Sunday, August 2, 2009

Feeding multitudes cheaply

My old friend James Bates was a punk rock drummer, a computer programmer, and a devoted Dad. His girlfriend Ange, a talented photographer, took this photo of him:

Jim committed suicide, aged 45, probably on the 21st July. He wasn't found until the evening of the 23rd.

His father and brother organised the funeral service, which was at 11am on the 30th, and the cups of tea and sandwiches afterwards. Jim's friends organised the wake, which started after the burial and went on until the early hours of the next morning.

My friend Hazel and I did the catering for the wake.

We didn't know how many people to expect, but we did know we'd need to provide nibbles during the afternoon, and a hot meal in the evening. We didn't think there'd be more than 100 people, so that's what we aimed for. We knew other people would bring bits and pieces, but we needed to supply the basics for vegetarians and vegans as well as omnivores, and as cheaply as possible - koha would be collected, but I was paying for it all to start with.

The wake was at a community hall, which had two stoves, a fair amount of plates and cutlery, but no pots and pans. Luckily we both have some big pots - Hazel because she has three kids, me because I like entertaining.

We decided on baked potatoes, rice, vegan chili beans, a mild creamy vegetarian curry of cauliflower and kumara with yoghurt, a non-spicy mince (ground beef) and potato stew, cole slaw (vegan and not), butter and cheese to go on the potatoes, a huge slab of carrot cake, tea, coffee, Raro fruit drink mix, and milk.

Shopping list:

From a place called Freezer Direct (where I'd never been before, but will go again):

5 kg bag of grated cheese
big slab of frozen carrot cake (it made about 60 squares once cut up)
~2 kg bag of frozen peeled kumara (cheaper than fresh at this time of the year)
Catering sized tin of chopped tomatoes
2.5 kg beef mince
500 g bag of frozen chopped red capsicum (for the chili)

From the supermarket:

30 kg ready washed potatoes
2 green cabbages
1 red cabbage
1 large cauliflower
1.5 kg onions
1 kg carrots
1 kg butter
1 litre plain yoghurt (from the short dated bin)
1 large jar cole slaw dressing
2oo g instant coffee
100 tea bags
9 sachets Raro drink in mixed flavours
4 big bottles Budget fizzy drink
1.5 kg dried beans
packets of spices
1 kg par-boiled rice

From the petrol station on the morning of the funeral (milk is very cheap there):

2 litres low fat milk
2 litres full cream milk

Grand total: almost exactly $250

Plan of attack:

The night before, I put on the beans to soak. I chopped cabbage, grated carrots and chopped all the onions. I mixed the cabbage, carrots, and some of the onion in three very large bowls; added coleslaw dressing to two of them, and a vinaigrette to the other (for vegans). I put half of the rest of the chopped onion into a ziplock bag for Hazel to use in the curries. I loaded all this into the car.

At 5.30am I got up and drained the beans and set them to simmer. When they were cooked I drained them and divided them between my two biggest pots. I added the remaining chopped onion, some chopped garlic, a lot of chili powder, cumin, and coriander. Then loaded that into the car. Which by this time was really reeking of onion, despite the ziplock bag!

Off to the funeral.

Hazel and I skipped the burial - I hate them, so I was glad of an excuse. Instead we went to the hall and started getting things set up.

We loaded the ovens with potatoes to bake. I poured about a third of the huge can of tomatoes and half the bag of chopped capsicum into each of my bean pots, added a bit of water, and set them on to simmer for the afternoon. Hazel dealt with the mince stew and vege curry, adding some herbs from her kitchen, some chopped potatoes, and the last third of the tin of tomatoes to the mince. Not sure what she put in the vege curry apart from the cauliflower, kumara and onion - various curry spices anyway, and the yoghurt was added much later on.

When people arrived they brought with them a few small things like some potato crisps, a cake, some savouries, a bit of ginger slice. We cut these up, along with the monster carrot cake, and set them out to have with cups of tea and coffee.

Hazel's partner Robert and I had spent Tuesday night preparing a DVD slideshow of photos of Jim and the rest of us in the "old days", with a soundtrack of music from Jim's various bands over the years. We set this up to play through my dataprojector against a screen at the back of the stage. We also played a DVD of a documentary on "The Other Dunedin Sound", i.e. punk in the eighties, in which there is quite a long interview with Jim.

After that, people got up and spoke about Jim.

Tea and coffee were in fairly constant demand, as were glasses of fruit drink and lemonade for the kids that were running around.

About 5pm we served the meal.

A wee aside here - In addition to what Hazel and I had cooked, there was a large platter of muttonbird, donated by April, who is a muttonbirder. It was my first taste and I'm hooked. They taste sort of like oily mutton ham with anchovy on.

We set up a sort of production line, with me collecting bowls of baked potatoes from the oven, cutting and squishing them, then putting them on plates. Hazel dished rice and whatever other hot food people wanted, then they could help themselves to cheese and butter (for their potatoes) and coleslaw.

We did a rough head count, and think we fed about 70 people. We had heaps of leftovers - could have easily fed 30 more. People loved it, especially the vegans, who were most appreciative of being given food they could actually eat.

And that is how you feed a lot of people for $2.50 a head.

But my car still smells of onion.


  1. I cant help myself but to come back to this post of yours....

    I cant fathom how a devoted dad could deprive his young ones of his presence and love....

    How are you coping of the loss of his friendship?

  2. It's a long story Emily - Jim had lost his job because of the recession, then he fell and hurt his back quite badly, then he lost custody of his daughter. I think that was probably the last straw, but we'll never know. I'm coping fine. We hadn't seen a great deal of each other for a few years - you know how it is, you get involved in other things and then you suddenly realise it's been years since you saw anyone except the people you work with. But I keep thinking I see him! Obviously it's always someone else, but I never USED to keep thinking I saw him.