Thursday, January 08, 2015

On Feasts and Feasting

Here of the Chalice feast staff and servers. Probably 2013.
Photo by Jared Bluestein
A recent thread on the SCA Facebook group asked people to chime in with what they felt contributed to a 'bad' feast experience. The important stuff was there like under-cooked and unsafe food or food that has been burned. Yeah, no one likes that. It was nice to note the number of people who showed a preference for avoiding obviously modern foods and who understood that sometimes small mistakes can happen.

However,I have to say I was a bit alarmed and bothered by a number of the other responses. I don't wish to pick on any individual so names have been omitted, but here are a few comments that really caught my attention:
1.) Switching on the lights "just for a few minutes so we can clear up". Atmosphere = irretrievably gone. 
2.) Servers, imo, should eat first so they know what's being served. Went to a feast where the servers looked blank and said 'I dont know' when asked what something was. 
3.) Once with not enough food to serve the whole table, and bad servers. The food itself is always a toss up
Another person provided a substantial list of qualms:

  1. Dishes that are period in content, but unpleasing to a modern palate
  2. Long delays between removes, or separate dishes within a single remove not making it to the table at the same time
  3.  No alternative for small children who likely want mac-n-cheese or a hot dog instead of some fancy hot dish
  4. Too much food
  5. Too little food
  6. Not enough elbow room at the table
  7. Dry sites
  8. A rush to clean up and get out of the hall before site closes - inability to just sit and enjoy the meal  
  9. A constant flow of interruptions (toasts, entertainers, announcements, etc.) that prevent casual conversation among the diners (background entertainment is fine, but asking the entire hall to stop what they are doing to pay attention is disruptive)
  10. High prices

So, I help in kitchens fairly often. I serve feast pretty regularly. I have helped to set up crazy halls and stayed with other dedicated volunteers to do dishes until 2:00 am. Some of my dearest friends are SCA cooks who routinely turn out splendid and spectacular meals. Thus, I have a lot of thoughts about the feast process and I wanted to address a few of the 'issues' that were noted.

Modern Palate: We go to medieval recreation events to do medieval things, wear medieval clothes, make medieval arts, participate in medieval fighting and eat medieval food. Yep, it's possibly quite different from what you consider 'modern' food. Check the menu before the event and if it isn't posted, contact the cook. If food is being served that does not suit your palate then don't buy feast. We don't go to a restaurant with cuisine that we do not favor and expect to have an awesome meal. We usually just pick another place for dinner. Do that. You'll be much happier.

MayanMass Moot, 2012. Pre-columbian feast
with hall set as ruined Mayan temple and jungle.
Photo by: Jared Bluestein
Servers: Complaints were made about servers who were not attentive or 'nice' enough or who could not fully explain the food they are serving to a diner. Remember this: the servers at SCA feasts are volunteers. Many of them have been doing other things all day long at the event and are probably quite tired. They generally are serving you before they get a chance to eat. These servers are not professionals and they are receiving neither pay nor tip. They likely have not been in the kitchen all day and may not be able to explain the food which is why a hall steward should announce each course.

Feast service relies entirely on volunteer assistance. If the servers are unable to keep up with bringing all of the food to the hall at the same time, that means that they need more help. Get up. Offer to help. The SCA is a volunteer organization and we all need to pitch in every so often. I am a double peer and a baroness. I serve feast regularly and so do my associates, especially if word gets out that there are not enough servers for the meal. I have given up my seat at a feast to serve instead and then stayed to clear the hall and do dishes. If I can do it, you can too.

Allergies: I have food allergies. It is my responsibility to look at the menu in advance or contact the event cook to ask if there will be any problems for me or dishes I should avoid. If the feast is going to feature too many dishes I cannot eat, then I will bring my own dinner. Most cooks are happy to let you experience their hall even if you have to bring your own meal. Be realistic about eating feast if you have lots of allergies, are on a specialized diet, are a vegetarian, etc and don't expect a cook to cater just to you when turning out a meal for 50-200 people. It's unreasonable to ask.

MayanMass Moot, 2012. Pre-columbian feast
with hall set as ruined Mayan temple and jungle.
Photo by: Jared Bluestein
Children: If your kids are picky eaters, don't buy feast for them because they likely won't eat it. It is not the job of an event cook to provide for a child that only eats chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese while they are cooking for a large number of people. Bring food for your children from home or offsite. Contact the cook to see if you can seat your child at your table even though they will be eating outside food. You will likely be accommodated.

Costs: It seems that people in some places balk at a feast price over $5. Go to, say, Olive Garden for dinner. Split an appetizer with a friend, order an entree, a drink and a dessert for yourself. You are likely over the $15 to $20 mark. Where in reality can you get a multi-course sit down meal for less than $10.00? Pretty much no where. Don't expect SCA event cooks to turn chicken thighs to lamb shank for $8 a head. The food you are eating has to be purchased. Yes, cooks should do their level best to provide a meal that is not too costly but we need to be realistic. An adult can drop $10 at McDonalds for dinner. If cost is a concern for you, go offsite or plan ahead and bring your own food.

Dry sites: Some sites do not allow alcohol and this is not the fault of the event steward or the cook. If you require alcohol to have a good time at feast, perhaps the dry site isn't the problem...

Clean up: If there is a rush to clean up that means that your event has a set end time and the site rental likely stipulates a time your entire group must vacate site or the group will incur additional charges. If you'd like to stay later and chat then head to the parking lot, elsewhere on site (if your event has not ended) or offsite. Otherwise, volunteer to cover any additional fees and fines out of your own pocket. Additionally, if more people offer to help with cleanup it can be done faster. The people cleaning the hall are also volunteers who have likely been busy all day and would also like to get off their feet, go home, eat dinner or go to bed. They are not there to cater to any group of people who would like to linger.

In summary

MayanMass Moot, 2012. Pre-columbian feast
with hall set as ruined Mayan temple and jungle.
Photo by: Jared Bluestein
When you eat feast you are paying only for the cost of your food. You are eating a meal prepared by volunteers and served by volunteers in a hall that was set up by volunteers (sometimes over the course of 2 days for an extravagant setup) and will be cleaned up by volunteers at an event run entirely by volunteers. No one is making a single cent in the process of making your meal and serving it to you. People are donating their time and skill so that you can have a cool experience and likely, a good meal.

If feast isn't your thing, that's fine! You'll never be forced to go to a feast. If you are attending a feast, keep in mind the volunteer aspect of the SCA and that cooks learn more about making feast each time they produce a large scale meal at an event. Mistakes will happen. Something will go wrong every time, it's almost guaranteed. We are all human and are all playing at this crazy ideal of a dream in the same club.

Thank a cook. Thank your server. Thank the little boy with the pitcher of water. Thank the people who set up and clean the hall. Or, you can help and be part of making feast a good experience for yourself and everyone else.