I spent quite a chunk of last weekend working as hard as I have in years to provide the catering for a 1950s Christmas themed ghost-splattered-murder-mystery-social-catharsis larp-event. It was – simply – a stunning effort by Crooked House. Many words have been written about its writing, plotting, props and stories from it will live a long while.
They asked me to sort the catering. At the time I’d just recently been interested in playing at a 1920s themed event; myself and Prudence Greenwood had talked about playing cooks. and got quite keen. Keen that sadly dropped a bit when the organisers said they were getting professional caterers in to do the fun bit. The actual work. That and the fact that Crooked House only do an event every decade or so, and I’d really loved crewing the last one, made it a pretty easy call. Obviously, I’d sort the catering, and obviously Pru was first recruit. Later on, I got Rupert Redington drunk and he agreed to be our third. Pru has done mass catering before, Rupe has worked in several pub kitchens and used to run a small outside catering company and I ran a restaurant for a couple of years a while back. Rupe and I had done larp catering before a few times, but never actually entirely indoors, so this was new.
First off was menu planning. The bulk of the choices were made for us by the theme. It’s Christmas, so Christmas dinner speaks for itself and most of Boxing Day is pretty clear. We were passed a video of the kitchen after an early scouting visit so we knew we had:
- a decent sized kitchen, with a lot of table-space for prep and to feed the staff
- an Aga
- a big oven with 6 burners on top
- at least two large fridges
- an unspecified, but seemingly huge, amount of crockery
- platters for service
Friday: 8pm canapés/buffet: Pru did the research for Friday, and give or take a late addition on the day it was as right for the period as we could do.
- Mock caviar
- Devilled eggs
- Russian salad vol au vents
- Cream cheese and herbs on celery
- Rollmops on rye
- Smoked salmon on rye
- Curried prawn toast
- Meatballs in tomato sauce
- Coronation chicken vol au vents
- Chicken livers on toast
- Gherkins stuffed with duck pate.
I had concerns beforehand about how we’d actually feed people with canapes in the time we had for prep, but it seemed to go OK. 200 or so in total, and I might have missed a plate or two in that list. The staff took out platters three at a time: one veggie, one fish, one meat. The mock caviar was a bit of a worry for a while. On first try, the reaction was “tastes of wet, with a bitter aftertaste”. We took a lemon-juice, olive oil, salt and pepper shaped hammer to it and it got a little better, but over the weekend something happened and by Sunday’s afterparty it was pretty good. Alchemy works.
9pm carol singing:
- Mulled wine
- Mince pies
I’d made the mincemeat before the weekend, so this was mainly an assembly job by Rupe. We did four dozen, which seemed enough in the kitchen. It wasn’t…. Could have done with a couple of dozen more, but many of the carol singers were crew in different costumes, so most people on site did get one.
Saturday: 9am breakfast:
- Smoked salmon
- Scrambled eggs
I didn’t want to serve a big “English” breakfast twice, and bottled out of Eggs Benedict for 22. A lot of Kedgeree came back, but we did make a huge tureen of it and it looked magnificent. We only had two two-slice toasters, so the toasting went on and on and on…
12pm second breakfast:
- Buck’s Fizz
- Cheese straws
- Anchovy puffs
This was just before the present-opening, I think. Christmas dinner needed to finish in the dark for reasons so we needed something to fill a little gap. Pre-made puff pastry, with cheese or fish rolled through it. Easy.
3pm Christmas dinner:
- Turkey: a 15lb bird, and an 8lb breast.
- Nut roast
- Veggie gravy
- Potatoes, roast
- Parsnips, roast
- Carrots and swede, mashed
- Brussels sprouts, boiled.
- Lemon stuffing
- Chestnut stuffing
- Cranberry sauce
- Bread sauce
Some of this we’d prepped before the day. I made a gravy and froze it down weeks ago, and Rupe did the nut roast and bread sauce the night before while Pru did the vegetable prep. There was a lot of that over the weekend – we made it through an entire sack of potatoes by the Sunday afternoon. We were on rails by this point as a kitchen crew. I distinctly remember standing outside the kitchen enquiring of the butler “Which part of ‘When the Queen has finished’ wasn’t clear” and expressing my disappointment that the family wasn’t seated, because we were ready to go dead on time. Service was Rupe’s idea. First up was the presentation of the turkey, followed by a procession of sauce boats. Eight in all, using all the house staff, which looked really good. The bird was offered to Godfrey, the head of the house, to carve. He smartly passed the responsibility on to another; Maurice, played by Lex who had never carved before. Still, he worked out you need to be standing up. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Rupe was carving a turkey breast we’d also roasted and was plating like a fiend. By the time I brought back the slices Maurice had produced, we could send plated meat out for everyone, while the nut roast was being served at the table. That done, all we had to do was to rush out the veg. I think we had the entire thing done inside 15 minutes. Once the family was served, the staff sat down to their own Christmas dinner, which was a lovely sight. Only slightly ruined by the call of “Time for crackers”, which had most of them out to the table again. No rest.
