Catering your wedding

Over the years, I've gone to lots of weddings. This means that, over the years, I've also eaten a lot of very dry chicken.

Before my wedding, I used to get angry at marrying couples. After all, I was going through the trouble of buying a gift, getting a suit dry-cleaned, giving up a Saturday or a Sunday, hanging out in a church, and spending a couple of hours at a reception. With all that I was doing for them, couldn't they feed me a little better. How much would a good burger have cost? What about a spicy Indian dish or a plate of lasagna? Would it have killed them to spice up the vegetables a little bit? This isn't rocket science people; in the name of all that is holy, buy a bottle of Tabasco and a bulb of garlic!

When it came time for my wedding, I vowed that my guests would eat well. There would be no banquet chicken, no overcooked veggies. The salad would be fresh and free of iceberg lettuce, the bread would have a chewy crust, and the potatoes wouldn't come out of a box. My wedding was going to be a gastronomic wonderland, and my guests would still be talking of the meal years later. It would be writ large in legend, wherever tales of weddings were told.

Then I talked to the caterers.

It turned out that the per-guest cost for a catered wedding started out at about $25. That was for the dreaded bland chicken and boiled veggies, and it went up from there.

Way, way up.

I did some quick math. At $25 a head, 150 guests would run me about $2750. If I wanted to serve something palatable, I was looking at at least two or three times as much. Unable to afford the dreaded banquet chicken and unwilling to resort to Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches, my wife and I started to look into elopement. Then we considered making the food ourselves.

Our first step was deciding on a menu. The largest gathering that I'd ever cooked for was about forty people, so this was a major jump. We decided to keep things simple: we decided on a cheese course with bleu, brie, cheddar, and baguettes. The second course was a mixed green salad with orange slices, macadamias, dried cranberries, sliced pears, and a vinaigrette dressing. For the main course, we had barbecue chicken, garlic string beans, and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Dessert was pound cake with mixed berries, whipped cream, and a balsamic-port reduction. Since these were all foods that we had made dozens of times before, we didn't have to worry about the recipes failing. More important, we knew that they were big crowd pleasers.

Our next move was to figure out a per-guest cost. Basically, we came up with a realistic estimate of how much each guest would eat, and determined how much it would cost to produce that food. At supermarket prices, the per-guest cost came to about $6. However, by joining a discount food club, we massively reduced that price. We also met with bakers and worked out discounts on baguettes and pound cake. Finally, we contacted my friend Rich, a professional chef. He cut us a great deal on the mixed greens, the garlic, and the chicken. Ultimately, our per-guest cost came to around $3.

In the weeks before the wedding, I made about two gallons of barbecue sauce and about a half gallon of balsamic/port reduction. The day before the wedding, we oven-roasted the chicken, then gave it a grilling with the sauce. We also cleaned and snapped the green beans and set them aside.

The day of the wedding, our kitchen helpers combined the salad, sliced up the baguettes and pound cake, cooked the potatoes and green beans, heated up the chicken, whipped the cream, and combined the balsamic reduction with the berries. A few other friends helped us carry everything out to the tables. With relatively little fuss, we served our 150 guests, several of whom complimented the food (at least, to my face).

Obviously, this isn't the best route to take if you don't like to cook. However, my wife and I are both foodies, and we really wanted to provide a good, comfortable meal to our family and friends. Not being independently wealthy, there was no way we could afford to pay someone to do it for us. As we worked on this, we also discovered that there was something special about taking a personal part in the food preparation. The important thing to realize is that, with a fair bit of planning and organizing, catering your own wedding can be a lot of fun, and a meaningful way to personalize your special day.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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