Friday, February 5, 2010

Haitian Dinner

The Sunday after the Haitian earthquake, I am stomping around the old dining room, whining at my husband about my lack of income and how this prevents me from doing anything for Haiti.

"All I can do successfully, apparently, is cook. What am I supposed to do: fly to Port-au- prince and start cooking grits?" Then I listen to what I just said: All I can do is cook. And I think: Well, cook already, woman.

"I wonder if I cooked a dinner whether I could get people to buy tickets, and then I could send the proceeds to Haiti? Could we afford to do that?" Sure, says my dear husband Hugh, we can do that. "Fifty people came and sang on Boxing Day; I bet 50 people would pay $25 to eat a good dinner with a real napkin, to support Haiti. I'm going to do it. I could feed 80 people, no problem."

I plan a menu that night: appetizers, Caribbean pork, black-eyed peas and rice, collard greens, onion relish, grapefruit and mesclun salad, Key lime pie. I can do that for 50 people, no problem. No fancy finishing, no split-second timing.

First thing Monday I call the church office and ask whether I can borrow the church hall for my little party: Sure, just make it clear that this is your benefit party, not a church do. Absolutely, I say.

Then I call Roy's Market and talk to Peter Robinson.

"Peter, I'm doing a benefit dinner for Haitian earthquake relief and I'm going to want to order pork butts. How much lead time do you need if I want them on a Tuesday evening?" Peter tells me he can get the meat in plenty of time, and then asks what he can do to help me in my project, since he has been wanting to do something for Haitian relief, too. "Could you sell to me at cost?" "I'll do better than that, Ivy, I'll give you all the food." Oh, my goodness. How fabulous, how generous.

I create a Facebook event, email everyone on my address list. Responses start pouring in. I wanted this to be affordable and apparently I hit the sweet spot. By Friday I have sold close to 90 tickets. By Monday next, 105. "Mom, you said you were going to do this for 80 people and how many do you have now? 100. You have to tell the people NO," says Frankie-my-daughter. I hate telling the people no.

In the meantime, Frankie organizes a squad of high school students to help serve. Hugh says he will come home early and help serve. My good friend Bridget offers to spend the day helping me cook, my mother-in-law Molly offers to do the flowers. This is getting to be fun.

Since I am not buying food, only wine, I figure I can spend a little dressing up the hall. I have enough napkins for more than 100 people; I have almost enough tablecloths. I make new tablecloths for the round tables, in cheerful approximately Provencal colors. I wash all the tablecloths and iron them, and I iron all the napkins during my Friday afternoon at home. It reminds me of being a Waldorf nursery school teacher, sitting and ironing and talking. I get 48 little glass vases and candles to put in them; I get Mason jars for the tulips Molly is getting. Now it's really fun.

I go to Market Basket, home of rock-bottom prices, to buy wine. How much? I call my sister Holly (who is an experienced benefit organizer) from the wine aisle: how much wine do I need for 110 people? "Well, you figure 80 percent will drink, and if you figure two glasses per drinker, which I think is generous, you've got 110 people, that's 85 drinkers, four glasses to the bottle." I'm getting the double bottles, so eight glasses to the bottle. "Okay, eight glasses to a bottle, 170 glasses, you need 24 bottles." I buy 24 red and four white and hide them in the closet at church. My fantasy of having a footman to move stuff in and out the car recurs.

What shall we wear? people ask. What are you going to wear? I suggest that guests take this as an opportunity to get a little dressed up, here in the fashion-free zone. But what was I going to wear? A little black dress was wrong for the kitchen, kitchen slops were wrong for the dining room. There's a reason uniforms exist: I buy a good looking chef's jacket.

I make a schedule for cooking: pies on Monday, regular community supper cooking on Tuesday, put the pork to marinade after Tuesday supper, everything else starting at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. Monday went to hell in a hack, so my friend Nancy and I made pies on Tuesday after dinner. Wednesday morning Bridget and I start in. We peel and chop onions for relish, peel and section grapefruit for salad, wash and stem and chiffonade collard greens. In the middle of all this, I go home to sell a non-functioning car and pick up a few last things. It is a scary moment when I go to pick up the salad greens and no one at Roy's can find them. Peter knows where they are, of course. I make 14 loaves of bread. Molly makes 14 bouquets of tulips for the tables; Bridget and I arrange the tables; dress them with bright tablecloths and napkins, tulips and hurricane lanterns. The floor gets swept, the chairs arranged. It looks like a party in here.

