[This is an article from Cariadoc's Miscellany. The Miscellany is Copyright (c) by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 1988, 1990, 1992. For copying details, see the Miscellany Introduction.]

To Make a Feast

The first step in planning a feast, even before choosing recipes, is to make a rough estimate of the available resources. How many people are willing to spend most of the event helping you cook? How many more are willing to spend a few hours chopping onions or rolling meatballs? How many ovens and burners does the kitchen have? Is your group-or the kitchen you are using-well provided with ten gallon pots and twelve inch frying pans? How much money will be available to spend on the feast, and how many people should you expect to feed? The answers to questions like these will determine what sort of a feast it is practical to put on. If you are feeding a hundred people by yourself using one stove, you had better plan on something simple-perhaps a thick stew, bread, cheese, and fruit. With eight assistant cooks and a fair number of helpers, you can plan something a good deal more elaborate.

Once you have a rough estimate of resources, the next step is to work out a tentative menu. To do that you require a source of period recipes. There are two places to find them: primary sources (cookbooks written in period) and secondary sources-modern cookbooks giving worked-out versions of recipes from primary sources.

The problem with primary sources is that they rarely give information on details such as quantities, temperatures or times. This means that working out the recipes is fun but time consuming; you will want to cook each dish several times, noting details of how you did it and modifying your instructions according to how it turns out, before serving it to a hall full of guests.

The problem with secondary sources is that they cannot always be trusted. If all you have is the modern version of the recipe, it is hard to tell if it is a careful and competent interpretation of the original, a careless and incompetent interpretation, or a modern recipe distantly inspired by something period. This applies to secondary sources produced within the SCA as well as to those produced elsewhere. It is not safe to assume that just because a cookbook has the name of a kingdom or barony on it, the recipes inside are from the Middle Ages; in my experience, the odds are that they are not. I therefore suggest that if you use secondary sources you restrict yourself to ones which include the original recipes as well as the worked out versions. In using such recipes, remember that what the author has added to the original is simply his guess; you are free to substitute your own.

Suppose you have obtained a suitable number of recipes, directly from a primary or secondary source or indirectly through the local cooking guild or someone in your group who got them from such a source. Before definitely deciding to use one, cook it and try it. That will give you an idea both of how it tastes and of how much trouble it is to make.

In drawing up your menu, there are three points to consider. The first is the balance of flavors and textures. It is unlikely that you will want to cook a feast made up mainly of roast meats, or mainly of stews, or containing only spicy dishes or only bland dishes. Imagine eating the feast; if you think you would be bored half way through, you have the wrong menu. Avoid having any one ingredient in every dish; if there are eggs in everything, anyone allergic to eggs cannot eat. Try to include one or two substantial meatless dishes so that vegetarians will have something to eat. Also, remember that different people have different tastes. You will probably want some exotic dishes; there is little point in doing a genuine medieval feast and having it taste like something from Howard Johnson's. On the other hand, some of your guests will have plain tastes; there should be something for them too. My own policy is to put the more exotic dishes early in the feast, so that those who do not like them can fill up with the plainer dishes later. Besides, people are more likely to try something strange when they are hungry-and they might like it.

The second consideration is whether the feast you are planning is one you can cook. Do you have enough oven space for the number of pies you are planning? Are you doing more labor-intensive dishes than you have labor? How expensive are the ingredients? Once you have the menu worked out you will do detailed calculations to answer these questions, but it is useful to keep them in the back of your mind while designing the menu.

The third consideration is quantity. If you are serving eight different main dishes, your guest does not have to make a full meal out of each of them. My rule of thumb is to allow a total of half a pound of meat per person. That means that for every dish you estimate the total amount of meat, including fish and fowl and not counting fat, bones, or skin, add it up for all the dishes and divide by the number of people. If you have a lot of bulky non-meat dishes-soups or pies thickened with egg and cheese, for example-you might want to reduce the total to a third of a pound.

You now have a tentative menu. Next you will want to work out a set of detailed plans showing what is done when and how much it all costs. One convenient way of doing this is to use time lines. Make a list of all the fixed resources that you are afraid you may not have enough of-ovens, burners, large pots, electric frying pans. List them down the left side of a sheet of graph paper. Across the top of the sheet mark the time, starting whenever you plan to start cooking and ending when the last dish is served. Draw a horizontal line for each item. Mark on that line what the item is being used for at each time. The result (for a few items and a few dishes) will look something like:

[ Illustration removed ]

To make sense of the diagram, start with the meat pottage. It occupies a 10 gallon pot from 2:00 until 6:30, when it will be served. The first stage in cooking it is to boil the meat; this is done on burner 1 from 2:00 to 3:00. The pottage is then taken off the burner, which is free to be used for something else. The meat is taken out of the broth, cut up, and put back in along with beef broth, bread crumbs, and spices. At 5:30 the pot goes back on the stove, this time on burner 2 (burner 1 is being used for something else) and is brought to a boil; the rest of the ingredients (chopped parsley, grated cheese, and eggs) are stirred in.

