Your-1st-Fst-art - 3/29/13
"How to Successfully Pull Off Your First Feast - A Guide to the Logistics, Research, and Other Steps Involved in successfully Creating a Medieval Meal" by Lady Miriam Ester Bat Issacha.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
How to Successfully
Pull off Your
A Guide to the Logistics, Research, and Other Steps
Involved in successfully
Creating a Medieval Meal
by Lady Miriam Ester Bat Issacha
Note: This pamphlet is solely the opinion of the author. It in no way reflects the official opinions of the Society of Creative Anachronism or any other reenactment group. It is meant as an unofficial guideline to assist those who are interested in learning how to execute a feast.
This project has grown out of my personal experience cooking more than 30 feasts in over 25 years of reenactment. I've worked in full industrial kitchens and cooked feasts for 60 out of my own kitchen. I've worked on camp stoves and professional ovens. I hope that with this I can pass on some of my expertise to those who are starting out in this area.
There is a lot to cooking a feast for a reenactment group. It involves research, logistics, organization, time and money management … above and beyond the ability to cook. I hope this will help new cooks out there have a more successful and enjoyable experience.
Lady Miriam Ester bat Issachar
Challah64 at verizon.net
There are many excellent cooks in the world, but only a few truly excellent feast cooks. There is an art to feeding a group of 8 or 10 or even 20 a good meal of an appetizer, main course, 2 sides and a dessert, but those skills and assumptions don't always translate to 3-4 distinct courses for 80 to 120 people. A feast takes a great amount of planning and thought in order to be memorable for the right reasons.
In this pamphlet, I will try to help the first time feast cook with that planning. We will discuss research, logistics, portion and price control, amount of help needed, and other topics that will help that first, or 21st feast go smoothly.
I sometimes use the term Barony as the typical group division, but this is just a convenient designation for the hosting group. These steps are just as applicable for a small group, shire, barony, encampment, or any other group designation.
You cannot hope to plan and prepare a large feast in only a few weeks. I have known feast cooks to spend over 6 months researching their menus. If you want your feast to be memorable for the right reasons, give yourself at least 3 months to plan.
When you first agree to cook, look at the calendar. Are there holidays or family events the week of or before your feast? Do you have other commitments such as school work or likely professional conventions that are likely to crop up that time of year? Are your kids likely to have sports, games, or theatre, etc. scheduled for that day? Make sure you are able to fully commit to the feast. It can be a disaster to hand over your menu and notes to someone at the last moment because you have to be at your son's out of town soccer tournament that you didn't remember was scheduled for that date.
Discuss with your event steward if they have a time period or theme in mind. You may have visions of an Italian Renaissance feast, but if the event is a Norse themed event, that may be awkward. Make sure you are on the same page.
Visit the kitchen. Not all kitchens are fully stocked. I've cooked feasts for 80 in a kitchen smaller than my home kitchen. It can be done, but not without a lot of preparation. Find out what is available. If you plan on pies for 2 courses and baked chicken for a third, than a kitchen with only a 3x3 oven is not going to work well.
You are going to have to plan your menu around the capabilities of the kitchen. If it is a limited space, you may have to arrange for work tables. Consider the number of burners before you decide how many things you have to cook on the stove. Consider the size of the oven in deciding how many courses need baking or broiling.
Is the oven/stove electric, gas, or propane? One time I cooked at a fully stocked Boy Scout camp kitchen. No one had realized however that we had to make sure the gas tank was filled in order for the stove and oven to work. Thank goodness we were able to get a hold of the camp master and get the propane people in there early enough to save the feast. We just had to rearrange the courses so that those requiring the oven were moved to the final course rather than the first.
If need be, you may have to arrange for portable burners. I've seen some very successful feasts cooked on propane burners. I have also seen disasters occur when too many things are cooked on the stove top.
One common method for getting around a limited kitchen is to bring in a large barbeque. This is a good method, but remember that a grill out in the back will require constant supervision and you can't be running back and forth and expect things to come out well. Make sure to arrange for an assistant to watch the outside kitchen if you split the cooking areas.
You also need to have a clear knowledge of the appliances in the kitchen. Is there a dishwasher? Do you have access to it? Do you know how to run it? Are there food processors available for your use? Pots? Pans? I have known feast cooks to assume that the food processor I was using belonged to the kitchen, only to discover at their feast that it was my personal property and they had not asked to borrow it.
Find out how many electric outlets are available and where they are located. This may seem obvious, but I have seen feast cooks break down in tears when they discovered that the kitchen they were in did not have outlets that corresponded to counter space, and that they couldn't use the mixer/processor/chopper etc that they had planned on because they didn't have an extension cord or a table to set things up on.
Look at the size of the kitchen. How many people can you comfortably fit in there to work? Do you need to set up a workstation outside the kitchen for staging food? A feast that requires 6 people to prepare is not going to work well in a 2 body kitchen.
Check out the fridge. Is there enough room to store your ingredients while you are working? Does the site store their own items there? Will there be room for your food? Is the freezer available? Does the site have an ice maker and do you have permission to use it? Is the water in the sink drinkable? (This can be important if your site is a Scout camp as sometimes they have separate water for drinking and for washing). Think about if you need to bring in coolers.
Once you have checked out the conditions in your kitchen it is time to consider the equipment owned by your group.
Most SCA groups have kitchen equipment. This can vary greatly, but you need to know what is available. Typically knives, pots, pans, serving dishes, bowls, etc. are available, but the quantity and quality will vary greatly.