Okay. Meat's done, peas are done, salads ready to assemble, collards ready to sear. Frankie and her friend Cody show up and finish setting the tables. Hugh calls and says he will be there looking like a waiter by 5:45. Bridget and I each dash home to change, Bridget is going to pick up plain votives for the lanterns because one of the boxes I bought turned out to be vanilla scented (yuck). I shower and leap into black pants, white tee shirt and chef's jacket, cram my already aching feet into black Dansko clogs (the preferred shoe of barn managers, line cooks, and school teachers everywhere). I meet Hugh at the bottom of the drive. "Get some ice, please," I holler out my window in passing.

"Ivy, I'm at Job Lot and there aren't any plain votives." Go by my house, there's a box of Shabbat candles on the pantry cupboard. We'll use those.

"Mom, there aren't enough glasses." Go home and get some, please. "What do we do about the forks?" What about the forks? "There aren't four for every place setting." Take away the dessert fork, we'll wash salad forks and return them as dessert forks with the pie. I hang up my white jacket and throw on an apron and start searing collards. There are a lot of collards.

I make table cards. Oh, fork. Oh, shit. Oh, damnation. My seating chart was arranged predicated on FIVE tables of single tickets; I've only got four set up and I don't have enough stuff to set up another one. I recount; I re-shuffle; I slip a few singletons into tables of eight that are only six. There are enough seats, I know there are. Seven tables of eight is 56, plus the High Street twelve is 68, plus four tables of 10 is 108. That's enough. I'm pretty sure that's enough.

I teach the wait staff to make salads. They start plating 100 salads. They are great girls: Katherine, who is only 10; Elspeth and Lucy and Maggie, who are 14; Emily and Frankie and Fern and Olivia and Sadie. They're all spruced up and energetic and having fun. Bridget is soldiering on; Hugh arrives in his tux. "Waitrons," he says, "please listen. We're going to serve each person at a table at the same time. We'll send you out in groups so that everyone at one table gets a plate at the same instant. Organize yourselves into squads, please." He looks fabulous; and I would never have thought of that detail of making sure that the tables got served that way.

We start rice, we slice meat, we make salads, we cook collards. We light candles, we fill water glasses, we open wine bottles. It's chaos, but everyone is having a terrific time.

Two guests show up at 6:30 p.m. and stroll into the kitchen: What can we do to help? I want to scream "You can get out of my bloody kitchen, that's what you can do! This party starts at 7 p.m., not now!" What I actually say is, "Oh, gosh, thanks, but we're a little crowded, so if you wouldn't mind just waiting in the entryway. There's a bench to sit on." I shut the kitchen door and the double doors into the hall to prevent further incursions.

Bridget and Sadie light a fire in the fireplace. For a terrible moment the hall starts filling with smoke; Richard, father of Elspeth and Catherine, takes over fire duties so Sadie and Bridget can return to the kitchen; the smoke clears, the fire lights (after Richard sacrifices some wineglass boxes and my unread newspaper); all is well.

6:55. I shut the hatch doors from the kitchen into the hall. I warn the wait staff, I put on my jacket and my friend Sage buttons the little knot buttons for me and tells me to breath. Catherine strokes my arm and says "It's all right, Ivy, just breathe." I breathe.

I open the doors into the hall and start welcoming people, collecting money, directing people to tables, shuffling madly when several people who were not on my list want to know where they should sit. I set up a two-top for the last two incomers (although later I discover their empty seats at other tables) and circulate and let people know that the blue napkin contains a loaf of fresh bread.

Ready? asks Hugh. Give 'em 5 more minutes, I say.

