When I got this email about self-catering from reader Mandy, it came with the disclaimer, “maybe this is stuff everyone already knows.” And when I started reading it over, I thought, “No, but this is stuff everyone *should* know.” This email takes me back to the no-nonsense vibe of the church kitchens of my childhood, or to peeling a 10 pound sack of potatoes with my cousins in England as we helped prepare Thanksgiving dinner for 70 people. By which I mean to say, if real life wedding planning is about hauling and lifting? Self catering is about endless peeling and cleaning and scrubbing. It’s not glamorous work, but it is rewarding as h*ll, for those of you that take it on. And, no matter what anyone tells you, it can be done (but ONLY if you *want* to do it – don’t guilt yourself into this one, no how, no way). Now, Mandy:
Back in December, we drove down to Georgia to attend my fiance’s aunt’s wedding. It was a second wedding for both his aunt and her new husband (they’d both been widowed years ago) and the entire thing was taking place on the same day as the annual family Christmas gathering. There were about sixty or so people at the reception, and around thirty-five of those came back for a second meal after the reception when the actual family Christmas party started. Needless to say…this translates to a LOT of food. And no joke, the bride cooked nearly all of that food herself, with some help from her sisters (and me, towards the end). So for those of you who think that it just can’t be done…it can be done, single-handedly, by a woman in her sixties in a tiny kitchen. Granted, some of us are attempting to self-cater weddings with double or even triple that amount of guests, but I still find inspiration in remembering this particular experience, as well as a few guidelines I plan to follow when we do this in a few months. I don’t normally like to break things into dos and don’ts, but it seems like the best way to simplify all I’ve got to say. Also, please note that I am not an expert, and no advice can cover every situation. This is just what I learned from helping with a self-catered wedding…plus a little bit of knowledge gathered from years of helping prepare large amounts of food for large amounts of people, otherwise known as “my family is huge and loves to eat a lot.”
DO enlist good people to help, if you can. I don’t mean ask just anyone to help. I mean find people you really trust to help get the job done. If things don’t go as planned and this means they stay up with you til 3:30 in the morning preparing food only to get up at 7:00 the next morning and continue preparing food until midnight the night before the wedding, you’ll want to have people around who won’t grumble about it. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have those helpers at their beck and call, but if you are, use them.
DON’T decide to try out new recipes that you’ve never even heard of before. This seemed to be the biggest stress-factor for our Aunt B; while she mostly stuck to foods she knew, she was also determined to make several items that were “fancy” to impress her new husband’s family. If you really, REALLY want a particular food item at your wedding, make the recipe ahead of time to try it out. And please don’t start making foods to impress anyone. Because honestly, looking back, I don’t think anyone remembers the “fancy” food any more than the mashed potatoes. All we remember is that the food was good.
DO make foods that transport well. This sort of goes along with the fancy-food advice above, because as a general rule, the fancier foods are the ones who won’t survive a trip in the back of a car to the reception site. One of my jobs the morning of became salvaging what I could of these little mini-pastry things that ended up getting stuck to the top of the boxes they were in.
DON’T forget about platters. I’m sure there’s a more general name than that, but where I’m from, we use platters to serve just about everything. If you don’t care about things matching, then borrow as many as you can (and make sure that they are all labeled on the bottom with the names of who you borrowed them from, because you will not remember at all who they belong to after the ceremony). Borrow at least ten more than you think you need. It’s better to have too many than to realize the day-of that you’re going to have to serve cheese and crackers on a paper plate. Unless paper plates are what you want. Then go right ahead.
DO break things up into smaller tasks. Your helpers will be much more helpful if you can give them a specific task that needs to be accomplished, like peeling potatoes or grating cheese, or even taking out the trash in the kitchen when it starts to resemble something out of a B-horror movie. It’s almost like dealing with young children in some ways. If you tell a small child, “pick up the toys” the results won’t be nearly as quick or painless as if you had said, “pick up the cars and put them back in the car box”. The same rule really applies with helpers in a kitchen situation; the more specific you are with instructions, the faster (and better) results will happen.
DON’T forget about serving utensils AND cooking utensils (knives, big spoons, etc.). Please, please don’t forget about them. I almost want to put this at the top of the list, because if you don’t think about them, you will be at the ceremony site in the middle of NOWHERE with no stores nearby, frantically calling cousins to ask them to stop off at the Dollar General on their way there to please, PLEASE buy some knives and spoons (and platters, and an extra tablecloth). Forgetting knives was quite possibly the most stressful event of the day, and yet it’s something no one had thought about ahead of time because all of us were so used to having kitchen utensils within easy reach.
DO make a list of exactly what food you’re making, and keep that list updated. Check an item off once it’s finished. Not only does this give you a finish line to look foward to, it also saves your kitchen helpers from starting on a task that may have already been finished.
DON’T add foods to the list last-minute that you weren’t planning on. This might sound obvious, but how many of us have ever gotten into DIY-mode and thought, “Oh, but wouldn’t THIS be great to have?” Don’t do that to yourself. Come up with your list ahead of time, get everything you need for those specific dishes gathered ahead of time, and stick to the list. It’s okay to leave something out if you run out of time, but if you have to drop and item from the list, don’t make yourself crazy by trying to add something in its place.
In the end, helping Aunt B with self-catering her wedding is part of what inspired us to self-cater our own. Yes, it was a lot of work. Yes, it was a headache at times. But what I really remember is licking cake-icing off spoons at midnight, all of us giddy and tired and happy because the food was all finished, and feeling like even though I had come into the process a little late, I had shared something great with those women.
Looking back, I realize it was a much-needed bonding experience for all of us involved. My fiance’s brother had passed away just two months earlier. This was the first Christmas and the first big family-event to take place since he passed. There were a lot of tears that weekend because losing him was really hard on the entire family. Maybe not everyone bonds over food the way Southern women do, but as for me, food preparation is really a family experience. I might be singing a different tune when my own wedding rolls around, but right now, I truly
think I would take memories of making our own food with loved ones over pretty plates any day.
Photo by Emily Takes Photos.