Spooks, Sandwiches & Sympathy for the Devil

It couldn’t really have started any worse.

The day of our school’s annual Halloween Carnival — the new, experimental 2015 edition in which I would be cooking for somewhere apparently between 450 and 600 people — had arrived.

Rennie at work

Rennie at work

I got to the ballfield at the local community center around 1:30 for the 3:30 start time. I unloaded my coolers full of meat, boxes of bread and bags of slaw — far more food than was necessary, I was certain, and felt confident I would be bringing things home at the evening’s conclusion. But the event organizer, my friend Danielle, had asked me to err on the side of abundance. To cook on, there was a large and rusty Santa Maria grill that had rolled in on wheels and parked itself beneath the backstop.

Before long, I was joined by pal Rennie, and we chatted, drank beer and skewered fruit. Around 2:30 p.m., I decided I should get the coals going, but realized I had forgotten my coal chimney. I quickly texted my wife and my buddy Vince and asked them both to bring chimneys, which they promised to have to me by 3 p.m. The event opened, 4 p.m. rolled around, and still no chimneys.

The queue, with orders on stacked plates

The queue, with orders on stacked plates

“When’s the food going to be for sale?” people milling around our makeshift kitchen began to ask. And I began to get nervous — Vince had finally shown up with both the chimney and some lighter fluid, which seemed to be the smarter way to go. But the mountain of coal was slow moving in reaching temperature, and the milling people were definitely beginning to coalesce into a line.

It was nearly 5 p.m. — 90 minutes into the event — when food began rolling off the line. There was a fine selection to choose from: a tri-tip sandwich with aioli and arugula; a grilled chicken sandwich with Lebanese garlic sauce and pickled beet slaw; a Baja fish wrap; a grilled veggie bowl; grilled globe artichokes and Mexico City-style corn; mac n’ cheese, hot dogs and fruit skewers for the kids. The evening’s star attractions were two premium meat offerings: a 1.5 lb. Texas-smoked beef short rib served with a shot of premium bourbon at $25; and 2-lb dry aged ribeye carved from the bone and served with a shot of premium tequila at $50.

The short rib platter

The short rib platter

I had a great staff helping me — a Roman centurion, Amelia Earhart, a Hungarian cowboy, a Chinese schoolboy, a white rapper and the hacking group Anonymous, among others. But we had no hope of keeping up with the queue, which now stretched beyond third base. Maximus frantically sliced tri-tip and chicken, Anonymous and the Chinese schoolboy managed the grill, Amelia Earhart assembled sandwiches. But food had to cook as long as it took. Fortunately, the line took on a party-like atmosphere — most folks knew each other, everyone had drinks. Only the fireman of Topanga Engine 69 seemed unpleased by the slow-moving beast.

The first thing to disappear was the artichokes, of which I only had 20 or so. We obscured the item from the large menu with black tape, and a cry of “Oh no!” came up from somewhere in the line.

Anonymous at the grill

Anonymous (pal Jon) at the grill

One by one, other things vanished — the fruit skewers, the tri tips. The tequila.

At some point, sidekick Bob and I were called to the stage to strap on guitars and perform the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” with the band, Kummerspeck. Panicked looks of disbelief from my cook staff followed us as we exited the cowboy kitchen, and I assured them I would only be gone 10 minutes.

The cooks rock

The cooks take a break to rock

It was nearly the 8:30 “close” time when the line had finally thinned to a couple dozen latecomers.

“Nothing on the menu is available,” I told the cashiers. “We are improvising. If people still want food, take eight bucks from them and I’ll make them something.”

And for another 15 or 20 minutes we did, until all the food — every last hot dog, every scrap of bread, every grain of rice — was gone. As the crowd thinned and people went home, Maximus sliced up a 2 lb. ribeye we had set aside and grilled for ourselves. I had a few bites, and realized it was the first food I had eaten all day.

The ballfield after the party

The ballfield after the party

The tequila was still with me in the morning when I woke with the sun. I stood up — wobbly, smelling of smoke, black beneath my fingernails — and made my way to the kitchen. Opening the fridge, I saw my saving grace — a Jack in the Box chicken sandwich. I tossed it in the microwave. Leftover fast food has never tasted so good.

Back at the ballfield later that morning to gather the last of my things, I chatted with the event organizers. The new experimental version of the carnival had been an enormous success, raising around $20,000. Next year’s event would be even better — we would have more of the premium meat that sold out, and we would start the charcoals at 2:30.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Oct 30, 2015 @ 01:15:18

    Great job – Sean told YA!!!


  2. Ant Patty
    Oct 30, 2015 @ 01:38:25

    I’m constantly amazed at your fearlessness in mounting these large scale culinary ventures – but what better cause than our beloved school.


  3. thejameskitchen
    Oct 30, 2015 @ 03:00:54

    Awesome gig, Sean. I remember the adrenaline rush you get when working a whole crowd until the last few people get their food, great feeling and even better when having a well deserved drink and ribeye (clever to save one).


  4. Trackback: Queues and Barbecues | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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