It is an excellent idea to look at an inventory if it is available, or visit the storage facility yourself. Before planning a feast you really need to know how big the stew pots are and how many there are. It is much easier to plan in advance to make 2 batches than to arrive expecting a 20 gallon pot only to find that the largest is a 5 gallon. You also want to check the condition of the knives. Most baronies have a set of kitchen knives, but they aren't always good. Be aware that in almost every case I have seen, any knives will be dull. You may want to bring some of your own or arrange for someone to be on hand to sharpen them.
Check for roasting pans if you need them. If there are disposable ones, check them for holes or leaks. You can always purchase disposable pans, but they will come out of your cooking budget, and you might as well use what is already available. Also, check to make sure that they have been stored properly, as sheds and storage units can have critters.
Make sure that all baronial equipment is well marked. You as the feast cook are responsible to make sure that baronial equipment, personal equipment, and site equipment are kept separate and returned to the proper venue. If you bring any personal knives or materials, make sure they are marked as well, or you may never get them back.
Finally, if you need any specialized equipment: rolling pins, pie plates, egg beaters, whisks, etc., make sure you have them available. I helped in a kitchen one time where they planned 20 pies but brought no rolling pins. We had to wash the labels off wine bottles to create them. It was less than optimal.
For many first time cooks, research is the most daunting task. It can be so daunting that many people who should know better just cook what they like without regard to appropriateness and periodicity. While it is true that most of your diners wouldn't know a period recipe from fast food, and are just happy if things taste good, the whole point of cooking a feast in the SCA is to further our knowledge of the period. In addition, those who DO know the difference will often be very happy to explain to everyone exactly what you did wrong. Most people will be much more forgiving of incomplete research than of no research whatsoever.
One of the first things to remember is that "Traditional" doesn't always equate to "Period." Many feast cooks stay in their comfort zones by cooking their traditional family favorites. These are usually dishes that they grew up cooking and that most people will eat. Comfort foods are good examples of this. However a great many of these foods are NOT accurate for the SCA time period.
The best example of this is the potato. Many European cuisines use the potato as a staple. It is in traditional Irish/British cooking, traditional Polish/Russian cooking, traditional Jewish cooking, German cooking, and French cooking. But is it period? It depends on how late you push "Period." The potato is a new world plant. The first potatoes were introduced to Europe in the early 1500's as curiosities. They did not start to be incorporated into European cooking until the very late 1500's, and were not a staple until more than 100 years after that. While 1600 is technically the cut off point for the SCA, most events are set much earlier. If you are planning on using potatoes, be darned sure that your event steward is setting the event date well into the Renaissance.
In addition, the potato was only used in certain areas that early as part of the cuisine. It was known, but sparsely, in Italy and the Netherlands in the 1560's, but didn't become part of established English cuisine until well into the 1600's. They were NOT traditional Irish food until the late 17th century and were not even planted in Russia until after 1750.
Another example is the tomato. While some references to it being used as peasant food in parts of the Mediterranean – specifically Sicily, date back into very late period (again, late 16th cent), it was not widely used. There is no record I have ever seen to tomatoes being served to the nobility before the 1700's. As a matter of fact, the tomato was thought to be poisonous in many areas. It is the closest relative to the Nightshade. The leaves are very close and nightshade fruits look like small tomatoes. Much of Europe assumed they were as poisonous as their cousin well into the American Colonial Period.
A final example is broccoli. A common vegetable in our 21st century pantry, it was not invented until the 18th century. Invented? How is a vegetable invented? Actually, broccoli was purposely bred from ornamental cabbages. It was designed by man to be attractive and less harsh in flavor than the cabbages it was derived from. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first documented people to embrace the new food. I think we all agree that he was a bit later than the time we are portraying.
We are all used to the Hollywood image of King Henry VIII with a turkey leg in his hand. Yes, King Henry ate turkey. He was among the first kings to do so. Turkeys are a new world bird. They were first imported to Spain in 1498, and spread quickly, but were not really part of the diet in England and Europe as a whole until the mid 1500's. Again, if you are doing a late period feast you can get away with it, but it is pushing the outside limit.
There are long lists of foods that are New World, and therefore very late period, or not period at all. Many of these foods are delicious and part of our everyday lives now, but that doesn't mean they should be used as part of a feast that is meant to represent an earlier time.
Other things that might be kept in mind include the form your food comes in. For instance, ground beef. We take that staple for granted these days. It's easy and inexpensive. However in period grinding beef was laborious. It could be done, but was time consuming. You can use ground meat, but you might want to consider shredded or diced to give it much more of a period feel.
So what was used? Before potatoes, people ate turnips, or parsnips. Before turkeys, they ate goose or chicken. Before broccoli there was cabbage, and beans and peas. We will discuss this more in the next section. There are many foods you can use. Part of being a feast cook is to find out what they DID eat in period. If you haven't cooked with those things before, try it, or find more comfortable recipes, but you do yourself and your diners a huge disservice if you don't check first.
Most diners are not cooking specialists. They will not know if your food is correct. They rely on you to have done the research. However if you do a dish that is NOT period, you run the risk of one of your diners taking your feast as the example to follow and serving it at their first feast. I have seen this happen over and over again: "Well, so and so served Turkey at THEIR Viking event, so it must be period." Over time this greatly dilutes the SCA experience, because we perpetuate the incorrect techniques and foods rather than teaching the proper ones. It also does a great disservice to those who DO strive towards accuracy, because it means that someone who researches for months and tries new techniques is judged by the same brush as someone who serves Great Grandmother's Casserole, circa 1900.
In addition, there very well may be those in your feast who DO know the difference. Once again, they will not hesitate to point out that you are unaware of the basics. If you want to continue to cook feasts, it may be a good idea to spend the research time up front. If you choose to go with a modern version, explain your reasoning in your documentation.
