Running an SCA feast

I stopped counting how many SCA events I’d cooked for when the count passed 60, then a few years later when they started requiring separate receipts for every item (I’d tended to buy them on sale and freeze them months ahead), I stopped running kitchens except at our own hall, but here are a few words of wisdom accumulated over the years.

A “course” means a “flow” food should flow out to the tables and engulf them, dishes be “swept away”, to make room for the next wave of the next course. “Removes” are out-of-period, and show a stingy spirit inappropriate to anything called a “feast”. When a feast menu included swan, goose, chicken, and quail,  no one was expected to eat a bit of each, but rather select from what they preferred (by rank, of course).

Medieval food is sometimes strange to our palates, but not always. Alizaundre de Brebuf says that if the food looks normal it can be seasoned differently, but if it looks odd, it should smell and taste familiar. When there are many foods, it’s easy for people to be willing to try something new. If needing to skip something means they will go hungry, this can lead to frustration and annoyance (which happens when there are only four or five dishes in a feast).

We are not trying to create a family meal, but a medieval experience. It may be a good joke to bring the king a hamburger because he is a sensory defensive who finds unfamiliar food unpalatable, but anyone who has bought into an SCA feast knows that they’re coming for a medieval (or dark ages, or renaissance) experience. If they’re a vegetarian, gluten intolerant or have food allergies,  a good variety of foods and care with service should take care of them. IT is reasonable to be annoyed if you buy into a feast and have nothing on the menu that you can eat if you’ve checked with the organizers beforehand. The cook doesn’t have to cater to every food preference, but variety, and tracking ingredients so they can select the ones they can eat should handle most of the dietary requirements.

The word “Autocrat” means person with absolute authority; at any event, the autocrat outranks the Crown or Seneschal. It’s a temporary role, but necessary. The buck stops there. He or she may assign roles to others to run, although often these are taken by officers such as Marshal, Herald, or Chiurgeon. There is no such thing as a “Feastocrat”, there is a Head Cook, there may also be a Hall Steward to handle set up and service, but cooks are those who cook, and there are perfectly good medieval terms for any job, tacking “o-crat” onto an area someone is organizing is tacky.

My basic feast plan included having the tables set with breads, butter, nuts, fruit, cheese, and pitchers of water. If there were going to be trenchers, there had to also be breads so that people wouldn’t eat their trenchers. The first thing people need is to stop being hungry so they can start appreciating the food.

Each course (usually three)  included:

a soup (heavy first, broths later) pea soup, mustard soup, chowder, onion soup, mushroom barley soup

a plain meat  (usually roast chicken or rabbit, pork or ham, beef or lamb or grilled meat) Usually the first course I’d plan for to be 4-5 ounces, second 3 ounces, third 2-3 ounces of meat. Modern dietary guidelines consider 3 ounces a portion, so that’s ample.

a processed meat: sausages, stew, meatballs, meat pie, skewered meat, haggis

a fish dish (could replace a meat dish) Variety should be attempted- small fish, large fish, fish in crust or cream sauce, fish croquettes, they ate a lot of fish in period!

a vegetarian dish (protein: egg, cheese, mushroom, bean based) Don’t try to make this look like a meat- the vegetarians need to be able to spot it!

a vegetable (cooked vegetable) fresh peas with lime juice and mint, apples and onions fried in butter, baked onions, boiled garlic, non-orange carrots if you can find them (no new world vegetables)

a sallat (raw vegetables) for variety one greens, one pickled, one sweeter variation

a starch dish (pasta, rice or other boiled grain) bread doesn’t count unless it’s something really special like saffron buns.

a pie (this may replace meat or desert or vegetarian)

a dessert (cakes, pies, custard, sugared nuts, cooked fruit, etc.)

a subtlety an entertaining but edible sweet (See below)  a fantastic image piece, some can be humble- for example egg shells filled with clear (lemon) gelatin and an apricot half, so they look like a raw egg, small marzipan formed as fruit or birds, or a cookie with arms on it, or a gingerbread served on a parchment with a riddle or quote are all a subtleties without being the architectural pieces we often imagine.

a pint of something to drink (quick mead, tea, cider, hot drinks in winter)

fabulous feastsThis looks like 11 or 12 dishes (depending on whether you count the drinks), but when some of the dishes were combined, it was more likely to be only 9. If you have a really great subltety I suggest it at the end of the first course so it can be admired. I suppose I should admit that some of this came from the book Fabulous Feasts, not a book of authentic recipes, but aimed (in my opinion, like the SCA) at creating the mood of a medieval feast.

