It has always been a sort of wedding tradition in my family to invite all relatives and out-of-town friends to rehearsal dinners. The concept is an appealing one for a clan that has dispersed to just about every corner of the Continental U.S. as well as Scotland, Northern England and Western Canada. One extra night — at the expense of the groom's parents, of course — to gather for stories and hugs.
So, whisper the word "wedding" and they all come running, a bottle of single malt whiskey in hand, and a schmaltzy mile-long toast on the tip of their tongues. Which is why, I suppose, that the guest list for the rehearsal dinner my fiance and I were throwing for ourselves exactly 37 years ago today had ballooned up to 85 people.
Now, the task of feeding 85 guests isn't too overwhelming if you're a bonafide caterer. But this was something Steve and I wanted to do without the aid of paid professionals or financial backing from parents. That way it would be more personal, more intimate, and more of a sincere thank you to the parents who had brought us this far in life.
Yeah, right. Memo to self: next time the idea of creating such a mentally and physically brutal experience 24 hours before a major life event, just bash thumb with hammer; quicker and cheaper.
When Steve and I had planned this feast, it seemed completely do-able. The theme was "An Eclectic Celebration," a culinary nod toward the blending of our different cultures (Steve grew up in Pendleton, I was a California girl), and commemoration of our British heritage (Scottish on my side, English on Steve's). We were keeping it simple: Simple appetizers, such as smoked salmon and a make-ahead stir-fry salad; a salad bar; an easy starter course featuring fresh Pacific shrimp and avocados atop tomato slices with a zesty vinaigrette; Scottish meat pies prepared by a fabulous cook and family friend; English trifle for dessert prepared by my mother.
But any decent banquet needs a party-planner's undivided attention. Formal weddings need not apply.
Nevertheless, preparations for the Main Event were in high gear. Mom and I were fielding an endless barrage of questions from the caterer, florist, and country club hostess, coordinating airport pick-ups, enduring photo sessions, and continually checking off chores from a list that refused to get shorter.
Meanwhile, this great-idea-of-a-rehearsal-dinner was turning into the Event From Hell. The day leading up to it, and even at the eleventh hour, a mountain of tasks hovered over us. I can still feel the panic as I recall some of the more tenuous moments:
• An exhausted mother/daughter team stir-frying several gallons of minced vegetables and turkey at midnight. (Recipe follows!)
• My poor father, hunting down extra ice and frantically taping party streamers into place as guests were arriving.
• A bartender who contracted a personal crisis 10 minutes into the party and left.
• The friend who had volunteered to coordinate the serving of each course, but was a part of the bartender's crisis; she left.
• The scheduled dinner hour arriving, even though the meat pies hadn't.
I could go on and on. Yet, flipping through the wedding album, it seems that none of this chaos was captured on film. There was a golden dusk outside, and San Francisco Bay sparkled through the picture windows. Friends were laughing, toasting, eating, crying and celebrating. The warmth and gratitude I feel to this day for all who jumped in to help tend the bar, serve the food, put elegant finishing touches on the centerpieces, and anticipate a dozen unspoken needs, is intense.
Do it again? Not on your life. But because we were blinded by love, ignorance and the exuberance of youth, we'll always have the memory. A joyful one, after all. Happy Anniversary, my sweet.