Wedding Caterer

August 29, 2019

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

“Bob! Calm down. Take a deep breath. We are here doing the best we can to help you. It’s going to be fine.”

She was right. I needed to chill the fuck out. This was not the disaster I was imagining.  I needed to escape the confines of my perfectionist expectations and let my gracious volunteer helpers do their jobs. I began to breath normally as I allowed the relief of letting go wash over me.

“You’re right, Connie,” I replied after a moment. “I’m sorry for losing my cool. I really appreciate you and the others helping me with this. You’re right, it’s going just fine.”

Here I was, on the third day of my four-day holiday weekend, getting ready to feed about 150 people who were just outside in the large multi-purpose room of a Knights of Columbus hall. Up to this point, they had been snacking from common dishes of pretzels and peanuts that were set in the middle of each round table that sat eight people each. The newly-minted bride and groom were due to arrive at any moment, say some bashful words, then sit down to be fed along with the attendees.

I was not a caterer. I was not a chef. I was not even that much of a home cook at the time, to be honest. What the hell was I doing in charge of a wedding reception for this many people?

Being the Good Guy

About six weeks prior, my wife had been visiting the home of a family friend, whom she had known for years as she was growing up.  The family were members of the same close-knit church that we were also part of. The woman’s daughter, Amanda, had been a baby-sitter for our own children on numerous occasions over the past few years after we moved back to the mid-sized city of Anderson, in central Indiana. In the living room of the double-wide trailer home surrounded by someone else’s corn fields, Amanda had been close to tears as she spoke to my wife about her upcoming nuptials to a young man from Baltimore.

Amanda’s mother and father had been involved in a messy divorce a few years before, leaving her and her brother with their mom, the dogs, and little money. She didn’t let this situation keep her bubbly personality from shining through, however. Amanda was an angel. Great with our kids, and wonderful with everyone else, too. But bubbly personality didn’t go a long way in paying for things.

When my wife came home that evening, she spoke to me about Amanda’s plight. Her mom was busy working to pay the normal bills, and had little time to help with the wedding plans.  “She’s really worried about the reception,” my wife told me. “She doesn’t know what to do about the food.”

My own personality tends toward looking for ways to be helpful. I notice when strangers on the street look lost. Often, I will slow down and try to decide whether or not to assist another motorist who is experiencing a flat tire.  I feel a twinge of guilt if my decision is to keep walking or driving without stopping to give directions or help with the car jack. Sometimes I wonder about my motivations for this. Is it a messiah complex sans religious ardor? Or just plain nosiness in some cases?

I looked at my wife for a long minute without saying anything. Her eyes were looking back at me, expectantly. My head churned with the possibilities and logistics of offering to assist. “She’s getting married on Thanksgiving weekend, isn’t she?” I asked.

“Yes, she is,” came the reply. “Just like us. It’s the week of our anniversary.”

I remembered back to almost nine years before, when I had traveled from northern Virginia to this same town, relatives and a few friends in tow, to attend my own wedding. In somewhat the same situation monetarily. My bride-to-be had been completely in charge of planning our marriage soiree. She had worked hard to get a beautiful rental hall at a discount, and then persuaded a family friend, an industrial chef for the local school system,  to provide a lovely, plated dinner for over 200 guests at cost. Not that Helen needed persuading. This woman was a saint, if there ever was one.

“Tell Amanda not to worry about the reception dinner,” I found myself saying. “I’ll do it.”

Intelligence Gathering

Some of the thoughts that proceeded my gallant offer to help were: the Thanksgiving holiday would give me two full days off work to prepare for this undertaking; I knew other people who I could ask to help me (mutual friends of Amanda’s family as well); and… Amanda was special to our family, and I’d do whatever I could to assist.

Six weeks is not a lot of time to prepare, but I’m a professional procrastinator. It took me a full week to get myself over to Amanda’s home to sit down with her and her mom, Lorraine, and find out what type of plans and budget that they had. I had a few questions for them.

“How many people are you expecting?” was the obvious first question I had to have answered.

