Imagine: your dinner companions are delightful company, the setting is beautiful –a grassy green park shaded by graceful trees, the repast is delicious and varied, the wine is generous, and your hosts are so pleased to enjoy your presence that toasts are offered up to you and your visiting troop. And it is the perfect time of day, that lovely hour or so before dusk when the temperature moderates and the air is softer.
But wait! That’s not all! Just when you think you are impressed enough, you approach the table of the main entrée and see…
But let’s back up a little bit.
One of my hobbies is Civil War reenacting. One year ago this month, I volunteered for the temporary-soon-to-be-permanent job of Camp Cook. Our unit is the 3rd US Artillery, a mounted artillery unit which participates in Civil War reenactments and Living History demonstrations up and down the state of California. In many of the military units, the soldiers cook for themselves or create small “messes” to share the job of meal preparation. But because so many of our members are busy caring for and tacking up the horses during an event, the 3rd US is one of the units to provide a provisioner, or cook, for the benefit of our group.
After I had agreed to cook for the upcoming reenactment at Gibson Ranch Civil War Days 2009 in Sacramento, I discovered that our captain had invited the James River Squadron from the Confederate camp to dine with us. So instead of 25, I was to prepare for 50. Eeek! I knew our Captain was counting on me to make him proud of us, so I took extra care in considering the menu and the details. Everything went very well. (For an example of a cooking weekend for me, see Cooking for the Third.) At that time the James River reciprocated and invited us to dine with them at Gibson Ranch 2010.
Our captain was very happy with the success of our “dinner party.” He and I both wondered, what will the James River cook up for us? Will it be like ours? I wondered if it would be more elegant, more elaborate. I was already considering 2011, when I would likely be planning their return engagement to the Union Camp. What new delicacies could I call up when it was my turn?
Saturday evening rolled around, and we all gussied up for the long trek to Confederate camp. We combed our hair, straightened our caps and pulled on our navy blue shell jackets. As a group, heel plates clicking on the paved road, we marched (ok, so the artillery doesn’t really “march” well; remember most of us prefer to let the horse march while carrying the soldier), let’s say we strode into Confederateville, finding protection from the slurs and barbs of the lounging Rebels by the very size of our troop.
Our captain greets one of our lovely hostesses.
The James River Squadron greeted us with genuine friendship and affection. The ladies were dressed in their hoop-skirted finery and the men in their naval uniforms. ( I would use the word “charming” to describe the uniforms, but dare not.) Cloth table linen, candles, bottles of wine decorating the table, dutch ovens that held warm peach cobbler, refreshing salads, women standing ready to wash our dishes –all were bracketed with white canvas tents and green lawn. The setting sun sent beams of light on the pastoral party.
And then, remember I promised you more. And there it was. The Big Kahuna, the Top Dog, the Coup d’état, the Big Pig.
It was absolutely Glorious. It was big, very big. And golden and crispy. Steaming and tender cuts were carved from the Beast and laid on our plates. The server cut a nice piece of crackling skin with it to keep the meat company.
We ate until we groaned. The dessert was served; cobbler with whipped cream and cookies. We ate some more. And then a jug of homemade applejack was passed up and down the table. We found common ground and shared geography with our tablemates and chatted through the evening. Their commander stood on a chair and offered a toast to the friendship between our units. Hear! Hear! Our captain stood and offered a toast back.
I was one of the last to take my leave. As the captain and I left, shaking hands and reiterating our pleasure at being able to host the James River next year, their man looked at me and said sincerely, “Keep it simple.”
I had been thinking, “What can I possibly do to match this? A whole pig, for goodness sakes!” Pondering the evening on the walk back to camp, I came to this conclusion. As stunning as the Pig was, as delectable as the cobbler was, as well-laid as the table was, it was not the food that made the evening so delightful. It was the welcome, the hospitality and the friendship that made the evening special. This is no competition between cooks, this is the pleasure of hosting friends and breaking bread together.
So I’m not planning my dinner next year yet. I’ll wait and see what comes to me. And I hope it is good. But I’m not stressing over it.