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Cooking for 22

I set out in this post to write about what I think is the hardest part of cooking for large numbers of people in non-industrial kitchens -- keeping everything warm.
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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. (Although come Christmastime, you know I'll be making the very same declaration, and ditto Easter). This year we are having about 22 people over for lunch. In LA, people ask "What are you doing for the holidays?" and I say sunnily, "Oh, I'm having 22 people for lunch." They look at me in horror and wonder why I'd be doing such a thing or they tell me to make it a potluck. Truth be told (and I am, dear reader, a great advocate of truth, as you know), I look forward to these great family feasts. I love sticking post-its all over my food magazines, pulling down dusty cookbooks from the top shelf, rifling through old recipes, and sitting in bed at night with the Maharishi swapping ideas for stuffing. The most brilliant thing is that my husband, the Maharishi, my very own James Beard (no pun intended), is a fantastic cook and a most excellent collaborator, so these things tend to go pretty smoothly. As long as we don't drink too many glasses of pre-lunch champagne, that is.

If nearly twenty-two years of marriage has given us anything it is the intricate dance of the kitchen. We could be blindfolded and we'd still know where the other was and what they were doing. Words are superfluous, not only because we'll invariably be listening to the NPR Julia Child & Jaques Pepin Turducken story or a lovely festive niblet from David Sedaris (yes, he has become a holiday favorite), but because things no longer need to be spoken. It is the kitchen dance of lerv.

He is the meat man, which covers the turkey and no doubt a smoked loin of pork, done on his wood-chip smoker which lives outside the kitchen door, as well as the roumaki (bacon wrapped around water chestnuts, sprinkled with sugar and baked). He is also the potato man. This title he won by default, becuase in the ongoing battle between the masher and the ricer his ricer won. He enjoys ricing. I don't. The stuffing is something we share. He takes care of the neck sausage (a sausage stuffing in the neck cavity of the bird). I do the other stuffing, which we don't cook in the stomach cavity but by itself in a very large dish so that it can crisp on top, because this is the way the family likes it. My father's recipe for stuffing included onions, sage, thyme, apples, celery, butter, eggs and breadcrumbs, lots of salt and pepper. Although we remain true to this, I tend to get excited about things like chestnuts and pecans at this time of the year, so the recipe fluctuates. (Food52's Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs demonstrated some excellent stuffing recipes on the Today show on November 18th.) Gravy is also all his. No-one makes better sauces than the Maharishi.

Which makes me the vegetable chef (they call them "sides" here). I am the sides chef. Hors d'oeuvres, vegetables, table-laying, flower-arranging, glass layer-outer. This is my bailiwick.

After years of protestation I have embraced the American notion of bringing something. In answer to the "what can I bring" question, I reply very clearly "two bottles of claret" or "a lemon meringue pie" or "a nice piece of chaumeur." I'm really quite cheeky about it. I think they forgive me because they consider it English eccentricity. It has taken me twenty years to understand that it is considered quite off to show up for a holiday lunch or dinner without offering to bring a piece of the meal. This is quite contrary to the British way of doing things.

My mother's generation would never consider bringing anything to a friend's house for dinner. And why would you, when the dinner had almost certainly been planned, each course to compliment the next and a wine chosen to go with each course? Letters were always written afterwards and sometimes flowers sent. Our generation is different (and my British readers can correct me on this if I'm spouting nonsense), but my friends will show up with wine, chocolates or flowers, even a book (my favorite thing). In Los Angeles, I have often been pressed so hard by a guest to "bring a dessert" even though I've insisted that pudding's taken care of (and I'm sure they assume that I'll give them Angel Delight) that I've given in, defeated. Now I welcome such gestures. Especially on Thanksgiving, when the custom in our family is to try as many pies as possible, even if you are completely stuffed. This year we have pumpkin, pecan, lemon meringue, cherry and coconut cream already lined up, and no doubt some others will show up as well. Last year, our favorite was the banana cream pie with the chocolate graham cracker crust from Huckleberry in Santa Monica.

But I digress. I set out in this post to write about what I think is the hardest part of cooking for large numbers of people in non-industrial kitchens -- keeping everything warm. I am a stickler for hot plates. Nothing ruins good food quicker than plonking it on to cold plates, but beyond that, how does one keep many different dishes warm enough so that everyone can serve themselves and eat together, without the first person's food being cold?

It is a conundrum that probably can only be solved by the employment of those rather ugly but useful large metal chafing dishes with tealights underneath. But you have to love Twitter and the power of the hive mind. When I threw this question out this morning, I got the following responses:

  • @mrsleshem: consider your bbq an extra oven
  • @obamafoodorama: toaster ovens
  • @jrmcgrail: reynolds wrap and igloo cooler (work for both hot and cold)
  • @kathycastro: try to cook as many things in ceramic as possible (keeps them warm longer), and use burners a LOT until last minute

Another great resource is a book entitled Secrets from a Caterer's Kitchen by Nicole Aloni. It's full of tips on cooking for a crowd and things that may trip you up that aren't immediately apparent.

I have found over the years that attempting to do a starter - a soup for example - for a large group of people at Thanksgiving, while a lovely idea, is incredibly impractical because it makes keeping the rest of the food hot even more complicated. Salad is a lovely idea too, and I think in hot countries people expect salad, but if the rest of your food is hot, isn't this just too fiddly? We put out lots of appetizers: the Maharishi's mother brings her world famous cheese ball, flavored with mango chutney. We put out roumaki, tiny open-faced smoked salmon sandwiches, olives and bowls of nuts. The bar is also laid out - glasses, champagne, wine, water, soft drinks, ice - so that people can help themselves and we can get on in the kitchen without appearing incredibly rude. The wonderful thing about our house is that there are very few doors and so people come to sit at the counter while we cook. Others sit outside if it's sunny. A couple of people are recruited to guard the hors d'oeuvres from canine interlopers. This is rather a good job for small children. It keeps them busy and they rather enjoy being bossy to dogs, I've found.

In many American movies released around Thanksgiving ("Dan in Real Life" springs to mind, with its excellent soundtrack by Sondre Lerche) there are wonderful images of multiple generations of a family in jeans and sweatshirts on a big green lawn, a Cape-Cod-style house behind them, playing a rousing game of American football. Minky once asked me "Why can't we play football like that on Thanksgiving?" I've often wondered about that question and I'm really not sure why we don't (other than the lack of rolling lawn, Atlantic Ocean views, grey-shingled house). But it doesn't really matter what you do, does it, as long as the whole family can get together? Competitive pie-eating isn't such a bad sport, is it? This year, the Maharishi's father, Big John is coming, even though he's not feeling great, and that makes me as happy as happy can be.

-By Bumble Ward