Research is the dreaded word for many craftspeople in the SCA. Research and Documentation do not come naturally to many of us. In cooking it is even more confusing. There are few period recipes in existence. There are many references to dishes, descriptions of feasts, remains of pantry and kitchen gardens and other artifacts, but relatively few recipes. A court cook would guard their recipes as dearly as any craftsperson, but since an example of the work is not still in existence, it is harder to recreate through second hand descriptions. Therefore, there are two schools of thought about documenting feasts.
The first is the Full Documentation School. This school asserts that the only recipes that are appropriate are recreations of extant recipes. This really limits the cook to a handful of cookbooks, most of which were published slightly post period. I personally don't like this viewpoint, because it is very limited. Besides, I feel that anyone with a bit of talent can follow a recipe.
The other school, to which I subscribe, is the Ingredient, Type, and Technique Documentation School. In this view, it is important to document that the ingredients you use were readily available and used in the context of your time and place, that the type of food was prepared and referenced, and that you are using documentable techniques.
There are many Web sites available to help you find out if your ingredients were available. In Europe there are many descriptions of foods served at feasts and monasteries, shopping lists and invoices, lists of grains grown and rations distributed. That part is usually doable. We even know what the Ice Man had eaten by the contents of his stomach. It won't take weeks of work to find out if your ingredient was known. What might be more of a challenge is pinpointing the time and place.
For instance, peppers were known in period. So was salt. So was sugar. But was it used? Sugar cane was cultivated pre-period in India. By our period it was known extensively in the Muslim world, but in Europe, honey was still the preferred sweetener. Refined sugar only became readily available in the Tudor period.
Peppers were used, but what kind? That depends on the country. In Italy and Spain a thriving trade with the spice bearing east was established early on. An English feast would use more local spices like pepper grasses and garlic. Salt was easy to get in some places and very expansive in others. If you want to do an accurate feast, spend a few moments thinking about the spices you are using and see if they were available in the time of the feast you are trying to create.
Rice is another tricky item. Was it known? Yes, in much of the world, but only those with trade with the east. Would rice have been known in England? Norse feasts? These things should be considered to make a feast have cohesiveness.
Type – by this I mean a few different things. The first is the specific type of ingredient. Most feast cooks don't worry about this, but it can add an extra dimension if you wish to take it into account. An example of what I mean is this – Flour is period, but what TYPE of flour would be used? Would it be our all purpose white flour? A course ground wheat? Maybe a dark rye? How would the bread be prepared? Dry yeast wasn't known, so do you use a sour dough starter, or brewer's yeast? Would bread have been served at a feast at the time as a food, or as a trencher, meant to be thrown out when the food was finished?
Type can also mean preservation methods. Pork was very common in most of the medieval world (except the Middle East). However there were many regional differences and season differences in how it was preserved. Some cultures salt cured, others smoked it, and some preferred it fresh. The same is true of fish. Herring is known all over Europe, but regionally it can be pickled, smoked, fresh, brined and then smoked, or just dried.
Cheese is another good example. Some cultures only make soft cheeses. For instance, up until the advent of modern techniques, kosher cheeses couldn't contain meat products and rennin is derived from animals, so kosher cheeses were more potted cheeses or creamed cheeses, and never hard cheddar or Swiss type cheeses. Finding out what cheeses were available will make your dishes more accurate.
Type can also mean variety. If you are using apples, do you want to choose a European variety, or a new world variety? While American cooks will prepare lamb, most shy away from mutton, the more common period version. If you are making a fish dish with salmon, do you use the more common Pacific salmon, or the more accurate Atlantic salmon? These are choices you can make to round out your feast, but may not make that much of a difference. However if you plan on presenting documentation, pointing out which you used and why will help others to understand your vision.
The third point is Technique. By this I mean how the food was prepared and combined. For instance, at many SCA feasts we see honey butter. Honey was known. Butter was known. I have never in my 30 years of research come across a period reference to honey butter as a combination. However it has been done so many times in the SCA it has been accepted as "period."
Some techniques are complicated to reproduce. Not every kitchen is conducive to a spit setup and we don't have trained spit dogs to turn them. However some techniques can be used. For instance, foods were sometimes steamed in a crust. The crust was heavy and not meant to be eaten, but the food was put into it to allow it to steam as if in an oven.
Even if you cannot use the period techniques, they are still very interesting to research and round out documentation if you can say, This is how it was done then … I did it THIS way because … Knowing how it was originally done will give you great insight to how our forebears approached food.
Another thing to check into if you can, is what the diet was like during the time of year you are holding your feast. I really enjoy trying to make my feasts seasonal. A winter feast might be heavy in root vegetables and dry herbs. A spring feast could feature lamb and fresh greens. A summer feast should have lots of fruits. If your feast falls around Lent, you might think about a meatless Lenten feast. There are many original sources on Lenten foods.
Region is another concern. The foods eaten in England were not the same as those in the Middle East. In Italy, northern and southern regions had very different cuisines. In Italian period cooking, beef is rare and mutton is common. So is pork. Germans ate more beef, as did the English. The Spanish preferred their fish fresh. In the Norse world, smoked fish was common. You may be very good at cooking pork loin, but you might want to think twice before incorporating it into a period Middle Eastern feast.
All of these things constitute research. Research set down in writing makes documentation. It is up to the individual to choose what level of accuracy they are striving for, but you can create a very demonstrably 'period style' feast, or a feast that "Could have been done" (to use the SCA phrase) with just a few hours of research.
Sharing with your diners that they are eating ingredients that are accurate to a time and place and season, with explanations for why modern materials and flavors may be incorporated, is a great way to increase everyone's enjoyment. I think most people enjoy a feast more when they come away having learned something as well as having a full belly.
