Big Cooking

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Had a big shindig yesterday at our house. Fed about seventy people. Exhausted today so I’ll run a story I posted here six years ago about how I like to cook a lot.

I Like to cook a lot a lot.
January, 2004

I enjoy cooking a lot a lot. Which is to say I enjoy cooking lots of food for lots of people. I’m told I do pretty well cooking for large groups, but that’s not always been the case.

Mid way into adulthood, I’d never cooked at all. I was a wood worker and loved spending time in my shop. When in the mid 1970’s my first wife and I split up, I moved into a small apartment and lost access to a wood shop for a time. Quickly growing restless with no way to create with my hands, I turned to my apartment’s kitchen and learned to cook. Luckily for my friends and family, I mostly cooked for myself in the early, experimental days.

I was put off by cookbooks in much the same way I’d steered clear of plans and blueprints in my shop. I would eat something in a restaurant and then go home and experiment over and over and over again until it tasted good….not necessarily like the restaurant food, but good. This was not exactly a quick way to learn to cook, and there were some pretty ugly meals strewn along the road to culinary success, but eventually this trial and error process worked—people began liking my cooking. And I loved it when friends told me they liked my cooking. The more I cooked, the more people I cooked for, the more positive feedback I got. (I’ve been told by a psychologist friend of mine that my primary, de-fault motivator is pleasing those around me. Try convincing my wife of that.)

In late summer, 1980, my first real chance to do something really big cooking-wise came up. I’d had a jam at my house (by then I was out of the apartment and had a shop again, but cooking was now my number one avocation) and I prepared a sit down meal for the whole lot of us. Cajun cooking….jambalaya, dirty rice, ribs. It was a feast. A couple folks attended who happened to be officers of the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society and, after dinner, I approached them with a proposal—how about instead of doing the traditional potluck at the SCBS annual Fall Campout, I cook a Cajun meal for everyone. Each person would pay a few bucks to cover costs, the food would be great and folks could avoid the hassle of bringing the usual potatoes salad and baked beans to a potluck. “But can you cook for that many people,” one of them asked? “Sure I can,” I said without hesitation, “no problem.” They said yes.

There’s not much I’ve learned well enough in life that qualifies me to give advice, but here’s one piece I feel confident sharing: If you’re just starting out as a cook, don’t make your first large meal a dinner for 300 people. Start smaller and build up to it. We started food prep the day before—there were five of us—I was in charge and I had four helpers, none who knew anything about cooking for large numbers, all who thought I was nuts. For my part, I was the picture of confidence. The meal would be simple—a wonderful, spicy sausage and shrimp and chicken Jambalaya, crusty sour dough rolls and a nice, healthy green salad. I’d served that same meal to as many as 10 people before. What could go wrong?

Okay, so here’s what could and did go wrong. Because I was an inexperienced cook and relied on intuition alone, I intuited that the way to make Jambalaya for 300 people instead of 10 people was to just multiply all the ingredients times thirty. This, I learned, was only partly true. Yes, you need 30 times more sausage, shrimp, chicken, tomatoes, etc., but you most certainly don’t need 30 times more cayenne pepper and Tabasco sauce. That’s just not how it works.

By late in the afternoon of the day of the event we were busy filling huge aluminum serving pans with the jambalaya when one of the workers tasted it. It was my friend, Bill Schniederman.

“Holy Cow,” he winced, “did you taste this,” Bill was fanning his mouth.

“Of course I tasted it,” I lied. Once I got a recipe down, I never tasted as I went….it just seemed like bad luck to me. “It’s supposed to be spicy. It’s Cajun food. Remember? Cajun!” I told Bill not to worry and, to be honest, I wasn’t worried. Billy didn’t have a tolerance for spicy hot food, and besides, I’d followed my own recipe to the letter. Thirty times everything. What could go wrong?

It was two years before I attended another SCBS event. It’s not that I was afraid to….after all, it wasn’t like I’d done anything malicious or on purpose. And I took the entire financial loss myself. And several people told me the salad and rolls were delicious, though not exactly filling. And late that night of the campout, a swarm of perhaps thirty raccoons descended on the Jambalaya, which had been left out on a picnic table, and in twenty minutes it was completely gone (they even ate two pot holders)—so really, no food went to waste. No, I certainly wasn’t afraid to show my face to the South Bay bluegrass community…I just felt I needed to let things, well, cool off a bit.

By 1982, with two more years of cooking under my belt and memories of the Jambalaya gone wrong fading, I felt it was time to take back my reputation. I hatched another, and ultimately much more dangerous, scheme. I’d become good friends with Paul Lampert, owner of Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco’s Marina District. From the 70’s to the 90’s Paul’s Saloon was without question the number one bluegrass venue on the West Coast—everyone from Monroe to the Osborn’s to Stanley to Skaggs and Rice had played on Paul’s stage. One Saturday night during a Grass Menagerie break, Paul and I sat sipping beers at the bar. As was frequently the case, Paul was grousing about how terrible business was, how people just didn’t appreciate good bluegrass music, didn’t appreciate him, etc.

“Dammit, whaddah they want from me….do they want my blood? Do they want my bones and my blood?”

“You know what this place needs,” I suddenly asked on impulse, without thinking a moment of what I was saying, “it needs AN EVENT. Paul’s Saloon needs an annual event, something to get people excited… look forward to all year long.”

“No,” Paul snapped. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about, but no.” Imagine the meanest, most ill tempered, crankiest, cross, sarcastic, Bluto-like person you’ve ever known in your life. Now imagine ten of those people kneaded and molded together and then rolled out into a single, frightening human form, huge, overalls-clad, ghostly white beard, sulky eyes behind thick horn-rimmed glasses, loud and perpetually angry voice….that was Paul Lampert. And in 1982 I was proud to call him my friend.

“No, really”, I said a bit unsteadily, “what we need to do is throw a First Annual Paul’s Saloon Barbeque and Bluegrass Blowout.”

“We?”, he nearly screamed, “WE! You got a mouse in your pocket? This is my bar and I make the decisions!” And then he did scream—“NO! ”

And so that night, after several more beers and some Sake at the Sushi place around the corner from the Saloon, we began planning the first ever Paul’s Saloon Barbeque and Bluegrass Blowout. By now I was an expert when it came to making Cajun-style chicken gumbo, so we’d serve that, along with Cajun-style potato salad, Cajun hot links and sour dough sandwich rolls. I would front the money and get paid back when the receipts came in on the day of the event, we’d charge seven bucks a meal and split the profit. I would do all of the food prep, grilling and serving. The big event would take place on a Sunday afternoon two months hence—that would give us time to publicize it. Paul would hire High Country, more or less the house band, and my group, the Grass Menagerie, would open for Butch and the boys. Even Paul, the crankiest, most pessimistic human being in the history of mankind, was a little excited, though he made every effort to hide it. And why wouldn’t he be excited? We had a good plan. What could go wrong?

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