People love to assemble in some congenial setting, have a nice beverage or two, and then chow down. Good food and a convivial atmosphere make them much more likely to open their wallets for a noble cause. Whether it’s a catfish fry on the bayou or a cook-off in the Dakotas or Hawaiian Theme Night in the dead of winter in New York, food-based fundraisers add a dash of spice to life.
Yet not all of them are equally successful. Sometimes it’s a problem of fickle public taste, sometimes a case of logistics, but sometimes – particularly when ambitious but overmatched amateurs are involved – the chef has written a check that the blackened catfish simply cannot cash. When the preparation of the food has an aspirational element, people may find themselves munching on substandard cuisine. A game cook is of no use if the food tastes gamey; the road to hell is paved with indigestion.
To borrow from Oscar Wilde, cook-offs and bake-offs and rib roasts and fish fries often symbolize the triumph of hope over experience. I have lost track of the number of times I have attended fundraisers where well-meaning participants showed up with fare that was not ready for public viewing, much less public consumption. This is most likely to happen when ethnic or regional food is whipped up by individuals who are not members of the ethnic group whose cuisine is being featured, or who have never set foot in the locality being honored.
Example? You probably don’t want to try sushi that’s been prepared by the Scots. No matter how well-intentioned a chef may be, if he is venturing out of his depth, the results can be dire. Just as a Brooklyn native – and indeed anyone in his right mind – will shy away from strawberry bagels baked, fabricated, or in some other manner concocted in South Bend, Ind., those from the Keystone State might want to give a wide berth to Philly cheesesteaks slapped together in Eugene, Ore. In some parts of the country, people have somehow gotten it into their heads that a proper Philly cheesesteak comes bathed in mayonnaise.
Fundraisers often overlook the meteorological variables. I once attended a lobster dinner that was held on a bridge in Gloucester, Mass. It was a nice idea, but the organizers failed to consult the five-day forecast and didn’t realize that gale-force winds would be blowing in from the east. Everyone in attendance tried to make the best of a bad situation, but almost immediately the wine bottles holding down the plastic tablecloths went flying, splashing everyone with a steely pinot grigio and an understatedly piquant Pouilly Fuissé. The plastic utensils were swept right off the table and over the bridge railing into the gaping bay below, ravishing the ecosystem and killing off who knows how many unsuspecting whales and dolphins and manatees.
Worst of all, the attendees couldn’t keep their plastic bibs from whipping up and slapping them right in the kisser. Luckily, I am allergic to shellfish and had the alternative entree: a sirloin steak. I had a relatively decent time of it, all things considered, because you don’t have to wear a bib when you’re eating a steak. Everyone else was a mess. This drives home one of the central caveats of food-themed fundraisers: Always have a backup in place. If nobody goes for the pumpkin ravioli, have some pizzette with quattro formaggi on hand. If people are turning up their noses at the plum puddings, go fetch the brownies. And don’t forget the vegetarians. Never forget the vegetarians. Always have some carrots and broccoli and grilled okra ready to go. Vegetarians attend these events too.
In my experience, it is the desserts that warrant the most attention at fundraisers. It’s hard to mess up steaks and ribs, and any half-decent cook knows her way around a trout or a sea bass. Desserts are much more problematic. People preparing desserts rarely stick with what they are good at – angel food cake, shortbread, oatmeal cookies, or that old standby, the classic pear torte – but are always trying something new, swinging for the fences, using those who attend fundraisers as their guinea pigs. The results can be disastrous. Watery tiramisu. Sponge cakes with an overbearing arrowroot component. Baba au rhum with a bit too much rhum. At a Christmas gathering some years back, I was asked to sample a trifle, which is one of my wife’s specialties, as she grew up in the Cotswolds and learned how to make trifles at her mother’s knee. Alas, it was not my wife who made the trifle that day. Nor was it someone whose trifle-making skill had been genetically transmitted. Still, I was more than happy to try a couple of mouthfuls of this ostensibly tasty treat, because the woman who had prepared it was a good friend, and there’s not all that much that can go wrong with a trifle.
Or so I thought at the time. When I dug beneath the custard and the ladyfingers surmounting the seemingly innocuous comestible, I found – to my shock and dismay – a Christmas pudding surreptitiously lodged all the way at the bottom, like a gastronomic depth charge. Christmas puddings, for the uninitiated, are calcified gobs of suet alchemically fused with cartloads of sugar and brandy and raisins, to create a terrifying entity that the English try to pass off as a treat. When prepared properly – as they have been in England since the days of Ethelred the Unready – Christmas puddings are allowed to fester in the basement or some nearby fen for several decades before they are summoned forth to test the mettle of manly men and even more womanly women. A Christmas pudding is not a dessert; it is a rite of passage. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to a nuclear warhead, the Christmas pudding is a delicacy so arcane, so intense, so lethal that many historians credit it with Great Britain’s imperial sway in the 18th and 19th centuries. A Christmas pudding should never be prepared by an amateur, nor should it ever be eaten by an amateur. And it should never be concealed inside a trifle. This is culinary double jeopardy at its most inhumane.
Anyone holding a fundraiser with a food-based theme is advised to bear a few more rules in mind. If you’re going to schedule an Oktoberfest, remember to lay in some juice and sparkling water and soda, because not everyone drinks alcohol. And even those who drink beer do not always care for the heavy Teutonic stuff, so you might want to put a few harmless lagers in the cooler. In any event, don’t forget to arrange for designated drivers. The alcohol-free beverage thing is not a joke. I have been at several fundraisers where the teetotalers were completely ignored, and someone had to dash off to the store in the middle of the event to buy a case of San Pellegrino to keep them happy.
Certain combinations of food should be avoided at fundraisers. This is particularly true of the desserts. Brownies do not go with chicken tikka masala. Cannoli do not go with tempura. If you must serve cheesecake after a steak meal or a rib roast, make sure to serve the light, fluffy kind, not the kind that sits in the stomach like asphalt.
Most important, at any banquet or bake-off or cook-off, where a competitive zeal burns intensely, there are going to be winners and losers. Nobody wants to be the one who made the cake no one ate, the cookies no one sampled, the pigs in the blanket no one dared to try. Those holding fundraisers should assign trustworthy, reliable friends to sample a few of these subpar treats, no matter how unappetizing they may look. Fundraisers are all about teamwork; eating the desserts nobody wanted is called taking one for the team. Well, gagging on one for the team.