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I know I had good food at a wedding once, but I cannot tell you what that food was. I remember it only because I was standing next to the groom's disapproving best man, the prototype for Michael Douglas in Wall Street, when the hors d'oeuvres passed by, and, to make conversation, I said everything was surprisingly fabulous. He sucked back whatever succulent tidbit he had chosen, threw the skewer onto the tray, and spat: "It ought to be. It cost a fucking fortune."
Unfortunately, even a Halliburton-level budget is no guarantee the food at a wedding will be anything better than forgettable. What is served after the vows and before the bouquet toss almost always makes the chicken-or-pasta choice at 30,000 feet look like haute cuisine. Brides who will obsess for months on the color of the candles inevitably go all Stouffer's when it comes to what will be laid out on their rented china.
Given that more planning goes into the average small wedding than went into the invasion of Baghdad, the mystery remains: Why is such an essential element of hospitality kissed off so uniformly? Caterers, after all, have their hands out as hungrily as florists and musicians and videographers when the average $28,000 is being divvied up for that special day.
One obvious reason is that quantity rarely begets quality. The most gifted chef on the planet cannot turn out entrees in the hundreds without making like McDonald's and its billions served. Assembly lines are great for cars, a little upsetting for special meals. Corners must be cut—the fettucine may have to be parboiled and reheated, rendering it sodden. The steaks may get grill marks first, actual cooking second (and perfect beef waits for no buffet line). In my short-lived career as a caterer, I did one wedding: The happy couple was smart enough to limit the guest list to 20 and request relatively hardy, serve-yourself entrees such as jambalaya. Too many of the weddings I have suffered as a guest push the caterer to be a Julia of all cuisines (and master of none), ordering them to dish up "foods of the world" for appetizers—dim sum, antipasti, sushi, miniburgers—and then still offer a full sit-down, lukewarm dinner. Everyone would be far happier grazing from hot and cold stations with a few entrees done exquisitely.
A worse problem is that wedding planners encourage the betrothed to try to please everyone but themselves, pandering to the distant aunt who won't touch salmon and the long-lost college roommate who is lactose-intolerant. Too many choices spoil the dinner while pushing up the tab. In this crazy era no one even dares risk serving one spectacular vegetarian entree for all, simply for fear of offending the stricter vegans in the crowd.
Then there is the awful truth that couples are victims of location, location. Often the trendiest venue is saddled with the lamest caterer, the kind that still engages in "continental cuisine" (and as Calvin Trillin famously said, that continent is Antarctica), with musty specialties such as chicken cordon bleu. A bride who wants the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop for vows photos on a boat ride around Manhattan may have to settle for pasta salad as the most cutting-edge option on the buffet. The venue that controls the catering takes home twice as much profit.
But my cynical side sees more insidious reasons for food that is inevitably for worse rather than for better. Wedding couples are different from the average party planners, thinking primarily of themselves, and choosing menus for meals they will not eat. They're far too distracted as stars of the show, and know no one will say anything except how wonderful everything is. Why should they care that the sole amandine goes untouched?
Poke around a few Internet message boards where future brides are wondering how much they can economize on the food, and the feedback is painfully blunt. No one remembers the food, they say, so skimp with abandon; the only thing worse than forgettable is memorable for the wrong reasons—think food poisoning. As long as no one gets sick, they imply, you can be as cheap as you want—and, of course, that leaves plenty of money for ridiculous favors the guests neither want nor need.
Simple is not an adjective any bridal party wants to consider, but it can be the salvation of the reception. I have cooked for up to 100 at parties by sticking to dishes that will hold up as well as the bride is expected to. One big niçoise salad, for instance, would be a better bet than dozens of individual grilled tuna steaks with vegetables. Anyone facing down a catering hall menu would be wise to choose the least embellished options; the more ingredients, the higher the risk of glop. Passed hors d'oeuvres are more manageable for a caterer than appetizer stations. And no matter how dramatic a marzipan-encrusted, rose-bedecked tiered wedding cake looks, what people will remember is the dark-chocolate sheet cake they can actually sink a fork into.
Of course, all that advice flies in the face of reality: Weddings are the rare party not given for the guests. Even birthdays take participants into account more, possibly because pomp and ceremony are not allowed to spiral out of control. Instead weddings are a celebration of the hosts' fantasies, dreams, and ultimately, their competitive streaks—what couple does not want the extravaganza to end all extravaganzas? Girls who spend their whole lives dreaming of being brides see everything around them as an accessory. Flowers enhance their beauty. Food, not so much.
And that brings me to what could very well be the biggest problem with wedding feasts: Brides spend months leading up to the event dieting to fit into the perfect dress. Let's face it: On the big day, they're just not into food.
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