“Well,” Lorraine replied. “We invited 400.”

I closed my eyes and ordered myself not to react. “I see,” I responded. “Now, Amanda,” I continued, as I looked directly at the young bride-to-be. “You know that I love you, and everyone who knows you loves you as well. But getting 400 people to come to your wedding is probably a stretch. Most weddings I’ve been to at our congregation (local church) have had no more than 200 people, mine included. I’m honestly guessing you’ll have about 150 people who are actually able to make it.”

Amanda nodded with acceptance at this sage advice from a man of a whole twenty-nine years. Lorraine, however, objected to my judgement of the attendance situation. “Well, I don’t want anyone going hungry. We do have people coming from Maryland, too, you know.”

We spoke back and forth for a couple of minutes, discussing logistics of travel and whatnot, before compromising on a number of 300 people to feed.  Now time for my next question.

“What is your budget for food and drink?” I inquired.

Lorraine fielded this one as well. “Well, you don’t have to worry about the cake,” she said. “We have that covered already. We can also handle the punch bowl. And we aren’t serving any booze.”

That last part didn’t surprise me. The religion we were members of had strict views on the use of alcohol. While not completely prohibited, we were instructed often about the evils of intoxication, and it was HIGHLY recommended that we seriously consider whether or not to serve alcoholic beverages at gatherings (we didn’t have “parties”), especially wedding receptions. The leadership made it crystal clear that culpability for a guest overindulging would fall on the groom, as HE was head of his new family and also responsible for whatever happened at his event.

“Okay. So no cake, and no beverages. I’ll just be handling the food.” I agreed. “So how much do I have to work with?”

“We have $500,” came the guileless reply.

Somehow I managed to not spit out the iced tea I was drinking. I forced myself to remain still and not break eye contact. I breathed in slowly and simply said, “Okay.”

Oh!  Fuck ME!

How the hell was I supposed to prepare wedding reception food for $1.66/person? I asked my wife this not-quite-the-same question when I returned home that evening. She just looked at me with her eyes widened, shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, my god! What have I gotten myself into?” I moaned.

“You’ll figure something out,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”

I went to sleep that night thinking about it. I spent the next day at work thinking about it. I spent the following evening thinking about it. My dreams were of peanut butter sandwiches and boiled eggs. This wasn’t going to be a plated dinner. There wasn’t enough in the budget to make anything close to the baked chicken, roasted potatoes, green beans, and dinner rolls that were served at our reception.

Look What I Found!

I commiserated to a co-worker about what I had undertaken. She suggested that I go to the Gordon Food Service (GFS) store in town. They had wholesale food and prices. The city didn’t have a Costco or Sam’s Club, so this was the place to buy in bulk. So on the weekend, I headed over to Scatterfield Road on the west side of town to this white cinderblock-and-glass building with the big red awnings.

Inside, I was at first overwhelmed by the sizes of the food packages. One gallon plastic tubs of salad dressing sat beside five-gallon buckets of cooking oil and pickles. Looking back, I needn’t have been surprised, but I had just never seen food in containers of this size before. As I walked around the first corner, my eyes spotted a tin can of Starkist tuna that held 66 oz. of fish. This was over thirteen times the size I was used to buying at the Safeway store. Suddenly, the vision of the peanut butter sandwich dream popped into my head. An idea began to take shape.

I have always loved tuna fish salad sandwiches. My dad used to make them a lot for us when we were kids. Canned tuna was relatively inexpensive, and combined with chopped onions, celery, mayonnaise (my father hated Miracle Whip) and a bit of pickle relish, spread between two pieces of bread, he could feed three hungry boys for less than the cost of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Tuna sandwiches are usually by no means fancy. But if the crusts were removed, and the bread cut just so, tuna FINGER sandwiches could be considered almost elegant. I began to do some quick math in my head. (Three hundred people multiplied by 1.5 ounces of tuna per sandwich…) I might be able to make this work! But I knew that a wedding guests does not live on fish-stuffed bread alone. It would take more than pulling a Jesus Christ trick to keep Lorraine (and me, admittedly) from being mortified at the dinner.

