Many moons ago, I belonged to a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism. They are a non-profit organization that enjoys putting on medieval events, getting dressed in costumes, and presenting the best aspects of the Middle Ages. Their events typically include some of the military arts such as armed combat (using homemade armor, and solid bamboo swords), and archery competitions. The gentler arts are also well represented, with singing, dancing, cooking, costuming, weaving, needlework, to name just a few.
My particular interests started out primarily with singing in a “bardic circle”, and playing recorder (soprano and alto) for dancers at various events. The SCA prides itself on civic duty and volunteerism, so after being a member for a year or two, I ended up becoming a “feastocrat” or head chef for a major event.
Preparing a feast for even just sixty or seventy people is a massive project that lasts several months, especially when you consider most of the volunteers have day jobs, and only have their weekends to donate time. The planning of a feast itself can be very daunting: Menu selection, volunteer organization, transportation, scheduling, supplies, shopping, and on it goes.
Once the logistics are worked out, you now have two or three month’s worth of weekend cooking sessions. Roast chickens, meat pies, desserts, as much as possible you try to cook and freeze everything you can in advance. The event itself is an all day affair that starts at 9:00am. You arrive at the site, assess your kitchen facilities, and begin the task of chopping and preparing all the fresh goodies, while carefully thawing and reheating all the frozen dishes. With luck and hard work, it all comes together at the right time, roughly 7:00pm.
Although there is a team of volunteers who assist, in the end, the responsibility of the outcome of any feast rests squarely on the shoulders of the feastocrat. If the food is good, loud cheers of “huzzah!” will echo in the banquet hall, and if the food is not good, well, you can imagine how one feels when facing a crowd of 80 people, half of whom are wearing chainmail, and otherwise look like a scene right out of “Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones”. Luckily, all of my feasts have been successes, even if there were a few hiccups along the way.
For instance, as a novice feastocrat, my best friend and I spent four hours meticulously preparing a three dimensional representation of our local group’s coat of arms. In the SCA, Montreal was called “L’Isle Du Dragon Dormant” (Isle of the Sleeping Dragon). Our coat of arms was a purple shield, with all the additional elements colored a nice golden yellow: A Fleur de Lyse at the top, a chevron (inverted “V”) in the middle, and a sleeping dragon underneath the chevron. In all, the project took about four hours.
First, came the making and coloring of the marzipan (sweet almond paste). The marzipan was not that difficult to prepare, but the coloring was very hard work. Kneading large amounts of the candy paste with food coloring, without leaving any streaks, left my forearms and wrists sore. Then, my friend did the sculpting, also a meticulous and time consuming job, since marzipan is not the best material to work with. In the end, we were both amazed at how life-like the dragon looked, and how gorgeous the marzipan coat of arms was.
The day of the event arrived, and we packed the sculpture in an unused extra-large pizza box a local restaurant kindly gave us. We headed to the car that was already overstuffed with all the pots, pans, cutlery and other things I would need that day. Since my friend’s hands were full, he carefully placed our masterpiece on the roof of his car, and unlocked the door to get in. And so, we drove off to the event, forgetting about our marzipan masterpiece on the roof of the car.
We arrived at the event, and realized what had happened. My friend’s screams of “No, no, no!” echoed in the banquet hall and all the way to his car, as he drove off, back to the scene of the crime. An hour later, he returned, with a quirky grin mixed: “Well, someone is sure to have a big surprise when they open THAT pizza box. I couldn’t find it anywhere: Not where we parked, and not anywhere along the drive there and back.”
Even with all the work we had ahead of us that day to prepare and serve the feast, I said, “Well, I guess we better get cracking then!” To which my friend replied “What?!? No way! I’m not starting up that project again; I have damsels to flirt with!” My scowl told him otherwise, and he finally capitulated, saying “Sigh, yes m’lord, you are the feastocrat, your word is my command.”
And so, I sent a volunteer to get us what we needed to make several pounds of multi-colored marzipan all over again, and my good friend re-sculptured that lovely coat of arms. When the golden and purple masterpiece was revealed (and then tasted) the ooohs and aaahhhs made all our efforts very much worth it.
Besides learning to always check the roof of ones car before driving off, I learnt a few other important lessons:
- Never freeze a rice pudding. Instead of a nice creamy texture, you end up with the liquid separating from the now slightly rubbery rice grain: A nasty soupy-like mess. (Despite the very bad reviews and many, many leftovers, a young gentleman poked his head into the kitchen after the feast and asked “Do you have any of that yummy rice pudding left?” To which I replied “Sure! How many large ziplock bags can you carry home with you?”)
- Make sure bowls of similarly looking items are clearly labeled. This lesson came about when a young burly knight came in, and helped himself to a heaping bowl of what he believed was spiced apple sauce. Instead, what he got was a mouthful of fire-breathing raw garlic and black pepper sauce that was used for basting a roasted lamb. To his credit, he swallowed his first bite of that flaming garlic sauce, cheeks turning extra rosy, as he managed to politely ask, in a very croaky voice, “Tell me kind sir feastocrat, have you any of that delicious apple sauce left?”
Over the years, I’ve been a feastocrat a total of four times, cooking for groups of people from seventy to one hundred and twenty. Despite being thoroughly exhausted at the end of each event, I would always get goose bumps when the banquet hall echoed loudly “Three cheers for the feastocrat and his kitchen crew! Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!”
For more information on the SCA, click here: http://www.sca.org
For more information on L’Isle du Dragon Dormant, click here: http://www.dragondormant.eastkingdom.org