Feeding The Crowd
We won. Phew. Great relief. Celebrated until the wee hours, slept in, cleaned up.
For getting out the vote (which turned out to be the difference in this close race), I did a lot of cooking for volunteers. I’ve done this now for a series of campaigns. I’m not a pro — I’ve never cooked this much stuff. Here are some notes about cooking for a bunch of volunteers.
- Timing matters. Getting the food to the right place at the right time is the most important thing. It’s better to have mediocre food where the hungry people are than to have perfectly good food in an empty room when everyone’s gone back out to their turf.
- Organizers don’t know what they need. This has been a constant for all the campaigns: the people in charge never seem to have very good plans for how they’ll organize and staff the final push. This seems strange to me: they’re running an engagement campaign dedicated to identifying and turning out your voters, and you’d think they’d spend a lot of energy planning the endgame. They don’t. But you need to know how much stuff to buy and cook, and how you’re going to get it where it needs to be. Expect last minute changes, and prepare for them.
- Vegetarians. It’s a big tent, and people have different tastes. Our side, I think, is especially challenging because we’ve got the vegetarians and the vegans and all sorts of other dietary needs. I’ve been trying to be sure there’s a vegetarian option (though not necessarily vegan), and that’s been popular. On election day, we went through more of the vegetarian posole than the pork picadillo.
- Allergies and Religious Diets. Keep people informed, and let the chips fall where they may. Volunteers with really tight constraints are probably in the habit of packing their own snacks. But people will want to know whether those crunchy bits are peanuts or tree nuts, or whether that’s beef, pork, or chicken.
- Signs. Make a nice sign describing the food. This makes people comfortable, and shows consideration, and also gives you a chance to show that care was taken. One point of cooking for volunteers is just logistics – feed the volunteers so they can get back on the street faster – but another point is social. If you’re using good ingredients (organic flour, home-grown basil, your mother’s pie crust) tell them.
- Limits. You’re cooking at home. It’s not a restaurant kitchen. You’re not a line cook. Know your limits, and think about the limits of your equipment. Banging out sixty meals in one day reduced me to a quivering jello. Lots of people do that for lunch, literally.
Equipment limits you want to consider include:
- Your oven: can you fit everything you need? If you have to do the bread then the roast for dinner and dinner’s 40 minutes late, that’s an extra margarita. If you do that on election day, everyone goes hungry.
- Your refrigerator: will everything fit? You’ll be cooking in larger quantities than usual; do your big bowls even fit in your refrigerator?
- Your bowls: maybe it’s just me, but I’m always running out of bowls for election day. (Parties, it’s usually spoons.)
- Your stand mixer. This is a hard limit and it matters. Usually, it’s no big deal to double a recipe. If you’ve got a honking big mixer like mine, you may be able to quadruple it. After than, you’re doing multiple batches. When it comes to your mixer, a little too much is a big mess.
- Look out: things are going to be a lot less fun if you get a cut or a burn. Be especially careful with the mandolin and the vegetable peeler; they’re not interesting the way a knife is, but they can be painful. In school, they taut us a mantra back when chemists actually blew glass: “hot glass looks like cold glass.” Repeat it early and often.
- Four hours. This is home cooking, and it’s going to be sitting in the kitchens of strangers. You’re not a pro. Cook clean and do your best. The rule of thumb is that everything that can spoil gets at most 4 hours at room temperature – including prep and sitting around on the table. You want as much of that four hours to be for the volunteers. This, incidentally, is the genius of the kolache as election food: the smoked sausage and the jam are both preserved and then they’re sterilized and protected by the bread baked around them. That’s better engineering than a plate full of sandwiches or a box of cold pizza.