By carefully looking at each product GFS offered -rejecting some outright, contemplating others-, and keeping the cost tally in my head and on a scrap of paper (why didn’t I bring a calculator?) I found a way to possibly do the impossible. I didn’t make any purchases that day, but went home to mull it over and come up with a concrete menu plan.

A Strategy Takes Shape

In the end, I chose to buy ten bags of frozen meatballs, ten cans of sauce (five each sweet-and-sour and BBQ), five large cans of tuna fish, a half-gallon of pickle relish, a gallon of mayonnaise, ten dozen eggs, and two gallon-sized tubs of ranch dressing. I had decided that buying fresh vegetables for the tuna salad and egg salad sandwiches (some people may not like tuna?) was probably best done at the regular supermarket. I had also elected to make a large cut-vegetable tray and serve it with ranch dressing. The bread would also not be purchased until the day before the wedding.

Also procured at the wholesale store were several disposable aluminum chafing dishes, along with the attendant stands and cans of Sterno jellied alcohol cooking fuel. A few large round serving trays, made either of aluminum or plastic on which to place the finished sandwiches and cut vegetables. I ended up buying these with my own money, as I intended to keep them after the wedding was over. Somehow I thought they would be very useful should I decide to host a Super Bowl party in the future.

Countdown: Thursday

Because I needed the food to be as fresh as possible when served, it made no sense to start any cooking or mixing until absolutely necessary. My refrigerator had been rearranged to store as much as possible, and I borrowed freezer space from my neighbor across the street. Most of the stores would be closed early for the Thanksgiving holiday, so it was pointless to try to buy anything anyway.  I also knew ahead of time that there was no way I could do all of the cooking and preparation myself, so I had asked a few volunteers from the church to help out. I had five women who were willing to assist. Our church forbade the celebration of Thanksgiving (or pretty much any other holiday), so Connie, Renee, Marilynn, and Sarah were all available . Most of them were older than me, wives and mothers, and had experience with cooking for their own families.

I said that there were five, even though I only mentioned four names so far. Thursday morning, I got a call from Helen, the same lady who had very graciously catered our wedding reception so many years before. She had heard what I was doing, and softly chided me for not asking her for help. She told me that her industrial kitchen she used for cooking and delivering meals to all of the schools with a Head-Start (preschool) program was available for me to use on Saturday morning, if I wanted.

Up until this point, I had worried about how I was going to heat ten aluminum pans of meatballs, cook and peel over sixty eggs, and mix huge bowls of tuna salad in a home kitchen. I had planned on divvying up the ingredients to the aforementioned ladies and asking them to each bake two meatball containers in their own kitchens. Logistics was going to be a nightmare, as they all lived scattered around the county.

With the generous offer of the commercial kitchen, my problems in this area were solved. I breathed a huge “thank you!” to the deity that I still believed in at the time. And I spoke an even bigger “THANK YOU!” to Helen over the phone. Afterwards, it was a matter of calling Connie, Renee, Marilynn and Sarah to ask them to meet me at Helen’s “office” Saturday morning.

No other work was done on Thursday. It was our own anniversary, so being relieved of the huge burden of where to cook, I spent the afternoon planning where to go to dinner with the missus. Then I remembered that it was Thanksgiving Day. Nothing was open. We ate at home and watched “The Lion King” on VHS with the kids.

Countdown: Friday

Up early Friday morning to check my shopping list and head to the grocery store. Fortunately, because it was Black Friday, anyone out spending money would be at the mall, sporting goods stores, or fashion outlets. Nobody wanted to think about food, having stuffed themselves to an uncomfortable state the day previous. I practically had the place to myself.

Because of the freshness issue, I still couldn’t really begin to do much with the food at this point. I would bring everything to Helen’s kitchen early the next morning, and then ask the ladies to cut, chop, pour, mix, etc. as we pulled together this culinary feat. I would have to satisfy myself with imagining the trays filled with carrot slices, celery sticks, broccoli and cauliflower florets, pickle spears, black and green olives, all adorned with a few radish roses that hopefully someone knew how to cut.

