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If I had to guess, I would say that, when it comes to entertaining, the most frequently offered advice ever is: never cook something you haven't cooked before. It's advice I usually blithely ignore, practically spit in the face of, actually. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I've had a dinner party where I cooked something I had cooked before. And, apart from a couple of rubbery chicken incidents, it's usually worked out well enough for us all.
But, for the Feast of Nationalistic Proportions I knew my standard improvisational approach was not going to cut it. There were too many courses. I had planned dishes that were too complex. And, if you're feeding your guests things like pickled spruce shoots or powdered salt cod, you'd darn well better have the decency to test them out first and make sure they're worth eating.
So, for two months I spent nearly every weekend, and many a weeknight as well, taking the notes and messily labeled drawings that littered the pages of my sketchpad and turning them into real life dishes. Given each of the seventeen courses had at least five separate components, this made for a pretty busy schedule. For weeks our meals had odds and ends from my recipe testing incorporated into them, leftover bits of braised meats, beer waffles, test run sausages. Neither of us minded.
What surprised me most in the process was how well things turned out on the whole, sometimes even on the first attempt. And when I plated the dishes they actually looked like my drawings! I'm so much more used to having an idea that I like and then being utterly disappointed by my sad attempts at executing it. I could barely wrap my brain around the fact that I actually seemed to be creating the meal that I had imagined.
Of course, not everything was an easy home run. I turned a batch of baked donuts into charcoal, made gravy that tasted like chalk and rye bread the texture of a shoe sole. I baked one raw, impossibly sticky meringue and burned another. Multiple attempts at caramelizing whey each led to a pot full of bubbling tar that belched smoke and set off all of the fire alarms. And, while I thought many of my plating schemes looked like perfect fairylands, others looked more like piles of glop and had to be completely rethought. But, with each problem, I tweaked, reworked, tried again, and usually got the kinks worked out within a few days with delicious results.
Because I had given myself a full two months for testing and preparing, the whole thing began to feel like a remarkably reasonable undertaking. Until I thought to calculate the number of plates we would need. About three weeks out from the party date, with the number of guests fairly nailed down, I finally thought about this leetle bitty detail. Let's see, fourteen people times seventeen courses means I need…oh…expletive…expletive! (It's 238 plates, if you don't want to have to do the math yourself.) I don't own that many plates!!! I mean, I do own a lot of plates – dish over-acquisition happens to be a problem that runs in my family on both sides – but not that many! I had a minor panic attack, and then did the only thing that seemed reasonable at the time; I went into denial and went back to cooking.
I've never been a star at logistics or organizing, but planning for this feast sent me into spreadsheet mode. I created a document that listed each dish by the name I had given it (a Norwegian word or phrase that conveyed what it was representing); every element of the dish that had to be made, purchased, or assembled; and when each of those things needed to happen. Doughs had to be set to rise and plants foraged on the morning of, for example, while braised meats, meringues or shortbreads could be made within the days leading up to the feast. Still other things, like lefses, sausages, and pickles, could be made a month ahead of time and carefully stored.
By the week before the feast, our kitchen looked like some kind of bizarre trading outpost. Our freezer was packed beyond capacity with spreads, berry curd, ice cream bars, rye bread, pork sausage, meatballs, veal stock, and other goodies. The refrigerator and pantry quickly followed suit. Every last Tupperware we own had been stacked into a snug Tetris game of storage. Getting anything out without upsetting the balance was quite a trick.
For the final week of preparation, I wrote out a list of every last thing that needed to be done, day-by-day. Then I did the same for the actual evening of the feast, listing the order of everything from rolling cabbage leaves, to drizzling chive oil, to putting course number 12 on the table. Having no restaurant or catering experience, I didn't really know how long anything would take when it came down to the wire (though I knew I had to be faster than my practice runs!), but I had prepared everything I could prepare.
Then, the day before our first out of town guests were due to arrive, I suddenly realized that this feast was the worst idea ever. Ever. I hung up my apron, sat down at the table, and completely freaked out. What if I was the only person who thought this was a fun idea for a party? No one else probably thinks this is an enjoyable way to spend an evening. And here I was, forcing it onto my friends. I was playing house, or make believe restaurant, and I was yanking everyone else into it, probably against their will, though they would be too nice to tell me. It was going to be horrible! My friends would be sitting around for hours waiting for me to finally bring them something edible. What had I done????!!!!
Yup, I'd been hit with a paralyzing case of hostess anxiety. My inner critic had declared open season on me, and I had absolutely no cover because I had put myself too far out for any hope of retreat. Sure, I was creating this feast in part as an intellectual, creative exercise, fusing traditional and new Nordic cuisines. But, in the end it was also supposed to be a meal, and meals are about giving and nourishing. My deepest hope was that I could nourish my friends and family who were traveling all this way, nourish them with both the food and the experience. But what if I bombed? What if the feast was a catastrophe?
I wallowed for a good while. The problem was, there was still some lamb with ramps to get on the stove, another type of shortbread to bake, and breadcrumbs to make, not to mention the chocolate discs and the fresh cheese. So, I hauled myself out of my misery and back into the kitchen. Executing the work of my list one step at a time started to pull me back into reality. One of the grand things about cooking is that the only way to get through it is step by step, whether that's 2 steps or 37, and it reminded me that the same would be true for the entire evening of the feast.
As I worked, the encouragement my mother gave me the first time I ever had to public speak (because I was so scared I was on the verge of passing out) rang out in my mind. "Don't worry Emily, they're Lutherans. No matter what you say, they'll still love it." So, maybe not everyone who was coming to the feast was a Lutheran, but for goodness sake, they were my family and best friends! No matter how long it took for courses to get done, we would spend the time enjoying one another's company. And if the meal bombed, we could order pizza, and we'd still all be thrilled just because we were celebrating together.
The next day guests started to arrive, and any remaining shreds of doubt dissipated into clouds of laughter, and storytelling, and cooking late into the night now aided by a legion of joyful helping hands. They even assured me that they could wash dishes so swiftly, I wouldn't need to use a single paper plate (though I bought a stack just in case). Okay. I was ready.
Le Creuset has generously offered to reward our Big Feasters for all their hard work, and as our sixth Big Feast, Emily will win, in the color of her choice (flame, cherry, cassis, fennel, Caribbean, dune, Dijon, or Marseille): a Heritage Cast Iron 1 Quart Fish Gratin Dish, a 3.5 Quart Braiser, and an Anodized Saute Pan with Lid. Pitch us your Big Feast at [email protected] for a chance to win up to $500 in Le Creuset booty.