A lot of you have read this piece before, when it was inexplicably but wonderfully published in the 2011 edition of Perseus Books’ “Best Food Writing” anthology. I’m putting it here because this weekend is the 2012 event, and when I originally wrote the piece I declined to identify the charity under the assumption that no decent and reputable organization would want to be associated with me. This is still true, but fuck ’em. That event and this piece is how I wound up here; and until now, it was only published on my portfolio site. So read it here and take the $6.77 you’d’ve spent buying a used copy of the book and send it to Safe Harbor of Sheboygan County instead.
Jon (via text): I just agreed to do something food-related and insane. I get an assistant. Want in?
Jon: Save the first weekend in February.
Part I: Friday night
What my friend Jon has agreed to do is participate in a fundraising event wherein a bunch of dudes take over a major professional kitchen and create a giant potluck dinner, which is eaten by the charitably minded for the benefit of a local women’s shelter. I have agreed to participate. As it is with improv, so it is with life: The less you say “No,” the better your scene.
Most of the dudes are making casseroles or slabs of meat or other cafeteria steam-tray standards. Jon has decided to make two-bite tartlets. That is to say, sweet potato pies, about the size of casino chips stacked four high, and based on a Thanksgiving standard of his mother’s. (Hereafter known as “Jon’s Mama’s Casserole.”) We will be making three hundred and twenty of them. We have a clear showstopper.
Still, this is insufficient for Jon. (We share an affinity for showmanship.) There has been one more escalation. We will not be making the tartlets with orange popos from the Pick ‘n Save. No no no. A crate of sweet potatoes has been summoned from Hawaii. Purple ones. And the whole charitable organization has been advised that we will be making “Purple Sweet Potato Pies”. They are looking very forward to the purpleness. Word has spread. Anticipation is building.
So you can imagine the stress imposed when Jon’s wife, Dana, 911-texted Jon at work Friday, “POTATOES NOT DELIVERED.”
Let me back up.
It was already an exciting morning. My wife Emily’s horrible cat, who is so violent about the vet that they have to anesthetize him for his annual physical, was suffering some symptoms that were either completely imaginary or portents of imminent painful death. I call the vet. They have no desire to see him, and tell me to “watch him closely all weekend”. Which we cannot do. With a normal cat I would board him at the vet or dump him with a friend. This cat, however, is Hannibal Lecter with a ringed tail, and has to be handled differently. So we monitor his symptoms until confidence builds, and press my father into service to check in on him regularly. (What Pop would do if he determined the cat was in fact unwell, I have no idea. My recommendation: Call 911.) Furthermore, Emily had offered to provide dinner for the four of us, which meant we were taking more luggage to Wisconsin than we take to Vegas. So we got started late.
Which Jon, somewhat sourly, assured me was fine, “…since m—–f—— FedEx says the g—— potatoes won’t even f—— be here until Saturday f—— m—–f—— morning anyway.”
I report this to Emily, who says, “So you guys only have one chance to do it right on the first try and there’s no margin for error and if you screw up everyone will know? You LOVE that!”
I do love that. It’s Amateur Iron Chef time. I can feel the adrenaline surge. Glorious!
Jon, however, does not enjoy working without a net as much as I do, and when we get there around 630 Friday night, is beginning to show signs of adrenaline poisoning. Fortunately, we brought a couple bottles to go with dinner.
The four of us work through the food and the booze, and begin plotting. We will devote tonight to perfecting the recipe, using standard orange sweet potatoes. Tomorrow morning, we will pick up the purples from the FedEx depot at eight-thirty sharp, which will give us precisely enough time to prepare the filling for three hundred and twenty Purple Sweet Potato Pies, and still arrive at the venue promptly at 3pm, to fill the tartlet shells and bake the pies. No problem. Got this.
Dana and Emily elect to call it a night, and Jon and I head off to the Pick ‘n Save to collect ingredients. We need sugar, milk, three pounds of sweet potatoes, butter, caffeine, and pecans. We do some math. Correction: We need a lot of pecans. Like eight pounds. We amuse ourselves imagining the scenarios flitting through the cashier’s mind when we check out. (“Y’all boys sure do like them pecans.”)
We have completed our list, and consult the recipe again before leaving, trying to foresee problems. We buy a bag of potato starch, in the event the pie-filling needs to be thickened. Jon finds a possible roadblock: What if it needs to be thinned? I think, and suggest adding rum or bourbon. It is pointed out, not unjustly, that that solution occurs to me fairly often. But in this case I think it really does make sense. No, really.
We get back to the kitchen around ten-thirty, and commence to testing. (And also to drinking New Glarus Spotted Cow ale, which is delicious.)
Test Pie One: The prototype. Straight-up Jon’s Mama’s Casserole, one cup, from whence a tablespoon was spooned into the tart. Much too liquidy.
Test Pie Two: The prototype plus one teaspoon potato starch. Better.
Test Pie Three: Pie Two plus three teaspoons potato starch in the filling. Soft peaks. Satisfactory. We move to the topping, which will be baked on.