At the store, I bought several loaves of white bread, all of the previously listed vegetables, plus some onions for the tuna salad, and a bottle of yellow mustard. One improvement that I had personally made on my father’s tuna recipe was the addition of mustard to the mix. Because he hated the sweet tanginess of the bastard salad dressing cousin of mayonnaise, his tuna salad lacked a bit of zip. The mixture was already sweetened by the pickle relish. I added mustard to give it a tiny bit of zest.

Ever the worrywart, I made phone calls to the volunteers to make sure that they would still be on time the next morning. They politely hid their exasperation with me and assured me that they would arrive as scheduled.

Recalibrating Plans

With nothing to do, I just fretted and agonized over what would go wrong. What if, what if, what if ran through my head over and over. I was driving myself crazy. I decided that I needed to see the space where the reception was being held. I tried calling Lorraine, but no one was at home. Thinking that this might be a good sign, I headed over to the KofC hall. Sure enough, there was Lorraine and her sister putting up decorations.

The banquet hall was divided into two large rooms. One had a stage, and this was where the dining furniture was being set up. Large round tables surrounded by eight chairs each. I imagined them full of people, eating BBQ meatballs and finger sandwiches, perhaps a bit of vegetables and ranch dip on the side. Then, I imagined them sitting there with nothing, waiting, impatient. A chill ran through me.

I remembered other weddings I had attended. Sitting at the reception, hungry, bored, and irritable while the guests were waiting what seemed an eternity for the bridal party to take myriads of pictures back at the wedding ceremony venue. One thoughtful couple had broken tradition- the groom  not seeing the bride until her walk down the aisle- so that they could take most of the pictures before the wedding guests arrived. We didn’t have to wait to eat that afternoon. I knew that this was not to be the case tomorrow, however. Tomorrow’s guests were going to be hungry, bored, and irritable.

Making a quick decision, I added to my list of items to accomplish today. Another trip to GFS for some cheap plastic bowls and large bags of peanuts, pretzels, and potato chips which with to fill them. I might not be able to ward off the boredom, but at least I might temper the hunger and irritability a bit.

Before I left the hall, I spoke with Lorraine about my plan to set up the buffet in the second room. There were some long, rectangular tables that fit this purpose nicely, and even some white tablecloths to cover them. I noticed another room off to the side, and inquired as to its purpose. It turned out to be a food prep area, with a sink and a working refrigerator. I almost leapt with joy, because it was now possible to divide forces tomorrow morning.

My new plan included sending two of the volunteers to the banquet hall with the vegetables and other items that didn’t need to be cooked. They could set up the tables with the snacks, put together the chafing dish holders and prep the veggie trays. This was going to be much better. A wave of happiness washed over me as I imagined things going exactly to plan.

Ignition

Early Saturday morning I woke with a start. In my dream, I had been surrounded by what seemed like a galaxy of angry people dressed in tribal outfits and carrying rudimentary weapons. The were hungry, and looking right at me to take care of the issue. Behind me, there was a large cauldron of boiling water filled with cut vegetables, but no meat. The realization that if I did not quickly provide some, it would be provided in the form of ME.

Shaking off the dream, I quickly dressed, then began packing the trunk of my car  with the food. I first headed over to Helen’s kitchen to have her show me what I was able to use. Sarah and Marilynn were going to meet me there in an hour, while Connie and Renee would go to the banquet hall around two in the afternoon. The wedding was scheduled to begin at three, and it would most likely be 4:30 before the first guests would arrive at the KofC, ten miles away from the church. So with the amount of work they needed to do, there was no reason to send them too early.