Starting at 2:20, the second 10 gallon pot is used on burner 2 to boil the eggplant which is one of the ingredients of buran, a medieval Islamic dish. After that is finished, a 5 gallon pot of rice goes onto the burner. The rice is being cooked early because all the burners are needed for the last hour before the feast; a five gallon pot full of food should stay warm for a long time after it comes off the stove.

Starting about 4:15, the eggplant that was earlier boiled is fried in sesame oil, using the large frying pan on burner 1. When that is done the frying pan is rinsed out and used to fry the meatballs that are the other main ingredient in buran.

Obviously, lots of things are happening that are not shown on the chart. Meatballs and pie crusts must be made, pie filling mixed, and so forth. The chart was drawn on the assumption that none of those processes used scarce resources; there are plenty of plates to pile the meat balls on and rolling pins for rolling out pie crusts. Equally obviously, unless this is a very small and very oddly balanced feast, what is shown is only part of the chart; other resources are being used for other dishes.

The purpose of drawing up such a chart is not to figure out exactly what everything will be used for at every instant. That is not possible; something is certain to go wrong, and your plans will have to be revised on the spot. What the chart does is to show you whether or not it is possible to cook the feast you have planned in the kitchen you are using, and where problems are likely to occur. If, after juggling alternative schedules, you discover that there is no way to produce the feast without using two more burners than you have, you can change your plans accordingly. Perhaps you should have one more baked dish and two fewer fried ones. Perhaps you should make an effort to get a couple of really large pots, thus allowing more food to cook on each burner. Perhaps you could shift the frying off the stove onto a couple of electric frying pans. Whatever the solution, it is better to discover the problem now than in the middle of cooking the feast.

In describing the time line, I have left out the most crucial resource of all-cooks. Ideally, for a large feast, each cook should be in charge of one dish-for a small feast, two. Some cooks may be able to do more than that, if there are dishes that can be completed early in the day and others that need not be started until fairly late, or if there are some very easy dishes. Cooking rice, for instance, is not a full time job, although cooking five gallons at once is trickier than you might expect. To decide which cooks do which dishes, the simplest procedure is to show them the recipes and let them choose for themselves. Once a cook has chosen a recipe, he should arrange to cook it for himself at home, at least once.

The number of cooks puts a limit on how many dishes you can prepare on the day of the feast. One way around that limit is to do some of your cooking earlier. That is fine, as long as you restrict yourself to dishes which taste just as good the second day as the first. Too much pre-cooking of too many things and you end up spending a lot of time and effort to produce the sort of meal you expect to get in a college cafeteria.

Your time lines tell you whether you can cook the feast you plan; you still need to find out whether you can pay for it. Make up a shopping list, showing how much of every ingredient you will need. Then check out a couple of supermarkets to find out how much everything will cost. Add it all up and you have a rough estimate of the cost of the feast. With luck the real cost will be lower, since you will do a more careful job of shopping when you are actually buying the food.

You now have a reasonable idea of what you need to do the feast. If it is consistent with what you have, you are ready for the next stage. If not, revise your menu, change your plans, or find additional resources.

Once your plans are made, the next thing to do is to arrange a practice dinner. This is a dinner party for and by the cooks; you may also want to invite the autocrat of the event. Each cook prepares the dish or dishes he will be making for the feast, in a quantity appropriately scaled down for the number present. The dishes are served in the order in which they will be served in the feast.

The practice dinner serves several purposes. The most important is to test out the feast as a whole. Does the balance of the dishes seem satisfactory? Is there enough food to fill everyone up, but not enough to provide vast quantities of left-overs? Should there be more of some dishes and less of others? You get much better answers to such questions by cooking the feast and eating it than by staring at recipes.

A second purpose of the practice feast is to get more precise information on what will be needed to produce the real feast. As each dish is prepared, the cook should note down what tools are required, how large a pot was needed for the amount made, and about how much time each step took. If rolling enough meatballs for eight people takes one cook five minutes, then rolling enough for 240 people will take about two and a half man-hours; that is useful information. If enough gharibah to serve eight people fills a quart pot, then enough for 240 will require about an eight gallon pot. After the practice feast, you can use the information to redo your time lines more precisely. If you decide that you should have more or less of some dishes, you can alter the shopping list accordingly. At this point you should also make a list of all the tools you will need. It is possible to roll out pie crust with a wine bottle, but a rolling pin works better.

In estimating how long things will take, remember that five gallons of water takes a great deal longer to come to a boil than does a quart. That is why, on the sample time line, I allowed an hour and a half for cooking rice, a task that normally takes about half an hour. If you have a chance, you may want to actually measure how long it takes a very large pot of water to come to a boil on the stove you will be using to cook the feast. That will help you decide how much extra time to allow for cooking large quantities.

A third purpose of the practice feast is to spot unexpected problems. You should have discovered all such problems already, in the process of drawing up the time lines, but don't count on it.