Test Pie Four: Brown sugar only, with a pecan half added atop in postproduction. Blandish.
Test Pie Five: Brown sugar, bruleed with a torch. Crispy and delightful, but a lot of work to do it 320 times.
Test Pie Six: Brown sugar, with a pecan half inside the tartlet, under the filling. Adds good height, but blocks a clean bite-through.
Test Pie Seven: Chopped pecans and brown sugar. Getting somewhere.
Test Pie Eight: Chopped toasted pecans and brown sugar. Satisfactory.
Test Pie Nine: Whole toasted pecan atop chopped-toasted-pecan-and-brown-sugar topping. Overwhelming.
Test Pie Ten: Impulse addition of salt to topping, with mixed result: Improved flavor of topping now far outshines filling.
Test Pie Eleven: Salt moved from topping to filling. Grand result.
Test Pie Twelve: Impulse inclusion of “pecan flour” – ground pecans – to filling. Home run.
Test Pie Thirteen: The masterwork. Jon’s Mama’s Casserole + ground pecans & salt, topped with brown sugar and chopped pecans and baked. Yes yes y’all.
It is 2am. Another round of Spotted Cow, and we sleep. The package from Hawaii arrives in six and a half hours.
Part II: Saturday morning
I am up.
It is 730.
I am ready to be picked up and begin cooking.
Jon texts me.
The bad news is that the potatoes are not here.
The good news is that the potatoes are on the ground.
The bad news is that the potatoes are still on the plane.
The good news is that they are on the plane in Milwaukee.
The bad news is that Jon and me and the kitchens and the event are in Sheboygan, an hour north at legal speeds.
This is awesome.
I make my way to Jon’s, while he speaks sternly into at least three different phones. I am giddily preparing to make an ill-advised high-speed bootlegger’s run down to the cargo terminal in Milwaukee and back to pick up the popos. I can hear the banjo music in my head and see the police lights in the rearview mirror of my mind’s eye, when Jon gently explains that, rather than having us risk arrest and imprisonment, he has arranged for a courier to do it for us. So, to my slight disappointment, the potatoes will not be brought to Sheboygan in a high-speed chase, led by us, but more in the manner of a transplantable organ. I should have expected that, as Jon is a upstanding executive and family man outside the presence of me.
Emily and Dana wisely flee to the YMCA. We pass the time waiting for the potatoes by getting our mise in place and boiling two giant pots of water, even though we won’t need them for four or five more hours. But at least it feels like doing something. Also, it allows for some authentic rumpling of our kitchen outfits.
For the occasion of Restaurant Fantasy Camp, Jon and I have put more effort into our outfits than Emily and Dana did into theirs. (Emily was in her usual Tinkerbell-After-Dark motif, and Dana wore something black and gold that drew an inadvertent whistle from me and a Daffy Duck double-take from Jon. If their fourth child arrives nine months hence, it gets named after whoever made that dress.) Conversely, Jon and I have both gone with Kitchen Grubby Chic; T-shirts with beer logos on them, filthy jeans, and gymshoes. We will later receive commemorative baseball caps and aprons.
We toast and grind pecans, mix ingredients, plan transport, back-figure timing, break eggs, cream sugar, drink coffee, and talk for two hours about the similarities between sports gambling and the stock market. We also completely forget to feed lunch to Jon’s two oldest girls – five and three – and by the time they get hungry enough to say something themselves we are in such a cooking frenzy that they are heartbreakingly terrified to bring it up.
At 1130am, the kitchen has become a terrarium, there are bowls holding premeasured ingredients on every surface, and the package arrives at last. I grab the box and start peeling.
Purple Potato Surprise Fact One: Peeling sweet potatoes is fairly easy. They’re large and firm and cylindrical. I have some personal experience with that particular shape, so usually the procedure is quick and mechanical and mindless. Purple sweet ‘taters, however, are smaller and knobbier. Think “yams crossed with ginger”. Peeling these is less straightforward. But I am adaptable. I get going. And this brings us to
Purple Potato Surprise Fact Two: The skin on purple potatoes is thick. Real thick. Thicker than a vegetable peeler can penetrate. This results in basically having to peel each of the roughly 100 potatoes twice. Yay.
It begins. I peel into the big sink, and eventually use the peels to clog the garbage disposal. Jon, who is peeling into the prep sink, affectionately chides me for clogging his disposal, and gets so into the chiding that he forgets he left the water on in the prep sink.
The Parent-Child dynamic is pretty ingrained. A couple years ago, I was at a party for the first birthday of the daughter of a guy I have known for more than twenty years. We were in the yard, throwing sticks for the dog and talking about the Tournament, when his wife stuck her head out the door and yelled to him, “Your Dad’s here! ,” causing us both to reflexively put our bottles behind our backs while mentally measuring how long it would take us to clear the back fence. So when Dana got home to a pile of wet towels and the contents of three kitchen cupboards spread out on the dining room rug to dry, we had this conversation:
Dana: “Why is there a pile of wet towels on the floor in the laundry room?”
Me: “Oh. Um. Hi, Mrs. B.”
Dana: “What happened in here?”