Helen greeted me warmly at the entrance to her kitchen. She was a big woman with a bigger heart. To those who didn’t know her, she could seem a little gruff. Think Mabel “Madea” Simmons, from the Tyler Perry movies, just not as tall. She began to show me the large ovens where we would be heating the meatballs and sauce. A huge gas range was in the center of one wall. Next to it, beneath a stainless-steel prep table, were stacked some of the largest cooking pots I had ever encountered. Boiling five dozen eggs was going to be a lot less work than I had previously thought.

When the two volunteer ladies arrived, I had already got the ovens pre-heated and the water for the eggs was boiling. We cut open bags of meatballs and poured them into the aluminum trays. An industrial, table-mounted can opener made removing the lids from the sauce tins a breeze. Sticky sweet-and-sour sauce with visible chunks of bell pepper and pineapple soon covered half of the small orbs of processed beef, chicken, and pork. The other half were drenched in a thick, tangy, reddish-brown BBQ-flavored liquid. Aluminum lids were attached, and into the ovens they went.

Meanwhile, the eggs were just finishing their super-heated bath, and now needed to be drained and cooled so that we could begin the arduous process of peeling the shells. Helen had kindly stayed behind and had instructed me to pour some vinegar into the boiling water. This would help ease the shell removal operation when it became time.

As the eggs were being chilled, Sarah was tasked with mincing the onions and Marilyn tackled the celery. We kept making jokes about Sarah tears. I took the job of opening the five large cans of Star-Kist and draining off the liquid into the sink. The smell of onions and fish filled the air in the workspace. Mixed with the sulfur bouquet from the eggs, the whole place was redolent of a particularly bad fart.

It’s Always Something

Somewhere between mixing the tuna together with the mayonnaise, pickle relish, and chopped vegetables, and checking the temperature of the previously frozen meatballs, it struck me that Connie and Renee were not going to be able to unlock the door to the KofC without a key. I tried reaching Lorraine, but again, no answer at home. I knew that the mother of the bride was not going to be available to let the two ladies in at 2pm.  Besides, I needed to drop off the veggies and snacks so they could begin their work. How had I forgotten about this important aspect of the plan?

The big problem was that I didn’t have the key either. I was going to have to track Lorraine down to get it. I started to feel a knot growing in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t leave just yet, because I needed to finish making the egg salad and put the finishing touches on the tuna. For some reason, I felt that it had to be me to do this, not trusting the (probably more experienced) volunteers to take care of it.

Pressure did not have a good effect on me back then. My poise began to leave me, and I think I started to become a little more bossy than usual. When Helen looked strangely at me and asked me what in the world was I doing to the tuna as I squeezed almost an entire bottle of French’s mustard into the five-gallon bucket where I was making the salad, I was a bit snappy in my reply. “I know what I’m doing, Helen. This is MY recipe!” Not cowed in the least, but most likely recognizing that this was not my usual disposition, she backed off and sat back down and began to read. Marilyn and Sarah exchanged looks, but stayed silent.

I should have apologized right then and there, because I realized I had been wrong to speak that way. These women were taking time away from their own families or free time to help, because I had asked them to. Sure, they were doing it because they, too, knew and liked Amanda and Lorraine. But it was really to help me with this daunting task that I had undertaken. However, I let the stress of the situation control me.

Explaining that I was going to have to go to find the key and let Connie and Renee into the banquet hall, I asked if they would be able to finish on their own. Helen had allowed us to use some margarine tubs from her own stock to butter the bread before adding the salads. This would keep the moist tuna and egg salads from soaking through before the guests could eat them. We also ditched the crust removal. There was just not enough time, so fancy be damned. The ladies assured me that they could indeed handle the remainder of the work without me. Helen told me that she could transport all of the finished food to the venue in her van. I gratefully accepted her offer.

Bob Loses His Shit

Luckily, I was able to connect with Lorraine at the church, where she handed me the keys. She asked me how things were going, but was too distracted to listen to my reply. So I drove off to meet the other two enlistees.

Since I was now relieved of the burden of transport, I was able to help (hinder?) Connie and Renee with the veggie trays and set-up. I had also brought with me about half of the tuna salad and some bread to begin making some extra sandwiches. Which was a good thing, because I realized that I had not eaten anything all day myself. I made myself a tuna on white, poured some potato chips onto a plate, and washed all of it down with a Coke from the vending machine in the back.