A fourth and last purpose of the practice feast is to let the cooks get to know each other, in a more relaxed context than cooking a real feast.

After the practice feast is over and you and the other cooks have finished discussing its implications, you are ready for the final stage of planning. Give the autocrat and the chief server a list of dishes and ingredients, so that they can answer questions from people with allergies or religious restrictions. Make sure that everything on your list of necessary equipment is being brought by someone. Redo your time lines, taking account of what you have learned and of any changes you have decided on. If possible, leave some margin for error. Try to schedule a couple of hours free for yourself, sometime in the afternoon; that way you will be available to help with any crisis that develops. If the crisis does not develop until later, you can always spend the two hours helping to roll meatballs.

Now you are ready to start shopping. Decide what has to be bought the day before the feast and what can be bought early; this depends in part on the availability of refrigerator and freezer space. Check supermarket ads during the week before the feast; someone may have chicken leg quarters on sale for $.29/lb. Investigate bulk food sources and see how their prices compare. In Chicago, there is an area called the Water Market where onions are sold in fifty pound bags and squash in forty pound boxes. If the prices are good enough, it may be worth buying forty pounds of squash and giving fifteen away. To locate bulk sources in your area, you might try the business-to-business phone book, if there is one. Or ask someone friendly at a local restaurant where they get their food. Perhaps the chief cook for the last event your group did can tell you the best place for bulk eggs or meat.

Remember that, while the cost in money of producing the feast is important, so is the cost in time. Boned lamb shoulders may cost a little more per pound of meat than unboned ones, but they save a lot of time. What is sold as washed spinach will have to be rewashed, but the process will take a lot less time than if you start with unwashed spinach. You do not want to be penny wise and hour foolish.

In addition to the food, you will also want to buy things such as dishwashing soap, wax paper for rolling out piecrusts, plastic wrap for covering things, paper towels, sponges and scrubbies, scouring powder, and whatever else you expect to need. Don't forget to bring dish towels and one oven thermometer for each oven.

Another thing to do at this stage, if you have not already done it, is to locate a good grocery store near the event site. I have still not figured out why I ended up short ten pounds of eggplants for the Tregirtse Twelfth Night feast-but I am glad I knew where to send someone to get them.

The cooking of the feast will probably begin before the event; if you are making mead, it may be a week, a month, or a year before. If you are baking bread, you probably want to do it the day before the event, so it will be fresh. Some stews are just as good the second day as the first, although if the stew is thickened you have to be very careful to keep it from scorching when you warm it up. Cold nibbles, such as hais, hulwa, prince biscuit, currant cakes, and the like keep well for a long time; they can be made whenever convenient. Arrange to have a reasonable number of helpers at this stage of things. Rolling hais is a simple process, but if you are doing it by yourself for two hundred people in the intervals between kneading bread, putting bread in ovens, and taking bread out of ovens, you may not get much sleep.

It is now the day of the event; you, the food, the pots, the rolling pins, and three boxes of assorted odds and ends have arrived in the kitchen. You have marked all of your pots and tools, and told everyone else to mark theirs. Some of them will have forgotten, so be sure you have tape and a waterproof pen. It may be a good idea to make a list of what everyone has brought, to make it more likely that everything will get back to where it belongs.

Your assistant cooks arrive. Make sure they know what is happening. Show them where the time line is, and where you have the equipment and food. The idea of having each cook in charge of a dish is to minimize the degree to which everything depends on you.

As things start happening, try to keep track of what is happening. See who needs help, who has help to offer. When it turns out that necessary ingredients are missing, make up a shopping list and arrange a grocery store run. Arrange to set one of your volunteer workers to washing things; that way clean pots and utensils will be available when needed. Check the oven temperatures with your thermometers; their thermostats may not be accurate. As you get close to the time the feast is scheduled to be served, check with the autocrat on timing. If the event is running an hour late, there is no point in delivering the feast on time and having it all eaten cold; you may have to alter your plans accordingly. When the feast actually starts, coordinate the delivery of the dishes with whoever is in charge of serving. Dishes stay warm better in large pots on the stove than sitting in bowls for half an hour waiting for servers who are doing something else.

After the feast is done, the next stage is cleanup. When you agreed to be head cook, you made it clear to the autocrat that neither you nor the other cooks intended, after spending the first nine hours of the event cooking the feast, to spend the next three cleaning up, so someone else is in charge of that. Your job is to notify whomever that is that you are now finished with the kitchen. After everything has been washed, it is your job to make sure that everything borrowed gets back to its owner; you are the one who borrowed it. You may also want to make sure that the leftover meat pottage goes home with you, one of the other cooks, or someone else who will appreciate it, instead of being dumped.

You are now done. If nothing went catastrophically wrong, you have done a good job. Note down the problems for next time, thank everyone who helped you, especially the lady who showed up in the kitchen at noon and washed dishes for six hours, go home and go to bed.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir