Salad for 125

A few weeks ago, I was spending most of my time in my kitchen preparing for a fundraiser to be held at the home of a man who likes to hold pig roasts as fundraisers for local non-profits. The deal is the same every year: he will roast the pig in his backyard. A local restauranteur will provide a few sides (collards, macaroni and cheese, sometimes a third thing TBA). There’s cole slaw, there’s white bread. And there’s salad. This year, a local health-food store volunteered to donate trays of green salad for the event, and as we discussed the plan, I agreed to make the salad dressing for the greens. This was a piece of cake, so to speak, particularly compared to making the caramel cake and coconut cake I’d already signed on to make for the dessert table.

It was Thursday evening, a few days before the pig roast, when my neighbor knocked on the door and asked me, “Do you want ten heads of lettuce?”

This isn’t a question I get asked very often. I said, “Why don’t you come in and explain to me why you happen to have ten heads of lettuce sitting around?”

She explained. She’d gotten a Peapod delivery and in the process of unpacking the bags had discovered that Peapod had given her, in addition to her order, more than a dozen heads of hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce. She said, “We can use maybe two or three heads, but we really can’t use all of this, so I thought I’d ask my neighbors if they wanted any.” Peapod, after all, had come and gone; there was no returning the merchandise.

I said, “You know what. I’m helping to organize a pig roast happening on Sunday, and we’ll be serving salad. I will take your lettuce and you can be assured it will go to good use.” It wasn’t that I was anticipating disaster, mind you; merely, it seemed to me that whatever salad we got from the health-food store, it could surely be happily augmented by ten heads of hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce.

My neighbor was thrilled to divest herself of these heads of lettuce, and the grocery bags were dumped on the floor. “We’ll put these all in the fridge and wash them later,” I told my daughter, who gawped at all the plastic clamshells full of perfect-looking lettuces. It is lucky for us that we have a second fridge in the basement, and that it happened to be nearly empty: all those clamshells of lettuce filled the shelves in that fridge, and the last three had to be crammed into the fridge in the regular, daily-use kitchen fridge.

On Saturday, during a lull in the cake frosting-and-assembling process, my daughter helped me wrangle the lettuce. I had devised a solid plan for handling this vast quantity of delicate greenery. It involved wiping down a large cooler, placing several ice packs on the bottom, and then lining the cooler with a clean cotton tablecloth. “We’re gonna wash all the lettuce now, and throw it into the cooler,” I explained. “Then we’ll fold the tablecloth gently over the lettuce, put another couple ice packs on top, and the lettuce will stay nice and cool and safe and ready to use on Sunday. We’ll just have to carry it up to the pig roast — it’ll basically be ready to go.”

My daughter was all in; she loves washing lettuce now that we have a nifty salad spinner. We spent about forty minutes opening plastic clamshells and separating the lettuces from those weird balls of root system or whatever the hell those things are at the stem of the hydroponically-grown lettuce (I don’t even want to know); we washed the lettuces and spun them and tossed the clean lettuce into the cooler. Then I folded the tablecloth down, put extra last ice packs in, put the lid on the cooler, and placed the cooler jauntily by the couch, where it would serve as an end table until Sunday morning.

In the meantime, I emailed the people working on the event, saying, “Just to let you know — heads up, so to speak — I have, through a bizarre fluke, come into possession of ten heads of hydroponically grown butter leaf lettuce, and I’ve washed them and they’re stored safe and cool and clean and I’m bringing them to the pig roast just in case.” Everyone responded warily going, basically, “um, ok.” They probably thought I was nuts, but didn’t want to quibble about it with me since I was, after all, in charge of the cakes.

DAY OF EVENT.

Assisted by my husband and child, I schlepped two cakes, a chess pie, large quantities of Green Goddess salad dressing and vinaigrette, approximately 50 tablecloths, a dozen tea towels, a dozen cloth napkins, serving utensils, and a cooler full of lettuce to the house where the pig roast was being held. I went into the kitchen and began working on the tasks that needed doing: unpacking gear, and asking people already present what I could help with. I spent about an hour making about two gallons of simple syrup (in small batches, because I could only use a 2 1/2 quart pot, all the big stuff was already being used) and squeezing lemons for lemonade. It got to be noon, and the salads for the meal hadn’t yet arrived; I began to worry about that. If the donated salad stuff wasn’t ready to be served, in nice trays or bowls, it would take time to get it into serve-able shape, and time was running out. (Ha. If only I’d known what was about to happen.) I sent a text message to the woman picking up the salad stuff asking, “Everything ok? Salad coming?” No response.