With about 30 minutes before the first guests were expected to arrive, I put out the bowls of snacks on the tables. The chafing tray stands were already out, with the fuel cans ready to be lit. The bottom trays were partially filled with water that would be heated by the Sterno flames, and they would provide an even heat to the food trays once they were placed inside. Connie and Renee had done a beautiful job filling two large trays with cut vegetables, and we had placed covers over them to keep any errant flies from coming into contact with the food.

People began appearing sooner than I had expected. Not trickling in, either. It was like a wave. For some reason, I felt it was my responsibility to greet them and direct them to where they could hang their coats before pointing the way to the dining hall. The pretzels, potato chips, and peanuts did not last long. These people were hungry. While I was happy with my decision to have snacks at the tables beforehand, I started to think that I should have brought more.

At 5:00, the dining area was full, but no sign of Helen, Sarah, or Marilyn. More importantly, there was no sign of the food. The unease I was feeling increased with each passing minute. Where was she? Where were the meatballs and sandwiches? Would they arrive before the wedding party? Before Lorraine?

Not having any way to contact Helen to ask and therefore calm my agitation, I began to pace nervously in and out of the food prep area. At some point, I slammed my hand onto one of the kitchen tables and whisper-screamed, “Where IS she? She was supposed to be here by now! The wedding party is going to be here any min-”

Suddenly, my shoulders were grasped firmly by two foreign hands. I quickly looked up from my ground-gaze and saw myself facing with Connie. Not a big woman, but tall, she stood nearly eye-to-eye with me. “Bob!” she exclaimed. “Calm down! Take a breath. We are all here doing the best we can to help you. It’s going to be fine.”

I just looked at her. I was embarrassed. I had come unglued. Behind her, Renee met my eyes, then looked away. Taking a deep breath as instructed, I started to steady myself. “You’re right, Connie. I’m sorry for losing my cool. I really appreciate you all so much for helping me. It will be fine.”

Two minutes after my mini-meltdown, Helen came walking through the door, now dressed in more formal attire. “Your food is all out in the van. You are going to have to get it in here. I’m tired, and I’m going to go sit down.”

It had not occurred to me that Helen would want to clean up and change into nicer clothing to attend the wedding reception as a guest. I had been selfishly thinking only of what I needed to get done. “Yes, please, Helen. You’ve done more than enough, more than I could have ever asked. Thank you. And…I’m really sorry for earlier.”

She looked at me balefully for just a moment, then broke out into a beatific smile. “Honey, it’s okay. You know I love you.” She gave me a big hug. “Now, get out there and get that food!”

I quickly grabbed a couple of young men from the dining hall to assist me in bringing in the food. There were four chafing stations, so two BBQ and two sweet-and-sour meatball trays went onto the buffet table while the remaining six went into the food prep area, kept hot by being in insulated containers that Helen had produced from her kitchen. Renee and Connie quickly helped to tray up the sandwiches, which had been cut into triangles for the guests. Not quite as fancy as my original idea, but more elegant than whole squares.

Dinner is Served

Just as we put out the serving utensils for the buffet tables, Amanda and her new husband swept in with the rest of the party in tow. She looked lovely in her white gown. Lorraine walked through the door attired in a green dress. The mother of the bride walked over to me and inspected the cuisine. “Looks good,” she said. “I hope there’s enough.”

I assured her that we had plenty in reserve. The fact was, we suspended making sandwiches at one point, because we didn’t have enough room on the trays to stack any more. There was plenty of bread, margarine and tuna/egg salad left if we ran out.

Once a prayer was offered, the guest streamed in from the dining room. Each grabbed an eight-inch Chinette (fancy paper plate) from the stack and began filling it with the available comestibles. I stood behind the buffet table, trying not to look too proud. I bid Connie and Renee to go and sit with their families. I wasn’t going to be able to sit with mine. My wife and kids were fine- she had her mom, sister, and assorted nephews and nieces to help her.