One last little bit of research you may want to do … it is a good idea to find out if the local baron/baroness or any visiting dignitaries such as the prince/princess or king/queen have any dietary restrictions. You may not want to serve a dairy heavy feast if the attending queen is lactose intolerant. Of course, you don't have to cater to the whims and restrictions of the nobility, but you may want to be aware of the issues just in case. Some kings and queens publish "Royal Whims," in which they state their specific likes and dislikes
Now we know what our kitchen and equipment consists of, and have researched our foods so we know basically what we want to cook. It is time to plan the meal.
A good feast should be looked at as a whole, not just as individual courses or separate dishes. In some cultures there are rules about a progression … soup followed by fish followed by cheese followed by salad followed by meat … etc. Most of the cultures we portray aren't as formulated, but a good progression can make a huge difference.
I usually like to have something for people to nibble when they first sit. This might be bread and herb butter or dipping oil, olives, pickles, cheese, etc. Try not to make it too heavy or people will fill up before they get to your food.
I like to serve something fairly light for a first course, a soup dish or a chicken dish might be a good starter. Depending on the time of year it might be cold or hot.
My second course is usually my heaviest. By then the fighters have taken the edge off and won't be gulping, but they are still hungry. It should be very hearty.
My third course will usually be lighter and sometimes more adventurous. Most people have eaten enough and may be willing to try a bite of something new. Fish can be good for a third course since a fair number of people won't eat fish. Conversely, your third course can be your showpiece if the ingredients are expensive. People will be more full by this course so you can get away with smaller portions.
If the meal is very filling, you may want to consider dessert on the side-board to nibble during dancing. If it is lighter or you aren't dancing, dessert can be served at table.
You need to view the feast as a whole flavor wise as well. If your first course is heavy in garlic, you might want to go with citrus flavors in the second course. If you have a lot of sweetness in the second, go more savory in the third. I've eaten feasts where each dish separately was good and tasty, but they all had the same basic flavor palette. That made the full meal very one-note and boring and nothing stood out.
When choosing the progression, be aware also of the typical feast gear set. If you have something with a lot of liquid, like a soup, it is best to serve that early so the bowls can be reused if needed. Most people don't have more than one bowl, so another dish that needs a bowl is not a good idea, unless you are using a bread bowl.
Keep in mind that most people bring only one plate as well. Serving something in a heavy sweet sauce in the first course, followed by items in a garlicky gravy in the next course, can make for unpleasant flavors on the plates. If you have something that is loose, like a stew, consider bread bowls or trenchers to contain the flavors.
These days there are often vegetarians at the feast. While not a necessity, it is considerate to have at least one side dish in every course that is vegetarian. Vegan is not necessary if you don't' want to go that way, but at least be prepared to set aside some of the vegetable without a cheese or butter sauce if it is requested.
There are many things that can make a feast less enjoyable, and pacing can ruin and experience. The SCA is full of stories of the feast that wouldn't end, where there were hours between courses and the final course wasn't served until everyone was half asleep. We also have had cases where the courses were coming out faster than we could be served and we have felt rushed and unsatisfied. A good feast cook takes these things into account.
One of the first things I recommend is to talk to the highest ranking officials about court. When is court to be held? If before dinner, what is the longest they expect it to take? I've had to hold feast for over an hour after scheduled start time because the king wanted to give a few more awards. Find out what they expect to do so you can slow things down if needed.
Check with the event steward as to their plans between courses. Are there going to be performances? How much time is allotted? This needs to be planned in.
How long does it take to plate a dish? Make sure all your serving utensils are clean and staged before you start. Suddenly realizing that the bowls from the storage unit have a half-inch of dust on them and nobody is there to wash them 5 minutes before service is due to begin can be a disaster.
Remember, you can't create 15 platters of food in 5 minutes. You need time to portion, sauce, and get your servers to pick up your food. You need to make sure that everything in a course goes out together. Nobody wants to have 10 minutes between the meat and the side dish in the same course, and gravy that goes out late is gravy wasted. Don't plate too early or things will get cold; or worse, begin to separate.
Pace the feast. It's better to keep things warm than to serve them incompletely cooked. People talk about the feasts where they had bloody chickens and rare pork for years. You don't want to be remembered for that. You also don't want to keep people waiting for an extra hour while your chickens finish cooking.
Be aware that while you can boil enough water to make peas for 10 in about 10 minutes, that big pot may take over 40 minutes to reach a boil to make peas for 80. Leave plenty of time. If you are in an area where altitude is a factor, make sure you consider that as well.[]
Also be cognizant of the fact that a fully packed oven often cooks slower than one or two dishes at home. A chicken dish that takes 45 minutes to cook to perfection at home may take well over an hour when you have 12 chickens in the oven at once. Also some ovens have hot spots, so it is a good practice to rotate the food at the halfway point if you are using both a top and bottom shelf.
Be prepared to roll with the curve ball. Sometimes the ovens don't maintain the heat as you would like. A feast cook must be prepared to make the executive decision that the second course's chickens just aren't ready yet, so the third course's meat pieces, which are sitting on the warmer, are going out first. It is better to swap courses than to serve underdone food or keep people waiting forever.
Allow everyone to finish their final course before serving dessert. Many people will find a dessert unappetizing if they are still working on their dinner. Give them a few minutes to settle before serving your sweets.
Finally we are ready to start really planning your menu.
One of the most difficult things for the first-time cook to manage is the budget. Before you finalize a menu, you need to discuss your budget with your event steward. Remember to be absolutely clear on what you have to work with. Does the budget include head table or are they comp'ed and out of your full budget? e.g., you're feeding 88, but only 80 are paying because the Baron and Baroness, the King and Queen, and the visiting dignitaries get free food; so you make 88 portions at your budget instead of 80.