Dana: “Everything is wet!”
Us: “It was an accident.”
Dana: “What. Happened. In. Here.”
Jon: “Um…the prep sink overflowed.
Me: “By itself.”
Dana: “WHAT IS ALL THIS STUFF DOING IN THE DINING ROOM?”
Us: “Drying. We’ll clean it up.”
Dana: “I don’t want there to be a big mess in the kitchen when you’re done.”
Us: “There won’t be! We promise!”
Average age of the participants in that conversation: Thirty-four.
Mostly undaunted, on we go. While I keep peeling, Jon cooks a test batch of potato filling.
Purple Potato Surprise Fact Three: Purple potatoes are WAY less starchy than regular orange sweet potatoes. This means that our filling recipe, as writ, results in something more like Purple Sweet Potato Soup. It’s too early to panic, team. We huddle up and call a Hail Mary: We decide to omit the milk entirely when making the filling, and if necessary, instead of tightening it with potato starch, we will loosen the filling with milk.
Please God let this work.
It works. So we boil thirty pounds of peeled purple sweet potatoes. Time growing short, we bail on “mashing” them with the ricer. We figure the extra starch released by whipping the potatoes with the Mixmaster paddle will help thicken the filling, plus there is no chance we could push thirty pounds of these particular potatoes through a ricer in less than thirty minutes.
An awful lot of mixing later, we have a pot of whipped purpleness. We make a test pie.
It is *perfect*.
And we’re only fifty minutes behind schedule!
We load up the car, grab deodorant showers, and roll for the venue. It’s snowing.
Me, Jon, two giant boxes of tart shells, and the five-gallon pot of purple filling swagger into the PROFESSIONAL GRADE kitchen. It’s filled with music and white people. (I had brought speakers in case the kitchen had no radio. Happily, Sheboygan has a GREAT oldies station. Real oldies – Dion & the Belmonts, Little Richard, Danny & the Juniors, that crowd.) We stake a claim. I grab five sheet pans, Jon gets a pastry bag. I deal shells, he fills. Seventy tartlets to a tray. We do three trays and determine that we have a LOT more shells and filling than three hundred and twenty tartlets calls for. We make three-fifty. And we have a lot left. I do some math.
Me: I’m getting more sheet pans.
Jon: You want to go for four-twenty?
Jon: (pause) (huge grin) Five hundred?
Two more pans. I take a turn with the pastry bag. It’s the canvas kind, and it is literally sweating butter. My hands will be baby soft, if I survive the osmotic transfer of triglycerides. We are moving like a machine, now. Move, squeeze, twist, repeat. “Good Golly Miss Molly” is playing behind me. People are staring at the filling. Jon – who has to man the buffet station – is polishing his patter on them.
I pause to pass a few minutes with the kitchen’s actual everyday chef, who is working the postgame interview patter (“Just glad I could help the team.” “Giving 110%.” “We played hard out there.” etc.) with exquisite politeness, and crack him up by asking, “So, how many times today have you wanted to shout, ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY F—— KITCHEN?!’”
Five hundred tartlets – seven sheet pans of pies – are in the speed loader. We have twenty minutes to spare before the event opens. (And I remind you, the potatoes were first a day late, then four hours later-that-late.) Celebration time. Jon and I flirt two beers and two shots out of the best-looking of the bartenders and go learn how to use an industrial convection oven.
Industrial Convection Oven Rule One: Do not stand directly in front of the oven when opening. Whoof, that’s hot. Like staring down the barrel of an industrial hairdryer.
Six minutes in the big box and the tartlets are ready to go. The crowd is filtering in. We are not yet allowed to set up our station. But there is, it occurs to me, a loophole in these rules.
The first seventy tartlets are loaded onto trays and “Restaurant Fantasy Camp Activity: Passed Appetizers” is on. Jon and I are selling like carnival barkers. That’s right: We are walking around a formal event in aprons, tshirts, and baseball caps, pressing sweet potato pie on well-dressed white people. We are STARS. This is the most fun I’ve ever had around people in suits. And how much fun I am having is NOTHING on my team’s executive chef. Usually he’s standing at these things in a tie, making small talk. Not tonight. Tonight he is a Chef.
The doors open. Jon goes to fix up our station. I head back to the kitchen to fire the next pan. Seven minutes later, one tray balanced on each hand, we feed the people. The reaction is quizzical-taste-positive. This is great.
We had brought nicer clothes to change into, but we never did. Went through the auction part, the mingling part, the me-lifting-the-bottle-of-wine-from-Emily-and-Dana part – it would have been their fourth, so I probably did them a mitzvah – the dancing phase, the aimlessly-sitting-at-table-with-beer-and-Dana’s-cute-friends phase, and well into the afterparty, in line-cook garb. (You’d think those people had never seen a tattoo before.) I think we got in around two-thirty. I will spare the details of Sunday morning, in case Dana is still mad about the flooded sink.
This Saturday night, at the same event, we are serving a sort of pheasant bruschetta.
Just to keep it interesting, Friday morning, we’re shooting the pheasants.