Yesterday, I provided food for the 50th Wedding Anniversary of the parents of a friend of mine. She asked me to do food for 75 folks, and specifically asked for Swedish Meatballs and Mini Quiches. Luci wanted something simple and easy for her parents’ guests, and despite my desire to do something a bit different, I acquiesced.
On Saturday, I went to our local farmer’s market and purchased 9 pounds of fresh spinach from my friend and local farmer, Lamar. It’s great product – very green, and very flavorful. The only thing is one has to do is clean it – Mr. Lamar doesn’t bring it to market pre-cleaned. For me, this isn’t a problem – I take it home, and run it through several changes of fresh water in a 22 quart lexan container, and voila – clean spinach. Once cleaned, it became a key component in the cheddar-spinach quiches I did for Luci and her parents.
The meatballs, however, were another matter. Now, meatballs are nothing more than a meatloaf (forcemeat, or farce) in round form. However, when one is making them utilizing a number 20 scoop (about an ounce or so) form, well, the labor quotient goes up exponentially. In this case, I was able to get about thirty meatballs per half sheet pan.
So, one is thinking, no problem 30 meatballs per pan, no big deal, right? Not in a home kitchen. In a professional kitchen I could have had this knocked out in an hour or less. At home? It took me several hours. Why? Well, I could only do 90 meatballs at a time as my oven only has three racks, and I was limited to half sheet pans (as opposed to the full sheet pans one finds in a professional kitchen). Second, I had to let the pans cool before I did another batch (a hot pan will make the meatballs go “flat” very quickly). Finally, I had to give the meat itself a chance to chill in the refrigerator between batches (there is a reason forcemeats are kept cold prior to cooking).
What would have been a quick job in a professional kitchen became an exercise in frustration in my small home kitchen. I couldn’t multi-task (my kitchen is u-shaped – thus, my counter space is at a premium) as I used the top of the range to cool/transfer batches of meatballs, and available counter space for the large hotel pan full of meat. Basically, my procedure was this: scoop meat onto sheet pan, roll by hand into meatballs, place in oven. Repeat with next two sheet pans. Bake meatballs, remove from oven, and place on stove top. Remove meatballs from sheet pan and place into a waiting hotel pan. Remove next sheet pan of meatballs, place on top of previous sheet pan, remove meatballs and place into waiting hotel pan. Repeat process with third sheet pan. Allow sheet pans to cool and repeat process.
Thus, it took me a few hours in a home kitchen what would have taken me less than an hour to do in a professional kitchen.
Along the way, I got frustrated, cursed my kitchen, etc. But it got done.
Fast forward to yesterday.
I packed up the mini quiches (which had been done the morning of the event), the meatballs, sauce, equipment, chafing dishes, etc. into my truck and headed downtown to my friend’s parents place. Paco and Lucia live in a small condo near downtown, and I found their home warm and inviting. Both Paco and Luci had an evident passion for food, and it was a very welcoming venue to experience as a cook.
I set things up, got the meatballs going, set up the quiches, and did some simple garnishes. Guests began to arrive, and by all accounts, they enjoyed the food I (and others) prepared.
Tonight, I reflected on my frustrations during the preparation of my small contributions to what is/was an important milestone in the lives of Luci’s parents. As I thought about it, none of my concerns were important. What was important was making this event as memorable as I, as a cook could make it for Paco and Lucia, both of whom have shared an incredible lifetime together. Once I arrived at their home, I felt humbled and grateful to be able to participate in this occasion with them, and a little humbled by the frustration I felt in my home kitchen. In the end, what I do as a cook is not about me – it’s about others.
During the event, I got to speak with both Paco and Lucia, as well as their guests. Paco regaled me with his story of making 12 hams in his basement in Queens, NY; Luci and I discussed local food; another guest spoke to me about his 33 years in government service, and how things had changed in the place where we live. These things hammer home to me that food is the thing that brings us all together and allows us to be civil and generous to each other, if only for a short time. 700 Swedish Meatballs is a small price to pay for that, I think.