It wasn’t long before the vegetable trays were picked clean, with only the cauliflower and broccoli remaining. I think that everyone got a little bit. I put out more meatballs as the first ones were emptied. The sandwiches seemed to be a hit as well, with guests coming back for seconds and complimenting me on the taste. However, they didn’t all disappear. There were still two layers left on the trays by the time people turned their attention to the cake.

But What About Your Doggy?

I never made it into the dining hall during the reception. Didn’t dance. Didn’t hear the groom give a thank you speech. In fact, I didn’t even eat. Instead, I found myself looking at all of the leftover food. I had put out more trays of meatballs, but they had barely been touched, and there were still more in the back. There were still plenty of sandwiches left, plus about a gallon-and-a-half each of non-breaded tuna and egg salad.

I began begging people to take food with them. But very few people were in the mood to do so. I didn’t have any to-go containers to facilitate them to bring leftovers home. I was able to send a couple of full trays of meatballs home with Lorraine and her son, and another two with some different locals. But I ended up having to toss away the sandwiches into the dumpster behind the building. It hurt me to do that. I wished that there was a homeless shelter that I could have donated to.

Personally, after it was over, I ended up taking home two containers of meatballs, the tuna and egg salads, and the remaining loaves of bread. Good news: don’t have to cook this week. Bad news: guess what’s for lunch and dinner every day for the rest of this week. But I do love me some tuna salad sandwiches, so it was okay, I guess.

Lessons Learned

This experience was both traumatic and triumphant for me. Without knowing exactly what I was getting into, I took on a titanic feat and prevailed in the end. This gave me the confidence to begin to invite other families over to our house for a home-cooked meal instead of ordering pizza delivery. This, in turn, forced me to improve my culinary skills. I began to really enjoy cooking, and also entertaining. Later, when we had larger spaces, I wouldn’t hesitate to invite as many as 25-30 people over for a gathering. But I’m pretty sure that doing another wedding reception is not in my future.

I also took away from this adventure a much better understanding of how to handle stress, and to trust other people to do what they’ve been asked to do. My employers over the years have generally fallen into two categories: micromanagers who drove me crazy by telling me every single step of my job and being critical when I didn’t do it their way; and those who told me what they wanted, gave me the tools I asked for, then got the hell out of my way and let me work. I want to be that kind of manager of people. And I want to never find myself getting so anxious over things beyond my control that I start to treat friends and helpers with unkindness.

And lastly, I have learned to trust my instincts and stick to my guns. After the bride and groom had gone off on their honeymoon, after I had cleaned up all of the trays and put everything in my car to take home, and when it was time to turn off the lights and lock the door, I ran into Lorraine, who was still there. “Quite the reception, from what I hear,” I told her.

“Yes, it turned out really nicely. But I’m glad this week is over,” she sighed.

“You and me both,” I quipped. “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, yes. Thank you so much for taking care of the food,” she responded. “Amanda and I really appreciate it. And all of the guests told me how good it was.”

“Thank you for saying that,” I said. “But I couldn’t have done it without help.” I went on to explain briefly how the five ladies had been indispensable in the effort. “By the way,” I continued. “How many people were there?”

“Oh, we did a count during the reception. We had one-hundred-and-fifty-three people. Big crowd.”

Epilogue

Sometime on a  winter evening in 2001, I was sitting by the living room window in our new home in Michigan, where we moved two years prior. It was snowing, and I was watching as it piled up softly on the bushes outside. The phone rang, and I answered it.

“Is this Bobby?” a young woman’s voice inquired.

“Yes, it is,” I replied. “Who is this?”

“This is Amanda. Used to be Amanda Essep. From Indiana?”

“Of course! How are you? Still in Baltimore?”

The conversation continued for a moment as we caught up on family and geographic particulars.

“Anyway,” she went on, “the reason I was calling is because some of my husbands relatives keep asking me about your tuna salad. They loved it at the reception and want to know your recipe.”