7:15. I ring the bell and thank people for coming. I do not cry. Hugh organizes the first flight of servers. "Okay, girls, one plate in each hand. Table one, go." The girls roll out of the kitchen and start serving. Oh, blast, I forgot to remind them about serve from the right, clear from the left. Well, the tables are too tight for that to work, anyway. "Table two, go." Salads are out. We start making bowls of rice and beans and greens and onion relish for each table. Fern plates meat since she's one of the few non-vegetarians on the wait staff. Hugh stalks around the hall, watching the service, timing the next course.

Ready to clear salads. The girls swoop out. Ready to serve the main course. Four girls take out the sides, four take plates. Plates with meat come back for empty plates for the vegetarians. The girls and Hugh are having a blast. I circulate and talk about the food and do a little serving. Tiny Catherine circulates with a pitcher of water and refills water glasses. A few latecomers appear and are squeezed in somewhere. People appear to be having a great time.

Refills of beans and rice and collards go out. I start another rice cooker full of rice, which of course, is ready about the time we're ready to serve pie.

Frankie is managing the dishwashing with great good humor. Fern whips cream. I get pies out of the fridge. "You're going to plate those pies, aren't you?" Hugh says. "They're pretty fragile." I plate pies, Fern dollops whipped cream. Later we discover that the plates just out the dishwasher are making the pie melt a little. Oh well.

"Table nine is out of wine." Take the bottle from the two-top. "Unh-unh. Andrew already took it for his table." Hugh shuffles wine bottles.

Ready to clear? The girls clear and take orders for coffee. "Someone wants to know can they have tea?" NO is my first response, but of course they can have tea. Flights of pie-serving girls swoop around. Maggie and Catherine serve coffee. "Ivy, the pot is empty and we need eleven more cups." Tip it, fill 'em only half full, steal some from already poured cups. Bridget performs the miracle of the loaves and fishes and somehow produces eleven more cups of coffee.

The dishwashing team is running at full speed. I circulate and almost cause a table to get two servings of pie. We find two tables who still don't have pie -- no more whipped cream, but the pie is still good.

Table 10 wants to know whether they can buy another bottle of wine. They could have another bottle of wine if I had one. I take them a bottle of white -- no more red. Next time, I keep control of the wine bottles and have the wait staff pour, because at the end of the evening some tables have drunk all their wine and part of the next table's, and some tables still have half a bottle.

It sounds wonderful out there. Everyone chats away to their tablemates, people compliment the food, people admire the servers.

A few of the candles begin to burn out. People begin to gather up to leave. I ask Lucy's Sam and the Corwins and the Hulberts whether they can stay and help stack chairs. I have to leave the hall totally cleared, ready for exercise class at 9 a.m. the next morning.

The party's over, but the work is not. Olivia's mother gathers hurricane lanterns, napkins and tablecloths; the wait staff clears the 200 glasses and 100 plates and who knows how many pieces of silverware; Frankie bosses the dishwashing; chair stackers stack chairs. Even Sebastian, our shy and diffident exchange student, starts clearing. When I mention this, Frankie giggles and says that Olivia told him to. "She said she was practicing her Spanish commands."

Hugh and Sebastian and Lucy put away tables. Hugh sweeps. We wash and dry, wash and dry, wash and dry. We sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in several different keys, all at the same time. We keep washing and drying.

10:30 p.m. Olivia's mother and Olivia head home. Bridget and Sadie and Maggie and Frankie and Lucy and Hugh and I keep washing and drying. Everyone gets the giggles. I pack up dirty table linen and start loading the car. We sing "Both Sides Now."

11 p.m. We can see bottom. I send Bridget and Maggie and Sadie home along with two buckets of compost for some pigs they know.

11:30 p.m. Frankie and Lucy and Sebastian head home. "Mom, just so you know, we're not going to school tomorrow." We'll talk about that in the morning, I say. I know they're not going.

Midnight. Hugh finishes loading all our stuff and heads home to make coffee.

12:15. I wipe out the sinks, sweep the filthy floor, wipe down the counters one last time. Turn out the lights and head home.

We raise $3775 for Partners in Health. We have a good time.

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