a special order of pancetta and hustles out to pick it up. I note that we have a lot of bacon and suggest we just use that as a cheap substitute, and he struggles valiantly with the horror he might feel if I had suggested that perhaps a pan-fried poodle would be a nice touch in the Marsala sauce. Bacon? As if. “That’s okay,” he murmurs. “It’ll just take me a minute and I know we’ll all appreciate the authenticity.”

Amazingly, we all manage to suppress our opinions, or to state them in highly diplomatic ways. “These are the chopped onions for the marinara sauce,” I say, and I detect just the slightest wince from our chairperson as he asks, kindly and dadlike, “But you’re going to cut them up into a finer dice, right?” Right.

There are many demarcations among avid home cooks, and I suppose chopping is the first. I have had previous encounters with members of that group who chops everything into perfectly measured, perfectly tiny bits. “I hate when I go to a restaurant and things are cut so big,” our chairperson says. “I think, why did I bother to spend money for this?” Hearing that statement, I request, and receive, specific direction from him on the desired size of pancetta cubes, and, even then, as he stops to observe them frying in the skillet, he sighs and says, “I told you to cut them too big, I think. Someone will bite into a big hunk and be upset.” He is followed at stove, seconds later, by someone who opines, “I hope that’s not diced too small. You really loose the integrity of the flavor if it gets all dissolved.” I, like Switzerland, remain neutral, even though if I had a Chinese name it would be Rough Chop. Not a lot of finesse in my home operation, just plenty of volume.

The afternoon wears on and the piles of ingredients begin to become prepared dishes. I run out to the bathroom and as I enter the space again, I’m engaged by the powerful smell of baking brownies, handfuls of garlic and mountains of fresh herbs. Aaaah.

Eventually, the girls start to arrive, some of them stiff-legged in high heels, continually pausing to hoist up the strapless dresses that are bedeviling them, some in comfy jeans and ponytails. We allow the girls to serve themselves first and I see plates stacked with meatballs, pasta, salad. I wonder if they know that one Dad made all the croutons for that salad himself, or that he fretted and fussed to ensure that all evidence of anchovy was mashed out of existence, lest it upset some delicate high school princess. No, they don’t know, nor, I suppose, should they care. It’s just us cooks back here, happy at work. As I leave early, on my way home to make dinner for the non-athletic daughter, I say to the other five, “I know this sounds strange, but I had more fun today than I’ve had in a long time.” They nod. They understand. And they each know, in their hearts, that I don’t understand the first thing about how to dice pancetta.

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