Eventually, just before one o’clock, I got a text message saying, “Salad on its way, coming in separate components, we will have to assemble.” I thought, “Well, that’s not ideal, but fine.” What I envisioned was something like “we’ll be getting big trays of prepped lettuce, and bags of chopped veggies, but we have to throw it all together and toss it ourselves.” This is not the end of the world, I told myself, and I continued working cheerfully. Starting setup on the dessert tables, mixing lemonade, making sweet tea, and so on.

At a little after one, the salad components arrived, and I discovered when I went to help unload the boxes from the car that I’d been woefully optimistic about the situation.

What we had was about a dozen bags of mesclun, which we could not serve confidently straight from the bag because we didn’t know if it’s been washed. We had a large crate full of heirloom cherry tomatoes. We had a large crate of beautiful red peppers. An absolute fuckton of food, don’t get me wrong, and all useful, but none of which had been washed or prepped to the best of our knowledge, which meant that all of it had to be washed and prepped before we could put it on the table.

It was 1.15. The pig roast started at 2.

As the person nominally in charge of the kitchen, I made a large-scale editorial decision. One: any person not busy doing something else was to start washing lettuce, using our host’s salad spinner; two, any person not busy doing something else was to start washing tomatoes and peppers; and three: the ten heads of hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce were to be torn by hand and added to the salad serving bowls kindly provided by the health-food supermarket. It was suddenly crystal clear to me that had we not had those ten heads of lettuce from my house, we would have been, as I like to say, fucked. I mean, fuuuuuuucked.

“Thank god I have those heads of lettuce in the cooler,” I said to myself, over and over again, as I washed and seeded and diced red peppers. It turned out that my volunteer kitchen staff was limited and so basically my points 1, 2, and 3 were mostly going to be achieved by me. I listened as other people in the kitchen audibly freaked out about how short we were on time, but kept my head down and kept working. After personally washing two bags of mesclun and feeling very overwhelmed by the whole thing, I said to myself, “Stop.” It was time to step away from the mesclun and toward the cooler. I took a big salad bowl and put half the washed mesclun in it, and then I carried the bowl to the cooler and began to dump nice, clean, sweet-smelling hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce into the bowl, tearing it as I went. I tossed all the greens together: it was, I have to say, an impressive and handsome assemblage. Somewhere in there, two volunteers entered the kitchen and I told them to get on the mesclun washing project; they rolled up their sleeves and got to work.  These were not small bags, let me be clear with you: we’re not talking about little “family size!” Dole salad bags. These were bags the size of a standard-size pillow, and about as fluffy as the finest pillows you’ll see for sale in The Company Store catalog, and it all had to be washed before it could be served. No corner-cutting. But the ladies did it. They washed, they spun, and then they combined the mesclun with lettuce from the cooler, tearing the big lettuce leaves as they added so that the salad greens would all be roughly the same size. I fleetingly wondered if I’d missed my calling and should have been working in professional kitchens all my life, since I was, it seemed, very good at pep-talking people into working with crazed efficiency. (We will ignore the fact that I’m also paralyzed by terror when marshmallows catch fire under the broiler: clearly, in all seriousness, I am not cut out for professional kitchen work.)

“We need to spend as little time as possible washing lettuce,” I said. “So wash the bare minimum of the mesclun you can, ok? Use the stuff in the cooler to augment the mesclun until we have four or five huge huge bowls of salad, ok?” “Ok!” everyone said. “I have to go work on the dessert table,” I said, wiping my hands dry. “You all can handle this, right?” Everyone seemed confident that they were capable of washing and drying lettuce and putting it in bowls — big shock — and it wasn’t exactly that everyone saluted me and clicked their heels, but I had a sense that people understood that if I were disappointed, this would be not good; so I went off to handle desserts. It would all be fine.