I tried to have filling dishes in the first course as often people had not eaten all day. While it is difficult to control the length of court, the meal should be presented on time. If the fighters don’t come in for the first course, tough luck on them. (Although if there are sufficient serving dishes, cleared and still appetizing leftovers may be put on a side table for later self service.) This does not mean that they should be allowed to skip the chicken and bread and come in and fill up on the roast beef when you’ve planned 2 oz. of beef per person, just because they missed the first courses.

This was cut down after I learned Sallamallah’s 21 dish rule, but no one was expected to eat every dish, and sometimes one would replace another- stew would serve as both the soup and processed meat, chowder would count as fish, if the subtlety was easily served, it could be the dessert.  I still think this is how feasts should work, although it does require servers to bring the foods.

Sallamallah the Corpulent taught me “People can only count to 21 on their stomachs”, so no more than 7 dishes per course.
Aim at 64 ounces of food per person total excluding drink (sounds like a lot, but it’s the same as a “Big Gulp”). Think small servings. You are not serving three meals, but three courses of A meal. A big fancy meal that is, in and of itself an entertainment. Coordinate your “entremets” (entertainments between courses) with the hall steward if you have one. It’s rude to ignore the entertainers, but also rude to not allow the diners an opportunity to converse.

GLobe theatre subtlety1980The function of a subtlety or entremet was to mark the end of a course of which there were could be several at a banquet. This is like a finalie before an intermission. If people have been sitting for an hour, they should be given a chance to stretch their legs- but not too long.

I aimed at splitting the budget evenly between meat, sweets, drinks, and everything else. (It’s worked for me- at $4/lb. meat, that gives you over a half pound meat per person in $10 feast.)
Cheap filling foods go in the first course, expensive (smaller portions) in last course when everyone’s full. Try 4 ounces of meat in the first course, three in the second and two in the third.

Other points:
Always pre-check the site kitchen, and make sure all burners and ovens work! (often while the kitchen looks good, many things in it won’t work, or you’ll find out on the day of the event that you’re not allowed to use them.) 

It is better to have a larger hall and have a tables in a U than to have a smaller room crowded with tables. Pick large over medieval looking, if it would look medieval but is too crowded, you can’t feel medieval.  Make sure there is room for people to get up and walk between tables. People have baskets full of feast gear, make sure there’s a place for those to be stowed rather than under their feet or between the tables.

The feast should take no more than 2 and a half hours (incidental surprises will often drag this out to three hours); plan accordingly. I suggest 15 minutes for people to enter the hall, then 45 minutes per course (serving and clearing dishes should be done in the first and last fifteen minutes leaving 15 minutes for eating without servers bustling around. Depending on the size of the feast, this could be compressed to thirty minutes per course, especially if you have fewer dishes. Find out if the Royalty wants to “sit in state” (accept visitors to their table). ADD this time to the between course time, it won’t fit well during dining. Autocrat, herald, feast steward and cook should communicate to prevent all of them scheduling the same time for something that excludes other activities.

I feel that entertainment should only be between courses, not during eating, if the event has more than 20-30 people at the feast. I also feel that there is a place for small events.

There should be a server for each 6 people/ 1 table seated. I suggest that you plan and keep a table(s) for the servers and kitchen workers, where appropriate portions of all foods are kept for them, whether you have them eat before, after or during the main feast. I highly recommend servers not trying to eat with their friends, it complicates the serving. You don’t need to give them a discount, but they should actually get to eat the feast they paid for!

I am against preparing a feast at home and transporting it to the site for re-heating unless there is no alternative, and certainly not for long distances. I feel that it is a given that all food preparation and storage should be handled safely. Frequent hand-washing should be going on in the kitchen. I am also against buffets. A sideboard for during the day should be organized so that people can come get something (or send their pages and ladies in waiting) for food, as they choose. There should never be a queue for food at an SCA event.

Count the serving dishes to make sure you have enough. Have enough spoons or other serving utensils for each dish to have its own to avoid contamination of allergens. Have storage bags for leftovers, it speeds emptying the serving dishes so you can wash them for the next course.

Always garnish– assign one person to that- prep the garnishes before the feast starts, give them a table by the serving area to garnish as the dishes go out.