How many tables? 80 people can be 8 tables of 10, or 10 tables of 8. It makes a big difference in preparation.
Are you serving a beverage other than water? Or is it a BYOB feast? Discuss this with the event steward. Does the beverage come out of the feast budget or the event budget? Know this before you finalize your menu.
It is important to discuss with your event steward how money is laid out. Some groups prefer the feast cook to lay out the money in advance and be reimbursed at the event. Others will provide an advance. If you need the money in advance and don't have a credit card, make sure this is arranged beforehand. Either way, KEEP ALL RECEIPTS. The SCA must provide the records and it is likely that you will have to pay for any undocumented expenses out of your own pocket.
We discussed earlier things like plastic wrap and dishcloths, as well as disposable baking pans. If there are none available, remember to put them in your budget. You can always speak to the barony about offsetting things like dish soap, but they may have to come from the feast budget if other money isn't available. These things should be figured in. Don't count on using the wraps and cloth from the site, unless that has been specified in the site contract. Using wraps and soap that belong to the site without permission could jeopardize future use of the site.
Are you feeding your crew? I like to feed my kitchen staff if they plan on helping through service. If they plan on sitting with their friends and being served, they have to pay, but if they spend all day in my kitchen, I'll make sure they are fed. Other groups do not do this. Some feed servers. Make sure you know the expectations and plan enough food within your budget to accommodate this.
So now you should have a good idea of exactly how much you have to spend. Now it is time to get a rough menu worked out. Where to start?
Start with your biggest dishes first. These will usually be your proteins; your meat or fish dishes. Normally when you are cooking for your family, the rule of thumb is approx 1/2 - 3/4 pound of meat per person per meal. Remember, though, this will be split between several courses. You want to make the portions reasonable, but not overly large. Too large makes for waste. Too little and you will get big complaints. A 1/2 pound of chicken is great for a barbeque, but wasteful for a third course; but conversely half a chicken won't feed 10 people unless 6 are vegetarian.
If you are serving chicken, your portion is sometimes dictated by part. For instance, you may budget one thigh or one breast per person if you are using cut chicken. For beef or pork it is trickier, but around 1/3 pound should be OK, assuming a feast of 3-4 hearty courses. You can get away with less if it is part of something like a stew or if there are a number of filling side dishes. You will want bigger portions of meat in your first or second course, especially if it has been a fighting event. If it is your final course, go easy on the portion size as many people will have filled up by then. Over all, a rough idea of around 1/2 pound of protein per person should do it, but be careful how you split that up. Nobody likes a bite-sized morsel as a full course.
Think hard about what you want to cook. How many courses need the oven? How many on the stove? Take into account how much time each will take to cook. Make sure you a planning a menu that allows one course to come out of the oven in time to cook another. Three courses, all requiring baking times of an hour or more, will NOT be done if they all have to be served right out of the oven. Try to work a combination of cooking methods so that things are done on time and served hot.
Know the demographics of your group. If you have a large number of fighters, the protein ratio may push up to the 3/4lb mark. If you have a large number of children or if it is a primarily A&S event, the 1/2 pound mark may be more than enough. Be sensible and don't overbuy.
Try to find out the tastes of your group. If you are serving a fish dish, find out if a large number of people won't eat fish. I have found that it is often more than 1 in 4, so you can purchase smaller portions of the fish. Do you have an adventurous group? While we like to think of ourselves are recreating medieval culture, many people are very limited in what they will try if it looks "weird" or even different. A good example is beets. While many people really enjoy beets, a large number wouldn't taste a beet dish on a bet. Turnips and cabbage also fall into this group. While they were heavily used in period, you can get away with smaller portions just because they are not as familiar to the average American palate. I am NOT suggesting that you avoid these foods. Many excellent recipes use them. Just be aware that you can get away with less. Of course there are regional differences in tastes, so talk to more experienced cooks in your area to get an idea of the tastes of your group.
Another thing to keep in mind is the number of vegetarians in your area. If you have an unusual number, you can get away with smaller averages of proteins, but need to up the sides to accommodate, or create more vegetarian main courses.
The time of year can also come into play. Few people want a very heavy meal when it is 90 degrees outside. However when it is snowy, many people crave carbs.
Finally, the amount of dessert you make should also take into account the size of the feast. If you have served a large feast full of varied meat and carb dishes, then a lighter dessert may be appropriate. Are people going to be sitting for dessert? Or do they want to get to dancing? Consider a sideboard of fruits and nuts and cookies for a lighter dessert if you feel that is appropriate.
One more note: You should discuss with your event steward if something special is desired for high table. Some groups like to have special dishes or subtleties served as presentation pieces to the high table. If this is expected, find out who is preparing them – it is not always the feast cook – and who is paying for them.
So finally you can make up your menu. Make sure to write it out not just by dish, but by ingredients. Make a full list of exactly what you expect to need. Saying you are making pork roast with apples for your third course, with a side of peas and carrots and mashed turnips with butter is not enough at this stage. You need to know that you need 25 pounds of pork, 15 apples, 3 pounds of peas and carrots, 8 turnips, and two sticks of butter, salt, pepper, dill, and apple cider vinegar. Take into account that you need to purchase every ingredient, or supply them out of your own larder. Don't forget spices and garnishes or you will forget to budget for them.
Once your full list is created, cross off any items that the baronial pantry might contain, such as any spices or maybe a bag of rice. Remember that you usually do NOT have access to the site pantry. That doesn't belong to the barony and the right to use those materials is not usually part of the site agreement. You are now ready to price the feast.
