Journeys of self-discovery are often internal; we go to the desert, we go to the beach, we go to the forest, and, in our solitude, we unlock secrets from the past, untapped desires, revelations about who we are and why we are the way we are. Other times, journeys of self-discovery are external: case in point, my trip to Cape Cod with Craig and his film school friends a few weeks ago. It was there in Cape Cod that I discovered something about myself, something that I didn’t really know: when it comes to cooking for a group, that ain’t my thing!
If I remember correctly, there were 15 of us out there. We were the guests of the incredibly generous Rob and Kath who hosted as, as some of you may remember, two years ago on my first trip to the Cape. Days were spent lounging on the deck, sipping coffee and reading trashy magazines, taking a ride in the boat where some of us (not me) stood up on a surfboard while getting tugged along; nights were spent playing games like Mafia or Cary’s game where our friend Cary used all of our iPods to create an epic game of “Name That Tune.” In between, though, there were meals and the meals were good and good in a way that impressed me to no end.
How do you feed 15 people and make all 15 people happy?
Meet Josh’s ribs:
Josh, who, I will reveal to you now, is my collaborator on the big secret web video project I’m working on, is a master of the rib. Well, almost a master. Apparently, a few months ago, he attempted to make his ribs for a group and because he was using an unfamiliar grill he overcooked them. Josh was determined not to let this happen again, so he made the ribs ahead of time; he made them at home and brought them with him in the car.
The secret to Josh’s ribs? “Low and slow,” he says. He cooks them on an indirect heat. “And the meat is really good,” he adds. “I get my meat from a butcher I really trust.”
Josh’s ribs were a sensation; they were the talk of the weekend. “Man, weren’t those ribs good?” was a refrain heard again and again.
Why were they so successful?
I have a few theories:
1. When cooking for a group, it is good to make something on a large scale: a spit-roasted pig; prime rib (like Craig’s dad made for a huge family gathering this summer); a big pot of chili, etc, etc;
2. When cooking for a group, you’ve got to pick something and then own it. There’s no place for wishy-washiness, for self-doubt. Josh made up his mind that he’d make ribs and he owned those ribs. And the group, which consisted of fifteen very hungry people (and only one or two vegetarians) was grateful that Josh made the decision for us. We didn’t have to argue and debate about what to eat for dinner; Josh took away all worry and concern. Like a good parent, he said, “this is what we’re having for dinner” and we, the eager children, ate greedily.
Josh’s wife, Krisse, also feeds the group with similar confidence and decisiveness. In the afternoon, for example, she whipped up something she called “dog food” which was, simply, unseasoned Chex Mix, mixed with melted chocolate and peanut butter and then sprinkled with powdered sugar:
It’s the sort of gesture big groups appreciate but never think to ask for; we snacked on the dog food the whole afternoon and that’s because Krisse understands the psychology of cooking for a group.
Then there’s me: I discovered, on this trip, that the very qualities that make Josh and Krisse masters of big-group cooking are the very qualities I lack. I’m not good at being decisive (just ask Craig, who I drive crazy on a regular basis in talks about where to go to dinner; I change my mind about 50 times). I’m also not good at making big, sweeping gestures in the kitchen; whipping up a snack like “dog food” or making big pans of strada for breakfast, like Krisse does, feeding others plentifully and heartily. I’m better at taking instruction, in situations like these, than doling out instructions. Which is why I was happy when Josh asked if I’d make the spoon bread, following a recipe he printed out.
I gladly said, “Sure,” and felt the pressure lift since I worried that those present who knew about my food blog (pretty much everyone) would expect me to prepare something spectacular off the cuff; instead, I made this:
Which was, indeed, spectacular, but mostly because Josh made the decision that we’d be making spoon bread; if it were left up to me, I’d still be sitting in that kitchen fretting.
Mark and Diana, who were also present, took the reins the next night and demonstrated, with equal flair, the right way to cook for a group. Here they are with the clam chowder they made:
And here’s Rob butting his head in:
Decisively and enthusiastically, Mark and Diana whipped up this elegant, and surprisingly light soup with local clams purchased nearby:
They also made miso-braised cod except they couldn’t find miso, so they used a mixture of soy and mirin and wowed the crowd nonetheless:
That night I offered to make the Caesar salad and I worried, the whole time I did it, as to whether I’d added too little dressing or too much dressing? Did I use too much cheese or not enough cheese? And did I use too much garlic or just the right amount? There it is in the big white pot with Cary leaning over it:
As we ate, I secretly waited for the verdict. Was there enough lemon? Did I overdo the anchovy?
But, as everyone stuffed their faces, I realized that’s not what big group cooking is about. When you cook for a group, you can’t wait for compliments on your salad; you’ve got to make a big gesture–you’ve got to bring a steaming plate of ribs to the table, you’ve got to set a baked Alaska on fire. My salad? I’m sure people enjoyed it, but it’s like being a flute soloist at a football game.
The truth is that to impress a large group of people, you’ve got to cook large. Some folks are better at cooking large than others; I’ve come to discover that I am far superior at cooking small. I’d much prefer to cook for four than to cook for fourteen: I’d rather roast a chicken than a whole pig, I’d rather man a single skillet than a giant grill.
Which is why those who cook well for groups have my utmost respect and admiration; it’s a task I find incredibly daunting and slightly terrifying. My nightmares don’t involve showing up naked at school, they involve showing up foodless at a dinner party where 30 guests are staring at me hungrily. “We’re starving!” they yell. “Where’s the dinner?”
Enter Josh, Krisse, Mark and Diana in superhero costumes as I flee the scene. When it comes to cooking for a group, I’ll leave it to them!