9pm buffet supper:
- Christmas pudding
- Welsh rarebit
- Devils on horseback
- Scotch woodcock
- Cheeseboard: maybe two pounds each of cheddar, Wensleydale, Shropshire Blue, a Norfolk Camembert and Mrs temple’s famous Binham Blue
The cheeseboard wasn’t entirely accurate, but there was nothing looking modern or fancy, or with fruit in it, and we generously forgave ourselves. It came out twice more during the weekend, and there was still half of it left to go home with cheese fans at the end. All worth it for when they first saw it though, it looked princely. I think “Double the cheese budget” was my favourite call of the menu planning. The serving of the pudding was amazing. We had two which I’d made some weeks before; one of five pounds, one of eight. I had planned to serve them one on top of the other, but the bigger of the two simply didn’t have the structural integrity. Which was fine, because we could use the smaller for serving afire. I had a third of a pint of brandy in a hot long-handled jug, and Rupe had the pudding. I sparked the spirit, and poured it from maybe two feet above the pudding which I’d never done that before and my how high those flames can get. It was a bit of a shock how far burning spirit can get too. Rupe’s hands were on fire. and I was a little busy surreptitiously putting the carpet out with my foot. It must have looked amazing.
Sunday 10am breakfast:
- Devilled kidneys
- Veggie sausages
- Bubble and squeak
Sunday breakfast was a lie in for the staff; we didn’t need to be up until 8.30. Irritatingly, I’d forgotten the black pudding. I had remembered my chafing dish for the devilled kidneys and then we arrived I found the house had its own chafing dish. Obviously. Tomatoes were canned, but drained and roasted to dry them out a little. Some of them came back, but the juice was the unexpected bonus, the base for an excellent Bloody Mary. (3:1 juice to vodka, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, lemon juice, black pepper, celery salt, shaken over ice, dash of Amontillado and a celery stalk to finish.) Porridge was a serious favourite.
2pm afternoon tea:
- A Christmas cake
- A ham
- A pork pie
- Coronation chicken
- Coronation eggs
- Terrine of vegetables
- Sausage rolls
- Vegetarian sausage rolls
- Pickled onions
- Pickled walnuts
- The cheese board (redux)
I’d made the cake, and the pickled onions and walnuts and piccalilli at home, then forgot to send the piccalilli out. However, the rest looked amazing in its array of tureens and platters. Simply amazing. Except for the terrine of vegetables, which I started cooking way too late, and eventually appeared at the after party about 60% right. I suspect we could have doubled the sausage roll cooking and still seen them all go. They were cooked fresh on the day, from our huge but rapidly dropping stash of Jusrol.
Organisation and etc.
Crew food The idea was that I’d be bound to over-cater for the players by a factor of two, and so I’d hardly need to buy for staff. This proved bang-on. I had made 20 pints or so of beef stew which sorted us out on Friday just before time-in when time was pressing, and then the rest fed most of the after-party. That and 12 lbs of bacon offcuts meant we were always going to be OK.
Dried goods – about £100, including most of the veggie specials, and the puddings and cake.
Cheese – about £100, people said they liked cheese and it was good cheese
Supermarket – about £400 or thereabouts
Fruit and veg – £100
Meat – only about £200 in the end, as I know someone who rears turkeys and beef to the sort of standard I was happy providing, and he knows someone who does pigs. The crew’s bacon offcuts were from another local company and much much cheaper than the back bacon we served the guests.
The rest of the budget of £1000 went on miscellany and fuel. We bought a job lot of plastic cocktail sticks in the shape of swords which looked suitably right for the period.
Some good use of left-overs helped take the budget further. We packed stew-meals and later Christmas-dinners into microwave tubs whenever we could and they did hot meals for any crew member who needed one any time. as far as we could, we turned leftovers into dishes rather than leave them as left overs, so there was a lot of soup, and club sandwich mix out of breakfast leftover bacon, chopped turkey and our stock of mayo.
At anytime between 8 and 1am, if someone wanted something, we made something. Rupe in particular – freshly made potato crisps, hand fried at 1am both mornings. Legend. I wanted it to be like this because I’ve been at catered events where I was waiting for the next scheduled meal. Turns out you can do better, although it’s a lot of work. Really, it was a blast.
Crooked House have a Facebook group, and if you hear they’re doing another event, just go.
(Photos: Rachel Thomas)
eta: A pile of stories typed without pause, in 2022.
Ah, the heart-stopping moment when we realised the oven couldn’t handle being filled with as many trays of roast potatoes we needed and *none* of them were roasting…
The joy of screaming “When I said 3pm for christmas dinner, I meant 3pm!” to the butler behind the green baize door, and hearing Jason Danger Marchant explaining in measured tones to the guests that dinner was to be served. (They were too busy roleplaying to be ready themselves.)
The actual complaints after when the coffee-dependant realised that while *most* of them had god-awful 1950s standard instant, *one* of them, the one with blackmail material on the chef, got the good stuff we were keeping for ourselves. I am an impish little monster.
The calm and concerned “Are you OK” from Bill Thomas when I’d raged at him in the best Essex accent I could muster after he interrupted me doing something inconsequential in the kitchen, where I’d be firmly comic-French in accent all weekend long. (To be answered with “Oh, yes. Roleplaying”)
Arrival at a kitchen we’d never cooked in before to find they had a copper chafing dish, so we didn’t need to use the one we’d brought with us. Of course they had a copper chafing dish – don’t you?
Blood oozing from the kidneys into the devilled sauce.
And hanging out with Rupert Redington and Prudence Greenwood playing “Let’s pretend we’re professionals”
…and that’s without even pausing to think of other stories….
Thanks for having us. It was a blast.