The Party That Almost Wasn’t
Finally, it’s over. Not just the tailgate party itself, but the whole start to finish preparation, execution and clean-up. The kitchen has begun to resemble a kitchen again instead of a war zone. I can actually see inside of the refrigerator. There is space in my freezer. And most importantly, when I came home last night there was absolutely nothing that I needed to do. The nap I chose to take in lieu of making catering plans, felt really nice. The announcement that we had won the “Best Food” award came in mid afternoon. Many high fives were exchanged, hugs were given, toasts were made. The party had, for months, started to resemble a cat slowing working it’s way through it’s nine lives.
Three weeks before last Sunday, we got our final reprieve. I was truly amazed and humbled by the way everyone stepped up to help pull this together. I have always considered this to be “my” tailgate party. My concept, my menu and my expense. My gift to those I know and love. Not this year. “Something else to blame on the economy” I told people. “It’s just not feasible this year, feeding 50 people” I remarked to others. But no matter how hard I tried to call the whole thing off, my friends, friends of friends and in some cases people I hardly knew but who knew me through others or by reputation wouldn’t let it die. I agonized over it for months, knowing that the economic stars simply weren’t going to align in time to reduce the pain the whole event was going to cause. “Just grill some hamburgers” my mother told me. Years ago I started announcing the following year’s theme after the final race, and I had laid out grandiose plans for this year. Crawfish, Alligator, New Orleans inspired cocktails – we were going to throw a Mardi Gras party in May. Scaling down the event was, to me, more embarrassing than calling it off. “Oh, you can’t cancel it! Let us help, what do you need”. The offers of help started to come in, and slowly I came to realize that in this year, with the world spinning seemingly out of control, everyone else needed the release this party brings just as much as I did. It was our chance to get away from it all for an afternoon. I swallowed my pride, and put out an all points call for assistance. Three weeks out, enough pieces were in place to give it the final green light. The party was on.
The final weeks were a mad scramble, much more so than normal. I was still distressed over the way things had to come together at the last minute, and it showed somewhat in my preparations. I was definitely more scatter brained than normal, and I think at times I was probably frustrating the hell out of Charlotte, my co-chef and co-host, who I know grew tired of me not having answers to her questions. “How much liquor do we need for the Hurricanes” she would ask. “Dunno yet” I would reply. “I’m working on it.” Days later I still wouldn’t have it figured out. Incredibly, the Bayou Margarita recipe was never even tried until one o’clock in the morning the day of the event! When it didn’t turn out on the first attempt to my satisfaction Charlotte got immense glee out of seeing me in what she called “Cocktail Trauma”. I had people coming in from three states just for this weekend, I pushed on to keep from disappointing them but for weeks my heart just wasn’t in it. I just wanted to be done with it.
The alarm went off at 6am. I should have been up an hour ago, but sleeping for only 2 hours was not going to help today, so I took an extra hour to wake up. Remarkably, we weren’t in bad shape in terms of what was left to be done. I had been in worse shape in previous years. 2006 comes to mind, my first time back after a year off and one I really did pull off almost entirely on my own. I hadn’t slept at all then. There was the usual scramble to finish everything, and in the end the muffaletta sandwiches got pushed to onsite prep because we just flat ran out of time. Set-up was a nightmare. I had packed everything on my own so no one knew where anything was except me. My brain had short circuited so we lost 15 minutes looking for the Gazpacho glasses and ultimately had to make an emergency phone call to retrieve the sterno which had somehow come unpacked from the truck since last night.
Luckily we were further down the course than usual and we almost had everything together when the judges walked up. As we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries the crawfish were going in the pot. While they simmered away we walked the chef through the menu. I still think the Gazpacho shooters were a brilliant idea, even though I don’t remember which one of us came up with it. I think Charlotte offered up the gazpacho while I said we should put it in a shot glass. In terms of presentation it just made you want to smile. My mood had started to change. I was getting my groove back, and started to think “We might win this thing after all.”
It’s hard to argue with a pot of crawfish cooking right in front of you. For the Hurricane’s I took my modified recipe from the Black Marlin Grill in Hilton Head, South Carolina, pulled out the 4 year old Haitian Rum, and replaced it with bourbon. The flavor profiles and the oak aging worked almost seemlessly when interchanged. Good thing I made up a third batch. I spent too much time that morning trying to get the Bayou Margarita’s to my liking before finally giving up. At the end of the day, there wasn’t a drop of them left, so maybe I was being too critical. Still, I didn’t serve them to the judges. After sampling the Bourbon Street Hurricanes, the Bayou Bloody Mary’s and Kevin’s homebrewed New Orleans Red Voodoo Ale, they really didn’t need another drink anyway. They still had to walk around the course and try food at a hundred other tailgate spots.
