A Cater-it-Yourself Wedding

We didn’t want ours to be a typical wedding. But was cooking all the food for it just plain crazy?

Our friends were expecting a simple backyard cocktail party. But we had other plans. Once everyone arrived, we would gather on the deck behind our house, a canopy of trees above our heads, a sparkling stream at our feet, a glass of Champagne in everyone’s hand. Then we’d crank up a creaky recording of the Dixie Cups’ Going To The Chapel, the only clue that we were going for the ultimate happy ending—a wedding.

After living through our share of heartache—early widowhood for me, a bruising divorce for him—finding someone new had been a lovely surprise for Bob and me, so it seemed fitting to hold a surprise wedding, too. While some people may aspire to big, ostentatious celebrations, we wanted to pull off something simple—the no-big-deal, no-ceremony ceremony. I’d find a fun, festive dress off the rack. We’d buy flowers from Home Depot, and the iPod could provide our playlist, everything from Ella to the Subdudes. The ring bearer would be Wink, Bob’s one-eyed dog, one of the great failures in the history of obedience training. But what would we do if a thunderstorm turned the yard into a swamp? We’d have to roll with it, we decided.

Only one element was non-negotiable: We would make the food ourselves, and we wanted it to be fabulous. Not so easy when cooking for 65 people. There were two main goals: to make as much as possible in advance and to provide food that guests could eat without performing like circus jugglers. We decided on little sipping cups of gazpacho topped with parsley cream; paper cartons of cold spicy sesame noodles; and a cold ratatouille. For the two main courses—beef and fish—we would first marinate cremini mushrooms and 20 pounds of beef tenderloin cubes in molasses, dark rum, and lemon, thread them onto skewers, and grill them, to be reheated in the oven on the wedding day. Later, we would poach a 12-pound wild salmon in courtbouillon to serve cold. Guests could dip either dish into one of three sauces: Thai peanut chili, tangy romesco, or an avocado-tomatillo sauce.

The whole scheme began to sound more screwball the closer we got to the big event. Two days before the nuptials, I found myself up to my elbows in a bowl of those slippery sesame noodles. “Wouldn’t any self-respecting bride be getting a manicure right now?” I asked the groom. He seemed ready to go off the deep end himself, test-driving a recipe for avocado tomatillo salsa we’d begged from a chef on a blissful vacation in Tulum, by now a distant memory. I had visions of Bob, wild-eyed and splattered in red sauce as the gazpacho flew out of the blender. (The groom is a great cook, but he can get frantic in a pinch.)

By the morning of the wedding, the long-feared thunderstorms were in the forecast. There was no predicting what else might happen, but it was bound to be full of emotion and no doubt some pratfalls—part Frank Capra, part Judd Apatow. We calmed down by reminding ourselves: The wedding should be no big deal. The big deal is being married.

Once the party started, the plot took an unexpected twist—it got better. The crowd gasped with delight when I appeared in a sparkly little white dress. Wink performed like a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company. My girlfriends cried on cue. And best of all, the guests proclaimed the food to be “insanely delicious.” All ten pounds of noodles disappeared before my sister delivered the first toast. More people asked where we got the recipe for the beef marinade than where I found my dress. And after tasting Bob’s gazpacho, my mom was moved to say, “Becky, you’ve found the perfect man.”

But what if the dog had barked throughout the ceremony and the beef had tasted like Jerky Sticks? How would we have coped had the heavens opened up? (As it happened, many of the guests drove home through a downpour, but not a drop fell on us.) I now know that our casual backyard cocktail party would have been the same rousing success.

The most surprising lesson of our surprise wedding? Sometimes things turn out exactly right—even for the two cooks under pressure.

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