And indeed it was: by two o’clock, eight bags of mesclun had been washed and combined with ten heads of hydroponically-grown butter leaf lettuce; I don’t even know how many red peppers had been minced and combined with the lettuce (I know I personally handled ten peppers). About half of a crate of tomatoes had been flung festively atop the salad bowls. (Someone had asked me, “Should we cut up the tomatoes?” and I had responded, “Are you fucking kidding me?”) The liters of homemade salad dressings were on the table, with appropriate serving implements, and, most importantly, the dessert table was arranged extremely well, so as to maximize the visual impact of the bounty of sugar that awaited our guests. (I didn’t do the dessert arranging, in the end: I had help from two friends from my retail days, who know how to handle displays.) Guests who’d signed up with me to provide desserts showed up to the party with carloads of treats: there were bean pies, chicken and waffle cupcakes, mini praline cheesecakes, chai pound cakes — that was just the first carload to get placed on the tables. There were all sorts of wonderful things that, really, made my caramel cake and coconut cake and chess pie look like mere child’s play. I’m talking two long, long tables, just covered in sugary goodness. Lemon icebox cakes and chocolate icebox cakes. Pecan pies. Four different Jell-O molds sprung from the mind of a demented man who was determined to make Jell-O molds seem like a good idea (he succeeded). There were peach cakes and bundt cakes. It was all so amazing that I was taken by surprise when someone complained that there wasn’t enough chocolate on the table. (They were right. There weren’t enough chocolate desserts. I will not let that happen again.) My daughter came into the dessert area and asked me loudly if she could take something before having her macaroni and cheese. I didn’t even have to answer, I just shot her a look. Everyone watching us laughed.

The party opened with a bang: people watched the roasted pig meat getting pulled, the line for getting meat and sides formed quickly, and before I knew it, almost all of the savory food was gone, and people were starting to sniff around the dessert tables. “It’s time for you to cut cakes,” someone nudged me. I said, “Ok, just let me check one thing –” and I went to the tables where the sides had been laid out. There was almost no salad left — out of all the greens we’d washed, there were just a few scraps in a bowl. The macaroni and cheese was almost gone, too. Everyone had spent 90 minutes cramming that food into their faces and now they wanted cake (or Jell-O, or pie, or whathaveyou).

So I went to the dessert tables, hefted my knife, and spent the next twenty minutes slicing cake and serving it. Everyone had a wonderful time (except the person who wanted more chocolate, I guess). The cakes disappeared quickly; the Jell-O molds were hoovered right up. People were loading three, four, five servings of desserts onto their plates. You had to admire their willingness to try everything. “I don’t really like coconut,” a man said, frowning at the cake. “Are you stupid?” his wife would say. “How many times have you had homemade coconut cake and not that dumb stuff out of the freezer case?” “Oh, ok,” the man said. “A small piece,” he added warily. I gave him a small piece. “If he doesn’t like it,” the wife said to me, “I’ll eat it for him and then I’ll kill him.” I laughed. “Caramel cake?” I asked, holding up my knife.

It was a good time.

When the party was all over, I prowled through the kitchen to try to assess what food remained, what damage had been done, and so on — also, I had to collect my own stuff to bring it home. I was really astonished to learn that there were only a couple of bags of mesclun left in the crate, though one medium salad bowl of assembled salad had never gotten served in the first place — whoops. I think we ran out of room on the tables in the backyard and in the end we were all too distracted to bring that last bowl out during the meal. No matter: Almost everything was gone. I mean, considering what we had started with, there were almost no leftovers. The desserts had been particularly well-received. There was one mini praline cheesecake left — which I ate, and let me tell you, it was delicious — and a few slices of pie. “Well all right,” I said, happy. The bowl of greens came home with me (along with a small quantity of leftover Green Goddess dressing). In the end, really, it all got eaten. The very, very last tag end of the Green Goddess dressing, I used in making a batch of buttermilk biscuits. I don’t know if that’s a traditional thing to eat at a pig roast, but someone should definitely consider adding Green Goddess biscuits to the menu. Maybe next year.

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