How to Plan Feasts People Will Actually Eat

Things To Consider While Cooking A Feast in Æthelmearc

by Dame Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina

 

Do you see lots of food coming back into the kitchen at the end of the night when you cook a feast? Why do you think that happens?

 

A certain amount of wastage is expected and normal: people get pretty darn full by the last course of a meal, and sometimes they just can’t eat another bite of even the most delicious food. Plus, many people have food preferences or allergies, so few eat everything at a feast. However, did they stop eating because they filled up on the bread and other starches that came out early in the meal, and couldn’t eat anything in the last course? Was it because the meat ended up being dry or too spicy, or the bread was underdone or burnt … or was it that the vegetables were just too weird for a lot of folks’ tastes?

However, a lot of wastage is not only demoralizing to you as a head cook—it’s your barony’s or shire’s money in the trashcan.

The three main issues I see over and over with SCA feasts are that 1. people have had bad experiences with period food and therefore think it’s weird, 2. the menus don’t include enough variety to ensure everyone can enjoy a majority of the meal, and 3. cooks overbuy the ingredients, leading to a waste of money and food.

So, how do you prevent this?

How do you get happy, totally stuffed diners at the end of the night from a period feast that came in at or under budget and doesn’t end up half in the garbage?

Here are  some suggestions for a sit-down, served evening feast. Not all of these suggestions apply to all-day-long buffets, tavern feasts, or outdoor camping meals.

 

 

1.    Talk to your barony/shire and find out what your group prefers to eat. Formally or informally, after you choose which time period and country on which you’re planning your menu, talk to people who generally attend feast and then adjust the dishes to ensure that most of the types of dishes you make are ones people will like.J

a.     Do you have a lot of parents with young children? They’ll want simple foods with sauces on the side. Do you have a lot of carnivores, and should you increase the amount of meat you serve? Do you have a lot of vegetarians, or folks who are doing low-carb or low-salt diets? Does your group prefer beef to pork, or peas to carrots? Will your group eat fish? Are they crazy for armored turnips or savory toasted cheese? Find out what kind of dishes they prefer to eat and serve them. This doesn’t mean you should do the exact same dishes all the time—since that would get boring really quickly—but do make sure you’re serving preferred types of food.

b.     Talk to the folks who don’t attend feast and find out why. What are the common complaints… can you adjust future feasts in some way that will make them want to stay onboard?

2.    Read the SCA Feast Survey results: http://www.virtue.to/feast_survey/index.html. This 2000 survey gathered comments from SCAdians in every kingdom and from all walks of life. See also the discussions on feast preferences at the resulting listgroup http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SCAFoodandFeasts/.

a.     The overriding conclusion? People stay for feast (rather than go to a restaurant) because they want the AMBIANCE. They want good food with friends, several brief pieces of enjoyable entertainment, and a vaguely period atmosphere (low lights and banners… but they want to see the food).

b.     They also want dinner to last about an hour, 90 minutes at the most, with about 10 minutes between courses (15 minutes max). Any longer than that and folks get restless, lose their hunger, and are ready to leave.

c.     Sadly for us cooks who believe it’s important to serve period food rather than non-period food, they don’t generally care if the food is accurately medieval as long as they enjoy it. L However, they do care that it’s not obviously modern (and therefore, killing the atmosphere of eating a medieval feast). They will eat period food if it doesn’t look weird, tastes good, and is served at the proper temperature. Which brings us to probably the most important point…

3.    Select non-weird dishes. Your main job is to stuff to the gills a roomful of SCAdians with—I hope—period food. This is not an A&S entry, so please leave the eel paste at home.[1] However, it is a chance to show off your knowledge of recognizable, delicious period food.

a.     There are hundreds of dishes dated from our period of study that are DELICIOUS and quite similar to ones we eat today. The late 14th Century English resource Forme of Curye contains roasted pork, boiled shrimp, chicken soup, beef steaks, meatloaf and meatballs, and roasted chicken. Cold chicken salad, with apples, appears in Renaissance-era cookbooks! Plain rice shows up in Renaissance England, and egg noodles are in the 16th Century German resource Sabine Welser’s Kochbuch. Pasta of various types (including cheese ravioli) appear in several countries, as do sausages. Green salads, cheese & onion quiches, glazed carrots, fresh peas, and French onion soup are all period. Also don’t forget waffles, French toast, pancakes & crepes, apple pie, doughnuts, applesauce, custard, and shortbread.

                                                             i.      How do you find these recipes? If you don’t own or have access to many period texts, check out all the ones online at http://members.aol.com/renfrowcm/msproj.html.

                                                          ii.      If you’re not yet ready to redact your own recipes: check out yummy recipes other SCAdian cooks have prepared, available free online, at Master Huen’s GodeCookery at http://www.godecookery.com/mtrans/mtrans.htm, Cariadoc’s Miscelleny at http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cariadoc/recipe_toc.html, and the Kingdom of Atlantia’s food links at http://moas.atlantia.sca.org/topics/cook.htm. Also check out The Florilegium food archives at http://www.florilegium.org/ (but be wary of modern recipes).

