A Thanksgiving meal at school holds lessons in menu management.
It's my third year as Room Parent at my daughter's mostly Asian public school. This time, I've got a slam-dunk strategy for success in my primary obligation: the organization and execution of the Class Thanksgiving Feast.
I am from a family that discusses food with the intensity and deference some families reserve for sports. Sign-up sheets for Thanksgiving circulate in September. Recipes from Bon Appétit are debated. My aunt once served soufflé of sweet potato and orange in individual orange-peel bowls.
Given this background, I am certainly well qualified for this assignment.
The first year I organized the feast, I e-mailed parents asking them to bring food. Several parents did not list e-mail addresses and half of my e-mails bounced back. I got very few responses, but my daughter assured me the kids were excited about the items their parents were bringing.
My own pride and glory at Thanksgiving is my stuffing: a base of challah and sourdough bread married with sweet and spicy Italian sausage, onions, celery, green apples, and fresh herbs, and amped up with cranberries and water chestnuts. I looked forward to the feast as another chance to bask in rave reviews.
The day of the feast, I strutted into the classroom with a Pyrex dish of stuffing hot from my oven. I looked around for a choice spot – perhaps between the turkey and the cranberry sauce? – and had to rearrange trays and trays of chow mein, pork dumplings, and the odd plastic container of red jello. No turkey, no pumpkin pie, no mashed potatoes, no gravy.
My stuffing, browned to a perfect crisp on top, remained undisturbed by forks as kids and parents scraped the bottom of the chow mein trays.
So the second year, I decided to communicate the meaning of the event more stridently and exert more menu control. I composed a form headed "TRADITIONAL THANKSGIVING FEAST" and handed it to the children.
The form read simply: "__________ will attend the feast and bring __________."
On the form I listed categories: main dish, side dish, dessert, drinks. NO SODA, PLEASE, I noted.
Here is a sample of the responses: "Xi Lo Zhang, mother of Wilson" cannot attend but will bring "Wilson."
"Xiuwei Huang" will attend and will bring "Hai-Nu Wong." (Neither of these people was on the classroom parent list.)
"SODA" will come.
"Chow mein" will bring "grandpa."
My new strategy resulted in trays and trays of chow mein, Grandpa, and venerable Chinese women and men who seemed to have no relation to any of the children. Many carried large, empty zip-lock bags.
I carved out a big square of my stuffing and devoured it with gusto as I hobnobbed with parents. The teacher put a small helping on her plate, but I think she did it out of pity. No one else touched it.
The third year, I bought two large neon-colored poster boards and designed sign-up posters with blank spaces under each category. From my foodie magazines I cut out pictures. Next to "main course," I taped a plate of sliced turkey. For side dishes, green beans and mashed potatoes. For dessert, a pumpkin pie. I taped the posters to the classroom door and congratulated myself.
I checked the posters the day before the feast. Listed under "main course": chow mein, egg roll, pot sticker, and "grandma chicken." Side dishes: chow mein, jello, chicken wing, and chow mein. Drinks: Coke, 7 Up. Desserts: jello, cupcakes, chow mein.
"What are we bringing?" my daughter asked.
"Stuffing," I replied. "I am famous for my stuffing."
"!" she shrieked. "Not that again! Why do you always have to embarrass me?! No one ever eats it!"
She had a point. Perhaps a successful class feast is one where the kids and parents eat the food. I decided to consult someone with inside knowledge.
"What do you think I should bring?" I asked my daughter
"Bean sprouts with soy sauce and rice."
I'd never heard of this dish but her directions were specific: "Cook white rice. Put it in a bowl. Put bean sprouts on top. Pour soy sauce over it." It fit right in amid the chow mein and chicken wings. No one talked about it, or asked for the recipe, but some kids spooned it onto their plates and Grandpa took a second helping. I finally did it right.
This year, I'm bringing egg rolls.