This initial pricing should be done approximately three months before your feast, but at minimum 45 days out. Check your prices on everything on your list. Make a list of where you found the items. Not all stores will carry all the items. If you don't have a membership to a wholesale club, find someone in the group who can take you. Add up everything.
Once you have confirmed the availability and price of all your items, add up the total. Compare this to your budget. Remember, you still have time to adjust portions, or even change the menu drastically at this point. You may even be able to raise the price of the feast if it hasn't yet been published. If you are close to budget, you may not have to change anything, but think about places you can cut if needed.
Remember that prices can change suddenly. Recently I priced a feast in June. Between June and Labor Day the price of gas jumped drastically. This caused all my food to increase in price. When I went to do my purchases, my original menu would have been 10 percent over budget. I had to make several drastic changes the day before my feast. Because of this I recommend checking the prices on everything again about 2 weeks out from the big day.
Once you have finalized your menu, it may be a good time to host a walk through. Your feast day should not be the first time you have prepared a particular dish. If you have never cooked a feast before, it would be a very good idea to do a practice run on the full menu. It will give you an idea on pacing and how flavors go together in progression. Invite a few friends over to give feedback.
When you are doing your practice, keep in mind that you may be able to fit 3 dishes in your oven at a time, but is that a realistic approximation of what you will find in your feast kitchen? If not, than stagger your dishes accordingly. Do not skip dishes unless you are VERY familiar with them, as you want to get a very good idea of how everything works together and how long it takes to make. A good practice feast will also tell you if you have too much or too little of a particular dish.
After your practice, think through your menu again and make any changes you feel are needed. If you make changes, make sure to adjust the budget accordingly.
About 2 weeks out is a good time to consider your precooking. More than that risks freezer burn if you aren't very careful about wrapping things. There are many dishes that can be precooked.
Think about your baronial resources. Is there someone in the barony who is really good at making bread? Is there someone with a terrific shortbread recipe? There is nothing wrong with delegating some of the pieces to specialists, as long as you credit them and thank them for their efforts.
If you are going to precook items, think about how much room they take up. Do you have the freezer space? If not, ask the barony if anyone does, but make sure that you only arrange with people who are sure they have the room and will be at the event. It does you no good to have to run all over town the morning of the event to pick up your food. You really need people who can deliver the food in good condition and in a timely manner. Someone coming to the event just for the evening will not be useful in delivering frozen pieces of first course.
What can you precook? Some things lend themselves to freezing. Baked goods – Your breads, cookies, etc. ‑ are usually fine to freeze for 2 weeks. As long as they are carefully packaged, they should not suffer in that time frame.
Other things can be partially cooked. I've half-cooked chickens and packaged them in the juices they were cooking in and frozen them that way. That greatly reduced the amount of time they had to cook at the event. However if you try that, make sure you have adequate time to defrost them.
Some items that are cooked in crust can be precooked. Many tart or pasty recipes can be made in advance and frozen. Others will suffer after a short time. Freezing will often dry items out. Be careful about that. If you are making something in a crust, make sure it is not very wet, since the liquid can make the contents and crust mushy while it defrosts.
If you plan on serving the precooked items warm you will want to be careful about not overcooking. I prefer to cook things like pasties about ¾ of the way done. Then defrost them completely before putting them in the oven for rewarming and cooking them the rest of the way. If you completely precook them, you risk them being overdone and dry when served. If you must fully cook something, consider a sauce to moisten it. Some things don't do well frozen unless you are very practiced. Cooked fish is one of those items. Soft vegetables like mushrooms can also be tricky. Use your discretion and do a test run first if you are at all unsure.
A few days before the event, you will probably have to arrange to pick up the kitchen equipment at the storage unit or place where it is housed. In my experience, it is usually part of the duty of the feast cook to pick up the equipment, or arrange to have it picked up. If you are delegating this, make sure you have a detailed list of what you need. If you leave the decisions up to someone else, don't be surprised if you are missing some pot or pan that you were counting on.
Don't forget any pantry items, washrags, or soap that the group may own. It is better to pick up more than you think you need than to be missing an essential piece.
Make sure you are clear on who is bringing any high table pieces.
Confirm your staff at least a week in advance. For a typical kitchen you will need 2 to 6 helpers. You may want to rotate them in shifts depending on the makeup of the group and how much time they have to give. Be very aware of how much help you will need and err on the side of too many. You can always ask someone to come back in an hour if you have too many, but trying to get extra help once you are there may be very difficult.
Know what your helpers will be doing. Have specific tasks in mind. Write down any directions if it is more complicated than chopping. Remember, your staff may be less experienced in the kitchen than you are. You may have to show them what size you want things chopped, because words like "Fine Dice" may not be clear enough. If you want them to mix pie crusts, have a step by step recipe for them.
Don't forget to have someone available for washing your dishes. It is a good idea to ask someone to be the washer in advance. If they know to wear old garb, they will not be as likely to balk at washing greasy pans.
Who is doing clean up? Discuss with your event steward if she has a cleanup staff, or if you should arrange for it, or if you will announce "We need help cleaning up from feast." You really shouldn't leave the site until everything is clean and packed up, so know who is doing the cleaning or you are likely to be standing in that kitchen with a mop as the last person to leave site.
Make sure you discuss servers with the event steward. Some groups like to have one person per table come forward to get the food. Often there are dedicated servers for high table. Some groups gather a group of dedicated servers, usually students who get fed free of charge, who will serve one or more tables and then eat at a separate table. Make sure you know your group's preferences.
24-48 hours before the event, it is time to start your shopping. If you have the refrigerator space, or have arranged for reliable room with others, you should shop two days in advance. I recommend two days because it leaves time to go to multiple stores if your usual place is out of a key ingredient. This almost ALWAYS happens.