                                                       iii.      Some easily procured books that contain excellent redactions are: Constance Hieatt’s Pleyn Delit (mostly early English, with some French), Cindy Renfrew’s Take A Thousand Eggs or More (15th Century English), Odile Redon’s The Medieval Kitchen (French & Italian), and Terence Scully’s Early French Cookery.

b.     When selecting your dishes, think about how it will look to your diners. Will most of it be dishes they’ll recognize, or will it mostly be brown glop? Can you switch out dishes, or can your presentation make the brown glop more attractive?

4.    Balance your food ratios: In order to provide the optimum variety of food choices for a large number of people while keeping on budget, your menu should have a rough TOTAL, per person, of:

 

¾ lb. meat protein (2 to 3 types)

¼ lb. non-meat protein (1 type)

⅓ C to ½ C vegetables (3 to 4 types)

½ to ¾ C carbohydrates/grains (2 to 3 types)

1 to 2 servings of something sweet (1 to 2 types)

 

a.     These are caterers’ ratios that I’ve adjusted to my experiences in SCA cooking. I know this seems way too small, but think about how much people normally eat at a restaurant meal and think about how many dishes (and how much of them!) we tend to serve at feasts. Restaurant entrees are usually four to eight ounces of protein… that’s ¼ to ½ of a pound! Some kingdoms eat more of one or more of the ratios, some eat less… this is what I’ve observed in Æthelmearc for the past decade.

b.     For example, if you’re planning to feed 120 people at feast, get roughly 60 to 70 of your first meat protein (generally beef or pork), then 35 to 45 lbs. of your second meat protein. With shrinkage from cooking and allowing for bone weight, that generally ends up being a total of ¾ lb. for every person, with the assumption that they will eat both. (Those that don’t eat both meats therefore leave some extra for those who want more.) Finally, provide ¼ lb. of a non-meat protein (quiche and other egg dishes; chickpeas, lentils, or other bean dishes; cheese-filled or -covered pastas). This fills up those who still want more protein, and provides something solid for the vegetarians.

5.    Meat: ensure it’s hot & moist, with sauces on the side. First and foremost, serve at least two different kinds of meat—three if your budget allows it—so that people who don’t eat red meat, or are allergic to chicken, or just plain don’t like one of the meats have at least one solid entrée. If people don’t get enough of a solid protein at feast, they walk away unsatisfied and less willing to go onboard in the future.

a.     Most people will eat roast chicken, but everyone has heard horror stories of cold, dried-out birds or, even worse, pink, underdone ones. How do you prevent this? Try recipes that allow you to do moist cooking rather than dry roasting; see if you can brine your meat for a day beforehand in a simple salt solution; keep the cooked meat warm & moist in warmer trays if possible before you serve it; and bring a meat thermometer & ensure the roasting progress in the oven is vigilantly watched by you or a trusted member of your kitchen staff.

b.     Serving the sauces on the side means more people will eat the dish: children, finicky eaters, and folks with food allergies or dietary concerns will be more likely to eat the meat, and possibly even try the sauce.

c.     Ensure that one of your meat choices does not contain any dairy, and you will make all the lactose-intolerant folks in your feast hall very appreciative. If one contains sweet ingredients, please ensure that the other one or two meat dishes don’t. That’s being kind to diabetics and folks with low-carb diets.

d.     Will people eat venison, rabbit, duck, or lamb? Yes, there will always be some who try it and some who love it if it’s hot and moist, but don’t plan it as your primary meat. Remember, if you serve pork, it’s kind to ensure that your other meat is one Jews and Moslems can eat.

6.    Starches: don’t repeat types within the same feast, and provide less with each course. Serve two to three per feast. Starches are cheap (which is great for your budget) but very, very filling. If your feast starts out with bread, then contains pasta in the next course and rice/barley in the third, if you don’t cut down the amount of pasta and rice, I guarantee you’ll be throwing out a lot of one, if not both. So, serve the equivalent of one to two slices of bread per person, then ¼ C of your next starch, and **⅛** C of your next one.

a.     Don’t serve the same kind of grain in both courses. Two half-portions of different kinds of pasta in one course is okay (such as a meat tortellini and a cheese/herb one), but don’t do another kind of pasta in the next course.

b.     If one of your starches has dairy, ensure that the other one or two don’t. (This is often easy, since a lot of medieval starches and vegetables have “fast day” or non-meat alternatives.)

c.     If you’re making a starch that does contain meat or dairy, consider making a small portion of it without any meat or dairy, and then offering it just to the vegetarians and lactose-intolerant folks. Consideration of their needs makes them very happy.

