You won’t catch me jumping out of an airplane, rappelling down a cliff, or sleeping overnight in a hammock strung over a chasm. I do, however, regularly indulge myself in what some people seem to consider the culinary equivalent of bungee jumping: cooking for a big crowd.
Most perfectly competent home cooks have qualms about cooking for 50 or 60. They marvel, as I do, at catering establishments that serve 1,300 on a busy weekend. That would scare the daylights out of me, too. Talk about climbing Everest!
The kind of big, scary food I fell in love with, though, is more along the lines of a pile of 50 chicken breasts destined for a wedding reception, or 40 pounds of lobster meat, or best of all, 400 pounds of butchered pig meat to cut, wrap, and get into the freezer.
It was thrilling for me during a cold November week to walk into the wood-room connecting our kitchen and barn, and see piles and piles of pork awaiting my attention. It was fun to trim up roasts and chops; reserve the lean bits to mix with fat later for sausage; to boil up heads, tails and feet for scrapple or head cheese; to wrestle hams into gallons of brine, and salt sides of bacon. I loved it and miss it; I haven’t had pigs for years.
These days most of my big, well, actually, only biggish food experiences revolve around a community lunch held weekly (except for Thanksgiving and Christmas) at the Second Baptist Church Fellowship Hall. At the height of the summer season, about 40 to 50 folks show up at noon and meals are sent out to another 15 to 20 shut-ins, those recently released from hospitals and their caregivers. In depths of winter, about 20 people brave cold and snow to eat together, and we continue to take meals to the same, only slightly varying, number of shut-ins. This lunch is in its tenth-plus year and is like community lunches or dinners on lots of unbridged Maine islands.
Our Thursday lunch is accompanied by music from the Charlie Pendleton band, which includes a piano, saxophone, banjo, drums, clarinet and the occasional horn in a weekly variable mix, playing jazz, old rock and standards. Lots of retired community members show up, and increasingly so do workmen on their lunch break preferring home-cooked to take-out. Lately, the pre-school has brought in little people, some of whom bring their own sandwiches in case the menu isn’t kid-friendly.
For a while this summer, a bicycle-touring company dropped their cyclists off and islanders met people from as far away as New Zealand and as close as mainland New England. Their generous donations helped under-write the lunch because, while anyone who eats may do so absolutely for free, no pressure, we all know there is no such thing as free lunch. Donations of food and money, and a regular budgeted contribution from the church keep the lunches in existence.
What do we eat? One band member wryly commented, “Lots of chili.” Plus soups of all sorts, ham dinners, lasagna and other concoctions of tomato sauce and pasta, with or without cheese; meatloaf, even moose-meatloaf; stew-y things; annually around St. Patrick’s Day, corned beef and cabbage (and potatoes, carrots, and onions); and recently curried chicken. Ice cream and brownies for dessert, a fabulous dessert literally named “Oh-My-God-That’s-Good.” One of our cooks has been known to make eight pies.
There are about 30 to 40 souls who, cooking alone or in teams, have learned what it takes to serve 50. How many big baking pans? One deep, two shallow, chafing-pans full of casserole. How much food? Eighteen pounds of burger is enough for meatloaf for 50; or 12, plus or minus, if shepherd’s pie. Three heads of Romaine lettuce plus two of iceberg is enough for your basic green salad. A large spiral-cut ham plus roughly one small potato per person mashed will do the trick. Several of us have learned that if we fill the big, short-handled cook pot, to the handle rivets, we will have enough for 50.
I cook once a month on average. I won’t watch a suspenseful movie, but I will walk only semi-prepared into the Fellowship Hall at 9 on Thursday morning to wrangle random food donations and whatever leftovers there are in the freezers into lunch for 50. It is just a little scary, but I have done it before, and merely trust I can do it again. It’s fun and if you want to try it, too, let me know.
Or you can climb rocks if you want, dangle from pinnacles, cross wobbly rope bridges hundreds of feet over racing water. I’m just going to go cook lunch for a crowd.
Sandy Oliver lives, writes and cooks on Islesboro.