One of the most exciting things about planning theme parties for me was setting the menu; I always tried to choose items that would fit the theme. For example, when we did Everest (in 2002), we went heavy on the starches (macaroni and cheese, potatoes, rice, starchy vegetables, beef stew)—things that would be filling and satisfying and would, even though they weren’t likely food stuffs climbers would eat, be “comforting” in the cold weather. When we did The Masque of the Red Death (Poe party, 2000), we went with pheasant wrapped in bacon, other types of game, clam chowders, and other New England Fare. A Night to Remember (Titanic party, 1998) was, perhaps, the easiest, since there was a cookbook that had come out that had recipes for all of the dishes that were served at the ship’s final dinner.
Anyone who has read A Journey to the Center of the Earth will tell you that food plays a very important role in the book. In the opening chapter, for example, food is first used as “stage business” for Harry:
One day, after passing some hours in the laboratory—my uncle being absent at the time—I suddenly felt the necessity of renovating the tissues—i.e., I was hungry, and was about to rouse up our old French cook, when my uncle, Professor Von Hardwigg, suddenly opened the street door, and came rushing upstairs.
Just a bit later, food is used to establish the characters of Harry and Professor Von Hardwigg and the contrast between them:
Now to tell the truth, at that moment I was far more interested in the question as to what was to constitute our dinner than in any problem of science; to me soup was more interesting than soda, an omelet more tempting than arithmetic, and an artichoke of ten times more value than any amount of asbestos…
“Bother the dinner!” cried my uncle.
But as I was hungry, I sallied forth to the dining room, where I took up my usual quarters. Out of politeness I waited three minutes, but no sign of my uncle, the Professor. I was surprised. He was not usually so blind to the pleasure of a good dinner. It was the acme of German luxury—parsley soup, a ham omelet with sorrel trimmings, an oyster of veal stewed with prunes, delicious fruit, and sparkling Moselle. For the sake of poring over this musty old piece of parchment, my uncle forbore to share our meal. To satisfy my conscience, I ate for both.
Beyond the first chapter (yes, all of those references and a few I didn’t mention), food appears frequently: important discussions happen over meals, and, of course, there is the concern of procuring it (or not) during the travelers’ journey. What’s also great is that there are specific foods mentioned, too—foods that I probably would be serving—Family Style, in keeping with the service style in the book—if I were presenting Journey as a theme party in my own home.
When working with a venue, however, the game changes a little bit. Howe Caverns provides a complete banquet and party menu to meet all budgets and tastes, with several interesting options regarding dishes and style of service (curious? You can peruse the options here: http://howecaverns.com/groups/banquets-and-weddings/banquet-menu). In the lack of the presence of German food and veal (which I really wouldn’t do at a wedding anyway), my initial choices were to go the ‘elegant’ route: strip steak, dilled salmon, chicken cordon bleu, grilled shrimp and scallops. On the Howe Caverns menu, these are served plated—which, with the theme, I could have gotten away with, since in the first few chapters of the book Harry, his uncle, and assorted characters are being served by their cook. However, when I thought about it some more, I ran into two problems: service at that time was done Family Style (and, of course, when they are on their journey, they eat Family Style) and ‘elegant’ foodstuffs are really only in the opening chapters—when they’re under the earth it’s what they’ve got and fair, simple game.
The new goal then became simple, hearty meals which could be served Family Style—Family Style a little bit more important to me than everything else, because then people at the tables can engage in conversation more readily. “Please pass the peas” could easily become an interesting discussion, probably, knowing our friends, not unlike some of the really interesting discussions that go on in Journey.
On Howe Caverns’ menu, I found some pleasing choices that would fill the bill.
In fact, too many choices that would fill the bill.
Enter my childhood friend, Kristina Hals Strobel (we have known each other since 1977).
Kristina is a person who has a way of cutting through things and making even difficult choices seem simple. She came to visit, and with wine, a delicious chocolate cherry cake she made, and pizza (because, as she pointed out, planning a menu while you’re starving is just as bad as shopping while you’re starving—you end up with more than you need), we set to work narrowing things down.
“What you want,” she said, “is to get everything down to your ‘dream menu’ and how you’d like it presented. Then they’ll come back with what you can and can’t do, and you can just be open to compromise. Then it’s sort of a negotiation, but you are coming from a firm grasp of your preferences.”
We started with decisions on the cocktail hour food and pass-around hors d’oeuvres, which were easy—we went with what we felt would have universal appeal: crudite, cheese and crackers, crab rangoons, franks in blankets, mushroom puffs, and vegetable spring rolls. The meals come with salad and rolls, so that was done. We left the option for Soup du Jour open—I’d like to do soup since it fits in with the ‘hearty’ theme, but it will depend on what Howe offers.
As far as entrees, there was one grouping on the menu that looked like it could lend itself to Family Style easily: Chicken Scampi, Broiled Tilapia, and Roast Beef. Each dish, being listed as plated, came with different sides: the chicken and tilapia with rice/vegetable, the roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy. If this were to be served Family Style, it’d make sense to have starch and vegetable choices that would go with each of the three options. Once again, Howe has an extensive list of choices for starches and vegetables. Here they are:
Green Bean Casserole
Green Beans w/Almonds
Sauteed Summer Squash
Parsley Salt Potatoes w/Dill
Roasted Red Potatoes
The process of selecting vegetables, I’d have to say, was the most complex one. The first rule was to weed out things I personally didn’t like—if I won’t eat it, then I’m not going to expect my guests to. Summer Squash, therefore, was out first (I just don’t like it). Broccoli and Cauliflower were also out, mostly because in some people they tend to cause discomfort. Vegetable Medley, while simple, really didn’t sound all that exciting. Green Bean Casserole, while it would work well with Roast Beef, seemed too heavy to go with the tilapia and definitely wouldn’t go with a garlic chicken. Glazed Carrots, while they’d go nicely with Roast Beef, seemed, again, too heavy for the fish and chicken dishes. I love Green Beans Almondine and always have, but I didn’t want to make that choice for everyone until I’d really thought about the “why nots” of all the other options. When we went through the choices a second time, we discovered a bonus—Green Beans Almondine does go with all three of our main choices.
Starches were less difficult, because the key there was simply choosing one starch that would compliment everything. What it boiled down to was Parsley Salt Potatoes with Dill.
There’s always a chance, of course, that the whole Family Style option is out with what we’ve chosen (we’ve yet to speak to Howe Caverns), so if we have to plate this menu, then, oh, well. At least half of what I was looking for was there; as always, I’m open to compromise (and I think I forgot to mention here that Nathan has been excited about having roast beef on his wedding day from day one, so that was kind of always on there anyway—which means that come hell or high water roast beef WILL be on the tables). But just as my friend Kristina pointed out, it’s easier to make your “dream menu” first and then be open to suggestions. We’ll know more on March 15 and 16 when we go up to Howe to get closer to finalizing things!