The chicken wings, dubbed Gator Wings on the menu, turned out better than I expected. Normally I like wet marinades on chicken to keep it from drying out, but today I was working with a homemade dry cajun rub. To keep the wings moist, I was hitting them with a vinegar mop containing equal parts white and apple cider vinegar, along with white onions, Kosher salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes. Out of 10 pounds of chicken wings, there was one wing left when we broke down the buffet. The barbecue shrimp were good, but could have been served without the French bread. Three pounds of shrimp disappeared in no time but nearly all of the bread remained. In my haste I forget to whisk the cream into the barbecue sauce. The Remoulade Slaw, Fruit Salad, and Macque Choux were hit pretty hard, so evidently they were popular. The five pounds of alligator meatballs which I had topped with a homemade Southern Comfort barbecue sauce were very good, and the alligator didn’t intimidate people as much as I thought it would.
“Have you tried the gumbo?” Midway through the afternoon I started to hear this repeated over and over as more people arrive or just wandered through our little outdoor kitchen stadium, which is what the whole tailgate spot had started to resemble. One of the best things I have ever eaten. Period. No debate needed. For weeks I had been bragging to everyone about Charlotte’s gumbo, an old Houston recipe handed down through her family. Absolutely outstanding. She had suffered a rather serious burn on her hand while preparing a test batch one night – the roux can get plenty hot. But she soldiered on like the trouper she is. In the end, the two double batches of gumbo completely disappeared, I don’t think there was so much as a spoonful left. It was at that moment on that afternoon, the perfect meal.
For years I’ve told people I don’t bake and my mother can’t cook. It’s really not an insult to either of us. Desserts are not my forte, unless I can cook them on the grill. My mother, however, is the dessert queen. For those of you who have attended our tailgate parties in year’s past, perhaps you remember the Bourbon Chocolate Tarts, the White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Banana Pudding, the Peachy Bourbon Bread Pudding, the Tiki God’s Delight (a double chocolate rum cake topped with Strawberry Chocolate Genache), the Margarita Tarts – the list goes on and on. This year Grammy, as Zach calls her, knocked the ball out of the park with a perfectly prepared bread pudding made not with french bread, but banana bread. We had decided early on we would call it Banana’s Foster Bread Pudding in honor of the New Orleans classic dessert. To top it off Grammy made not one, but two sauces. One was a Bourbon sauce, basically the classic recipe from Keeneland Racecourse all of us around here are so familiar with, and the other a rum sauce. She also contributed some Bourbon Street Pecans, a recipe for Swedish Nuts she normally makes at Christmas but with bourbon added for the party. These were suppose to be bar snacks, but midway through the day I noticed that people were topping their bread pudding with them, then pouring half bourbon and half rum sauce on top. I tried it that way, it was damn good.
This year, even more so than in the past, I can’t take credit for anything other than being part of a larger whole. This was “our” party, and “we” are the ones who won. This year, “we” became an even larger group than usual. Thanks far and wide go to:
Charlotte – co-chef and co-conspirator for a second year. Were it not for your encouragement I’d have called the whole thing off. And it was your gumbo that put us over the top with the judges. Chef Tate said so.
Mom – for the Banana’s Foster Bread Pudding, you hit a major league home run with this as you do with your desserts every year.
Carlie and George – for the liquor, the food, the decorations and all the help. Had you all not stepped in with offers of assistance this would have been hard if not impossible to pull together.
Jayne – for the liquor donation and help with the decorations.
Kate – for being a good sport when Carlie invited you for dinner and you instead found yourself prepping food in our kitchen. I hope our little spring soiree is enough to lure you back from Australia next year.
Walter and Marsha – for the liquor donation.
Lori – for the pictures and all the help.
Kevin – to the Head Brewmaster go thanks for the New Orleans Red Voodoo Ale.
Stephanie – for the donation of the preferred tailgate spot which kept us in the competition for another year.
Chef Ryan Boudreaux of cajunchefryan.com – for sharing ideas early on and for suggesting the inclusion of the muffaletta sandwiches on the menu.
Charlie and Elaine – for use of your tent and all the help you both give each year in setting up and tearing down. You all were “present at the creation” back in 2000 and haven’t missed a year. It’s always great to see you.
Sarah and Jim, Heather and Mike – thank you all for traveling all that way and for providing the kids food, I am truly honored and happy to have had you all there.
Pam – for the help in setting up, tearing down and for supplementing the buffet.
Jann – who will henceforth be known as the “Master of the Muffaletta”
Terry – for being a sport and running after the sterno which had somehow been left behind.
And finally, to my son Zach – for being there.
So another year goes in the record books. Five awards in six years – four of those for “Best Food”. This crew, some of which have been around since our very first year when we cooked on a tabletop camping stove but had no table to put it on, never ceases to amaze me. You would think they would grow tired of being invited to a party and then told to go to work. Suffice to say I couldn’t do it without their help. And after nine years, it really has ceased to be “my” party anyway. It belongs to all of us, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have a six month break coming where I don’t have to think about High Hope. There are other things to occupy my attention and my kitchen. Summer cookouts and dinner parties, and a possible tailgate party at the Cincinnati Jimmy Buffett concert in early August. So after Christmas, when it’s time to turn our attention to next year’s “Cuban Crime of Passion” menu and my over the top plans to recreate the Havana Club in the tailgate tent, we’ll just have to see how it goes. Keep your eye on the blog and the Tailgating Steeplechase Style page for updates as plans progress. Most importantly, mark your calendars for the day after the Preakness next year. You know where you’ll find us.