The rubber chicken circuit

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Who among us doesn’t have a calendar, especially at certain times of the year, chock-full of “events” like fundraisers and award dinners? And who among us hasn’t looked forward to the food part of the dinner with equal parts curiosity and apprehension, only to face the same piece of rubber chicken we thought we’d defeated in battle the previous week?

“Rubber chicken” has two meanings. One is from slapstick comedy. Johnny Carson kept one behind his desk on the “Tonight Show” as an emergency measure, because as he said, “A rubber chicken always gets a laugh.” My nephew thought so, too, when he brought one for his school picture, pulling it out at the last minute. The photographer perfectly captured his ambivalent expression, straddling the fence between “This is so cool!” and “Oh man, what’s mom going to say?” We’re still laughing about it 15 years later.

The other meaning was coined by some unknown wag many years ago, ruing the “rubber chicken circuit” that was a necessary evil of banquet obligations. It is a notorious truism that holding food for large crowds tends to dry it out, which is why chefs compensate by amending the food with added moisture such as gravy. But all the sauce in the world isn’t going to soften shoe leather.

Another trick is to pretty up the plate with presentation, arranging the components of the dish in artistic supplication to the banquet gods. Usually this involves nothing more than a few asparagus spears, laying across the chicken in helpless sacrifice. The gods are generally not pleased.

What ends up happening for me is that I mechanically eat the banquet food, trying to fill up on hot rolls and butter and hoping for a half-decent dessert. Still, afterwards I invariably feel as if I haven’t properly eaten, which is a lame excuse I make to myself to justify ordering French fries on the way home.

So what’s a banquet chef to do? Having worked in two hotels, and once being offered the position of banquet manager — until said offer was cruelly withdrawn, when it was realized I had no actual banquet or managerial experience — I can speak on this topic confidently:

STOP SERVING THE SLAB OF PROTEIN. Whether it’s beef, fish, or chicken, “Boy is this tender and moist!” said no banquet attendee, ever. Which is why, even though I am a happy omnivore, I often opt for the vegetarian entrée, just so I can get something that might have actually been made to order.

After dispensing with the slab o’protein, the next step is to dispense with the mashed potatoes and green beans, and forget about the artistic plating. There’s only one word chefs need to remember:

Lasagne.

Giant, banquet pans, groaning with steaming plates of real Italian lasagne, aromatic and remaining supple and hot for hours underneath those ribbons of pasta. It’s filling, can easily be adapted for vegetarians, and everybody loves it. A nice salad and some spumoni for dessert, and everyone will go to their happy place. Try Mario Batali’s heavenly recipe, here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/mario-batali/lasagne-bolognese-al-forno-recipe.html.

Another is eggplant parmesan. Bobby Flay’s version is fat with breadcrumb-coated eggplant slices: (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bobby-flay/eggplant-parmesan-recipe0.html). For the Greeks among us, there’s Aglaia Kremezi’s moussaka, laden with eggplant, potatoes, lamb and sausage: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/07/recipe-aglaias-moussaka/59584/. Guaranteed no one will go away hungry.

The beauty of these dishes is that they’re perfect for banquets. They’re not expensive to make, tailor-made for those giant oven pans, and don’t need to be served immediately. Not only do they not dry out if they sit - they will actually set a little better, become easier to cut, and even taste better because the flavors have had a chance to mingle. And guests will feel like they’ve actually eaten, without having to get that basket of fries on the way home.

It’s not a perfect solution. For instance, it’s not as easy to pose for a school picture with a pan full of moussaka. But it might make the seasonal banquet circuit a little more appetizing!

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at nroumel@yahoo.com.  His blog is http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

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