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.


Syr Turold said...

Smart rebuttal from a smart woman. If you don't like it, don't go or bring your own food. This stuff is basic.

Lucinda Johnson said...

Well said, covers all points. The comments I saw posted on the thread in question bothered me as well. Some were legitimate, most were shall I say it? Self serving. You are correct that many factors go into a feast, the planning alone can be daunting for most people. Understanding portion amounts in relation to multi-course meals. Multiplication of ingredients is not always exact. Figuring out what dishes will be used for serving, plating and getting food out while still hot can be its own special challenge. These comments come from my own experience as well.
the most important comment that you made,IMO, regarded special dietary needs whether life choices such as vegan or allergy it is your responsibility to contact the feast steward to see if your needs can be accommodated. If they can not make other plans.

elewys said...

My only addendum is that as a feast cook, do not make any changes or substitutions to the ingredient list after it has been published. Every dish may taste *even better* with wine/onions/garlic/nuts added to it, but if someone has allergies and has already looked at the menu and decided it was safe, you may turn someone's delightful feast into an ER trip.

Kristen said...

Elewys, I agree entirely. Anyone who publishes a menu should stick to it and if any last minute changes have to be made, make sure to inform those who are eating feast before that dish is served.

Bianca of Trimaris said...

Well said, I agree as in the past when I have attended feast, I have been guilty of not sitting long enough to a enjoy a my meal. As I am guilty of going to the kitchen and assisting where need be, just because I knew they needed additional help from being so short handed.

Sonny Scott said...

I always ask for volunteers from the tables. They usually want to be polite to their friends. I wouldn't mind hearing feedback on that. And you always have more than enough people to serve head table.

M P-K said...

Something I have learned about being a feast cook and would love to implement the next time I am running a kitchen is to have someone announce the dishes as they come out of the kitchen for each course.
Having a menu posted with ingredients is great but seeing and hearing is even better and can be entertaining :)

What people attending feast have to know is well covered here. Too often have I been hearing that good cooks are those who provide separate meals or dishes for children, vegetarians and gluten free diners (though I found allergy lists that also include beef, pork, dairy, fungus, egg and so on). No, good cooks provide ingredient lists **or** can be reached ahead of the feast to provide such and address concerns. If one of you is either a picky eater or has specific needs that do not work well with the menu, than maybe feast isn't the best choice. Sometimes there is only so much one volunteer and their staff of volunteers on a limited budget with limited time can do while serving 100+ of their friends.

In the end though, we do terribly want to please people and have them not left out... we do love to please or we would not be doing this.

Blaze said...

Please remember it is courteous to pre-register for events. It is terribly difficult for the Kitchener to know how much food to prepare when an event gets ten pre-registrations and then 200 folks want to sit feast.

Pre-registration also helps keep costs reasonable, by taking much of the guesswork out of quantities.

sidhne said...

"Modern Palates:" Bring your favorite spices to feast to make the food more to your liking. In general, I've found that the worst thing you can say about dishes is that it was a little bland.

Helen Woolverton said...

A well-written piece. I find myself wishing I could've attended the MayanMass Moot, going by the pictures.

Melanie Unruh said...

I'm always amazed at people's assumptions. Expectations are far closer to what people have for Outback - except for that cost issue, which always baffles me. (We did $10/head at Twelfth Night, more meat than any human could eat, and I'm sure people complained about the cost.)

You've addressed virtually all of the issues I've encountered as a cook... except for the woman who came to the kitchen at Twelfth Night - in the middle of the day as we were deeply into prepping everything that had to go into ovens in the next hour - and asked what was in the feast, because she is allergic to "everything".

I don't adjust my menus to accommodate special diets, but I do deliberately provide a wide range of foods, so that everyone can get a satisfying meal. Some pastries, some things isolated from gluten; mushrooms and nuts in only a few dishes; plain-ish meats with sauces served on the side. We have locals who say "I don't like period foods", to which I cheerfully say, "you'll be happier at Outback," because my feasts are as different from a steak dinner as Thai food is from American cuisine. I personally don't eat feasts that aren't plausibly period, and so that's when *I* go to Outback!

I also provide menus for each table, with known triggers noted on each dish, and we meet with the servers before each course is delivered, to provide direction - like which table is to get the hedgehogs without nuts.

Thanks for the essay.