It is OK to do your personal shopping while you are out, but it might be wise to separate the items and pay separately. This makes it MUCH easier later on to tell what you need to be reimbursed for and which items are your own.
If you don't have enough refrigerator space, make sure you have arranged for coolers or fridge space elsewhere. You need to always practice safe food handling and have to keep things properly stored.
It is highly unlikely that the site will allow you to bring things to their facility in advance. It is also risky. Other groups use the sites and may decide to 'borrow' things they find in the kitchen, or may assume that it is fair game for members of the church or meeting house or camp.
Remember to take anything out of the freezer that needs to defrost by the next morning. Again, these things often need to be defrosted in the refrigerator, not at room temperature, so make sure you have the room.
If others are storing your food for you, make sure they are VERY clear as to what time it needs to be at the site. An entire feast can be thrown off because someone decides to arrive a few hours late to an event.
Keep all receipts and a running total. Make sure you do not go over your budget. If prices have changed, you may have to make last minute changes to your menu. Be prepared that you CANNOT expect the barony to make up your overages. You can do that out of pocket if you wish to, but it is better if you avoid going over budget.
As the feast cook, it is your responsibility to make sure that all the equipment and food is there. Know what time you can get into the site and get there as early as you can. You will need time to get unloaded, and to get everything sorted and organized.
Pack multiple copies of your recipes. If you only have one copy, it is a given that someone will spill grease all over it or drop it in the sink. You may also want a list of the ingredients that can be left at the gate, so they can answer questions from anyone with food allergies.
I also like to have a printed schedule – again, multiple copies – keeping me on task as to what needs to be done in what order and when things need to be on the stove or in the oven. Make it detailed, e.g., 10am start chopping veggies for stew. Must be in boiling water by 11. Cube beef and brown it by 11:30. Add to veggies by 12. Chickens must be in oven by 1. Etc.
Check over all the items that you got from the storage unit. You should wash EVERYTHING that wasn't in a sealed tub. Storage units are not usually secure enough to keep out insects and sometimes even rodents. It is better to give a quick wash to all your bowls than to serve from something that has had little feet running through it since its last use.
If you are at all unsure about the condition of your counters, mix a batch of bleach water and wipe down all surfaces where food will be placed. It is better to be careful than to give an entire barony a case of food poisoning.
If you have anything that needs to be cooked and then chilled, make sure that is done early. Take the time to arrange the refrigerator and freezer so that you have stable shelf space to place your items.
If you have someone available to wash dishes as you go, USE THEM. This will make it much easier when things get crazy as serving time gets closer.
Check to make sure fighting/court/activities are on schedule. Make sure that your expected serving time isn't being shifted.
Keep basic food safety techniques in mind at all times. Make sure all your staff washes their hands. Wipe down all surfaces when you change foods. This is especially important when dealing with raw meat. You need to scrub tables and counters and especially cutting boards between cutting vegetables and chopping meats.
If you are falling behind, let the event steward know. Court can be drawn out. Entertainment can be moved. But once people sit they expect to be fed and will quickly grow restless.
Keep you kitchen fun! People are more likely to work in a fun kitchen. If you can, encourage stories and singing. You may even arrange for someone to come in and sing a song or two. I've known feast cooks who insisted on quiet in their kitchens. They had a hard time getting people to stay. In my kitchen we are always bantering, singing, and telling stories. It makes the time go faster and people look forward to being there.
Make sure you get the names of everyone who helps. It is likely that you will be given an opportunity to thank them at some point in the evening. Don't neglect the person who washed dishes or took out your trash. Everyone likes to be acknowledged and it will make it more likely that they will help you in the future.
When you are within an hour of service make sure you have all serving platters, bowls and utensils clean, dry and ready to be used. Make sure you know if you will need to wash anything between courses in order to reuse them. You will need to tell servers to return things like ladles and bowls to the kitchen if you need to clean them and send them out again.
When people are being seated, ask servers to come so you can brief them as to how you want things to work. Find out who is serving high table. The usual etiquette is for high table to be served first. If that is the case, make sure your servers know not to proceed to their tables until high table is fully served.
It is good practice to discourage or outright forbid people from coming into the kitchen to rinse their personal plates between courses. It puts people underfoot when you need space to move. It is OK to have this announced.
Explain to the servers what the food is, so they can tell the tables. If foods are to be mixed, explain that. For instance if you are serving a gravy or sauce on the side, explain which dish it is meant to go with.
Have table munchies ready to go out as soon as people take their chairs. By this I mean things like the bread and cheese or oil or salt. Any pickles or olives you may want on the tables. If you are serving pitchers of a beverage, they should go out on the tables right away.
Have the first course quickly. If it takes too long to get that first course on the table, people will begin to fill up on bread and ruin their appetite. If you need any of the serving pieces back, make sure the servers know that. Ask them to bring the empty dishes back once they are done so that the tables don't get too cluttered and so that you can reuse them, but don't encourage the servers to in any way rush people to finish a course.
First course will usually be eaten quickly. You may want to start plating second course as soon as first is out. Once the majority of your servers have brought back the dishes and declared their tables finished, you can send out the next course.
Following courses can be sent out with the same rule of thumb. Wait until most of the servers report that their tables are done with the previous dish. Don't rush them, but don't make them wait.
You should be aware if there will be entertainment between courses, or even a mini court. If there is, than you will have longer spaces between those courses. Be careful that you don't plate too early or the food will get cold or sauces may separate.