Make a timing chart so you know what time things go in the oven, or on a burner, leave time for the pans to be cleaned between what you’re cooking in them and serving dishes between. (Tell the servers that if people want to keep a bowl on the table, they should politely ask the guests to serve absent friends or take what they want now as the plate is needed for the next course.) Remember that if it takes 1 hour to bake a 3 pound chicken, it takes 2 or more hours to bake 12 three pound chickens in one oven.  Boiled grains (like rice) that are ok for 6-10 people need to be constantly stirred if you making several gallons in one pot, as well as extra time. For example: for an oven(s)

  • Quiche in at 1, out at 2:15, boarded 5:10
  • Mushroom pasties in at 2:15, out at 3, boarded 6:20
  • Chickens in at 3, out at 5, boarded 5:15
  • Hams in at 5, out at 6:15, boarded at 6:25
  • Roast Beef in at 6, out at 7:30, boarded at 7:40

Remember to eat- Autocrats punch kept me going. It consisted of brewer’s yeast powder in V8. Tastes nasty but keeps your energy up, and your feet from swelling.

When scheduling which dish goes in which course, don’t forget that bits of one ingredient can go into another dish- if you boil a meat or vegetable, the broth is good for cooking a starch in it, the drippings from a meat pan will make a sauce, the giblets from a bird may not be enough for a side dish, but can be included in one, the leaves removed from something like celery can be used either for a garnish or in a sallat. Before you toss trimmings in the trash, think about how they could be put to use.

Leftovers: Kitchen crew, cleaners, and servers get “first dibs”, after that, people with post revels. If there’s someone in your group with farm animals, have a separate garbage bag for feed grade food scraps- arrange this with them before the feast. If you can factor zip-locks into your budget, sending food home is better than sending it to the dump. Most food kitchens will not take food that has been “opened” anymore, but see what yours will take. If you don’t have leftovers, you didn’t have enough food.

Mix simple/recognizable and fancy/weird/period foods in each course. Have something for vegetarians in each course. Remember that many period foods that are simple and recognizable. Also, people often ate whatever they had managed to hunt earlier in the day- if there were only one of each animal, not everyone got some of it. I find this the equivalent of buying what’s on sale that week. Rare foods (as in there’s not enough for everyone) goes to the high table first, then to the rest of the hall. Try to have a variety of colors, textures, and tastes (sweet, sour, savory) in each course.

Subtleties and Entremets, are fantastic image pieces, like a gingerbread castle, or a cockatrice, or live bird pie, are part food, part entertainment. Some can be humble, especially if you are having one at the end of every course, for example: egg shells filled with clear (lemon) gelatin and an apricot half, so they look like a raw egg, small marzipan formed as fruit or birds, or a cookie with arms on it, or a gingerbread served on a parchment with a riddle or quote are all a subtleties without being a huge architectural pieces. The function of a subtlety or entremet was to mark the end of a course of which there were could be several at a banquet. This is like a “grand finalie” before an intermission. If possible, take good pictures before taking it out, and make these available perhaps on the barony website, so you don’t have to deal with a bunch of people slowing everything down taking pictures themselves.

If you can collect the recipes before the feast, and print out a few copies, this can be a fund raiser. (I often didn’t use recipes, and couldn’t pre-publish the menu because I used whatever the loss leaders were, which kept my prices down, but couldn’t be planned in advance.) A menu (one per table should be sufficient) will help people pace themselves, but may cause disappointments if you have to make last minute changes. Ingredients lists are needed because of allergies; post-it notes and pencils can allow cooks to track what they put in if they are seasoning to taste, so the servers can find this information for the diners who ask. They should be posted by the servers table.  If there is a dish that comes back nearly untouched, this should be noted for later autocrats and cooks. (I’ve created a page where I’m starting to collect recipes here.)

Make sure your kitchen knives are sharp and you have servers who can carve! IF necessary, train them before the event! If there are not enough squires who can carve, pre-slice roasts before sending them out!

Fish is better received in a crust. It keeps it from oxidizing, (so does covering with oil) which reduces the “fishy” odor to which so many people object.

If you are having multiple soups, some provision for rinsing bowls between soups would be a good idea. If there are trays, not only can more than one dish be served at a time, but the server could collect individual bowls and wash them and return them to his table. Bone bowls are a good idea and having the servers empty them is wonderful.


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