7.    Vegetables: keep them simple and in small amounts: Serve three to four, keeping to a total amount of ½ C per person. Ensure that you serve proportionally more of the first two and less of the followings ones.

a.     You can do one unusual or not-as-popular vegetable (cabbage, parsnips, turnips, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, asparagus, artichokes, fennel) if you ensure that you serve two “normal” ones that most people will recognize and eat (peas, carrots, squash, salad, sautéed mushrooms).

b.     Will people eat spinach? Yes, if it’s prepared in a way that they like: pies, ravioli filling, raw in a salad, etc. There are many sautéed greens dishes in early English cookbooks and a fair amount of people will try them, if they’re seasoned properly and don’t look just like mush. However, please be aware that texture is often as important to some people as taste, so some people just won’t care for a vegetable dish, no matter how well you prepare it.

c.     If you do a vegetable soup, use vegetable broth or water rather than chicken broth. If you don’t, you’ve just eliminated one of the possible dishes for vegetarians and folks who are allergic to fowl.

8.    Balance your ingredients: Ensure you don’t have one or more ingredients in most or all of your dishes. Specifically, ensure you limit the number of dishes that contain salt, sugar, pepper, spices, nuts, raisins, alcohol, vinegar, garlic & onions, butter/oil, or dairy in every dish.

a.     Why? First, it varies the tastes of your meal, so it’s more interesting.

b.     Second, it means that people who can’t or won’t eat that ingredient are more likely to go onboard and enjoy your meal. How? Varying the ingredients accommodates the most common food concerns: diabetics, folks with nut allergies, carnivores/no-carb dieters, low-salt dieters, vegetarians, people who get stomach problems from alliums, picky eaters, people who can’t tolerate alcohol, and children.

c.     Third, it’s more economical and practical, budget-wise. Having butter or cheese, for example, in almost every dish is EXPENSIVE.

9.    Don’t forget dessert. Period menus included sweets in each course, but you can follow the modern style of waiting until the end of the meal if you prefer.

a.     Serve at least one sweet, two or more if you can afford it, since they are usually very popular.

b.     Again, these should be very small amounts, especially if they’re in the last course, since people are getting full. For example, estimate one cookie or doughnut per person, ¼ C custard, or 1 small slice pie.

10.                       Serve plenty of beverages. This is something we cooks tend to overlook when focusing on all the nifty dishes we could prepare. People need to drink during the meal, and a lot of feasts don’t serve enough beverages.

a.     First, make plain, cold water available throughout the meal so that folks who run out of the other beverages—or don’t like them—will still be hydrated. If your group doesn’t have a lot of pitchers, consider placing a large Gott in the front of the hall and announcing that folks can refill their cups there.

b.     If you serve a spiced or unusual drink (mulled cider or sikanjabin, for example), consider serving a non-spiced version. Parents have told me that children love apple juice, cider, and grape juice, but often don’t care for spiced versions of these.

11.                       Decide the number of courses. Two to three seem to work well for scheduling and staging these number of dishes, maybe four if the last is a dessert course and the first is an appetizer one. More than that, for a normal sit-down meal, demands a lot more time, staging juggling, and serving equipment. Plus, it leads to you making more of each dish that you need.

12.                       Consider making your first course cool or room-temperature dishes: This can be as simple as a tray of bread and spreads or it can be an appetizer tray of olives, fresh fruit, dates, etc. with lots of nice decoration. Prep this during or before Court, and you’ll be ready to serve something right on time, whether or not Court or classes run late. Bonus: this means parents can feed something to starving, restless children ASAP.

13.                       Control portions. If you’re serving buffet style, splitting the food between two tables (offering the same dishes at each one) instead of one table allows twice as many people to get food at the same time. Having staff members man the table––or even outright ration out the portions to each diner––ensures that the last table gets just as much “of the good stuff” as the last table. It also helps prevent the diners from pigging out too much on the earlier courses.

14.                       Check the setup of the tables: rounded, square, or long tables?

a.     How many people are expected to sit at each table? If they’re long rectangles, the standard eight-per-table is generally okay, but if they’re smaller rounds, consider sitting only six people per table. Ask your autocrat to ensure that there are enough tables (and enough room between tables) that folks aren’t crowded back-to-back like sardines. That’s a main complaint from the SCA Feast Survey.

b.     Also, ensure that there is enough light so that people can see what they’re eating. The feast hall should not be pitch black! Consider leaving on one bank of lights.

15.                       Place a feast recipe booklet, or at least a menu, on every table. This helps your diners know what they’re eating as things come to the table. They can double-check as they sit down whether any dish contains unwanted ingredients without interrupting the busy kitchen staff.

16.                       Finally, if there is stuff left over at the end of the meal, offer Ziplocs so folks can take it home!

 

 

College of Three Ravens

February 25, 2006



[1] I personally have not seen a lot of successful fish dishes at Æthelmearc feasts except for shrimp or smoked salmon, and possibly crab dishes. I’ve seen even properly prepared and succulent poached fish come back to the kitchen. Why? Perhaps because it’s difficult to cook large amounts of fish to serve 100 people all at once, or perhaps it’s just a regional dislike. Mussels and oysters are popular in some kingdoms, but they’re expensive.