At some point, usually after the final course but before dessert, you will probably be called into the hall to take a bow. At that point you can thank your kitchen help. Encourage as many of them as possible to come forward and take their bows as well. It doesn't matter if you are in a spattered apron. Everyone knows you have been working. Take your bow and smile! You are almost done.
Once the dessert goes out, you can grab a moment to sit. Make sure you have eaten and that your crew has eaten as well. Make sure you have had enough to drink. Feast cooks have been known to get dizzy because they forget these things.
At this point you are almost done, but not quite. If everything has gone well, this is a good time to package any leftovers. How these are handled vary from group to group as well. Some groups donate them to a shelter. Others hand them out to whoever wants some. In still others the feast cook takes them home if s/he wants.
If the feast has been a success, you should have no shortage of volunteers to clean up. Many people consider helping to clean the kitchen as a form of applause for the cooks. Delegate the cleanup and be clear so that you don't have people stepping on each other.
Remember you need to supervise the separation of the group's equipment from that of the site and any personal equipment you may have brought or borrowed.
If you have had someone cleaning as you go, the dish washing will go quicker. At least try to have had any pots with burned on materials soaking. It makes it much easier at this point.
It is very important to make sure that you leave the kitchen as good as or better than you find it. The group may want to use the site again. Remember to have someone wipe down all counter spaces, and clean any food messes from the oven and the stove. Arrange to have someone sweep and then if possible to mop the floor before you leave. Try to avoid mopping until the rest of the clean-up is done to make sure nobody slips.
Supervise the repacking into vehicles of any equipment belonging to the barony or group. You have to be sure to know who has taken which materials if they are not all going home with you. It is your responsibility to make sure it all gets returned to the storage space in clean condition.
Do not forget the dishrags. In most cases it will be your responsibility to take them home and wash them, and to return them to the barony clean and folded.
Properly pack up any dry goods that might be used for the next feast. Items like flour, spices, rice, etc can be part of the next feast if properly packaged, but can go bad or get infested by insects if they are left open or improperly stored.
Your feast is over. Put our feet up and enjoy a drink. You have earned it!
When you get home, make sure that any perishable items you have brought home are taken in and stored. I know this sounds obvious, but more than one tired feast cook has remembered the leftovers in the middle of the following morning, only to be greeted by really 'special' smells when they opened the car to check on them.
The next day or two after the feast, there are a few more things to take care of. The first and most important to you will be submitting the receipts. Talk to your group's exchequer. Some will want to go over the receipts at the event, others will meet with you the next day or so. Make sure you have all the receipts and expenditures are all clearly marked for them.
Wash and dry dishrags.
Make arrangements to return the equipment to storage. Get it all put back the way you found it.
It is also a good idea to meet with your event steward to go over any feedback and to make sure you have not forgotten anything important.
Submit to the event steward and to the Baron/Baroness a list of those people who worked in your kitchen with notes on any who went above and beyond. This is especially important if it is someone who is new. Putting service like that on record is how people get recognized. I have known people who worked events for years without ever having received an AoA or even a baronial recognition because nobody formally recommended them, or brought it to the attention of those who were not in the kitchen.
Once a few days have passed, you may want to make some notes on your recipes. What worked? What didn't work? What would you change? These notes should be made when everything is still fresh in your mind. It will help you if you are crazy enough to try this again.
Regardless of how successful your feast has been, you will usually get negative feedback as well as positive. Be gracious. Take in suggestions and decide if the feedback is valid. Some people aren't good at expressing themselves graciously, but have good points.
Feast cooking is a performing art. Just as an entertainer will be subject to critics, a cook will receive just as many opinions. Actually you are more likely to get criticism, because people have their own tastes and opinions about food. It could be as simple as "the beans were underdone" (an opinion, some like them crunchy, others mushy) or as complex as "you might want to consider coriander in the gravy next time instead of allspice since allspice is New World." Take in the comments and learn from them in the future.
I hope that this guide has been useful. I've tried to make it as complete as possible. It is based on more than 25 years of feast cooking, both in my own kitchens, and assisting with the feasts of friends.
A guide of this size can make the task look daunting, and it should. Nothing can ruin a good event quicker than a bad feast. People are paying extra for the food. They expect it to be worth the extra money. A good feast can make an event's reputation and assure continued attendance at future events that the group puts on. A bad feast can sour the reputation of the group for a long time.
The condition that a kitchen is left reflects on the reputation of the group as well. Organizations are happy to rent facilities to groups that treat the property with respect, but loath to rent it to those who leave a greasy mess.
The feast cook holds the reputation of the group in their hands in several ways. It is more than just being a competent cook. It is a role that needs to be approached with seriousness and thought.
I don't mean to imply it can't be fun. I love cooking feasts. I plan menus constantly for feasts I may never serve. I'm constantly looking at new foods to add to a period feast, learning about new appropriate techniques and the history of different foods so that I can be more accurate and varied in my repertoire. Planning and executing a good feast is something I am passionate about!
That said, a feast cook must be aware of the amount of work that goes into a feast. Too many first time feast cooks think they are just going to show up, cook their favorite foods, take a bow, and leave. That doesn't work. A feast cook has a responsibility to do their best to create a feast in keeping with the ideas of the SCA, and that does credit to the reputation of the group they are cooking for.
Of course everything in this pamphlet is solely my opinion. It does not in any way express official views of the SCA or any other reenactment groups. This is simply my attempt to mentor new feast cooks and to make the process of the first feast a little easier and more focused.
I hope it has been of some use.
Lady Miriam Ester Bat Issachar
Done this tenth day of October, 2012 C.E.
Copyright 2012 by Ruth Katz, 501 S Gladstone Dr, Virginia Beach, VA 23452. <Challah64 at verizon.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
 The prehistoric man discovered in a glacier in Austria in 1991