Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Food for Missionary Farewell Gatherings

This past weekend our son spoke in Sacrament meeting prior to beginning two years of service as a missionary for our church. Per the accepted cultural pattern in our area, we hosted a gathering at our home following the meeting.

Years ago when I left on my mission it was common in these parts for the families of departing missionaries to host something more akin to an open house or a reception. Ward members dropping by with well wishes were offered refreshments. This was repeated upon the missionary's return. These gatherings could be fun, but they resulted in unnecessary expense and social pressure. Gatherings are still held in my area, but they are mostly limited to family and close friends.

Still, our son is a very popular guy. Since he is one of the younger members of his class, many of his friends and acquaintances are already serving missions. We had some idea of how many family members would show up to our event, but we had absolutely no idea how many friends (especially voracious 19- and 20-year-old young men) would put in an appearance. So planning was difficult.

One of the primary rules of hosting a gathering where food is served is to avoid running out. Having enough is more important than having a variety. While families may feel like they are in a culinary arms race to offer wider varieties of fancier foods, simplicity is your friend. We choose to narrow our focus and to have plenty of the items we were going to serve.

We decided to go with sandwiches, chips, salads, cookies, and water. We bought loaves of high quality (sliced) bread from a local bakery. These loaves were only slightly more expensive than rolls, but they were more compact. This allowed us to buy them early and then store them in the freezer until the day before the party. We sliced each loaf so that the square-ish pieces of bread ended up as triangles. As I predicted, this reduced the amount of bread used. The dense texture of the bread probably worked to our advantage as well.

We bought 10 lbs of sliced roast beef and 10 lbs of sliced roast turkey breast. Per my observation, the beef was preferred by guests more than two-to-one over the turkey. Next time we will try to balance that better. We put the condiments on the dining tables so that people didn't gum up the serving line preparing their sandwiches. We served American and Provolone cheese. We also put out peanut butter and jelly. I was surprised at how many guests opted for PBJ sandwiches.

Putting the water cooler, cups, napkins, and flatwear on a different table also sped up the serving line. Speaking of water, it's a lot cheaper than sweetened and/or flavored drinks. It's also colorless and not sticky. No one complained. We put a 5-lb block of ice in the water cooler on Saturday evening and filled the container with water on Sunday morning.

Our town has a commercial cookie bakery outlet store where we picked up a number of frosted and sprinkled sugar cookies for cheap. My wife baked three batches of brownies in advance and froze them. She likes baking brownies using a mix because it is such a simple process. We also baked up a load of chocolate chip cookies using store-bought dough. How can you go wrong with chocolate chip and sugar cookies, along with brownies?

We bought four large bags of plain potato chips and four large bags of Doritos. We had three bags of each left over. Family members that wanted to help were asked to bring various salads and relish trays. We cut up a watermelon and a cantaloupe as well. For dessert we had frozen Otter Pops in a cooler.

There are lots of other possibilities that we considered when it came to serving food. But we had read an article that suggested that the more varieties of foods you offer, the slower your serving line will move. It also suggested refraining from cooking anything on the day of the event. After all, you're offering simple refreshments to guests, not setting up a buffet restaurant. I figured that any guest that couldn't find enough to eat among our offerings was just too darn picky. And at any rate, most of us Americans carry enough excess weight that missing a meal wouldn't hurt us.

We prepared everything we could in advance. We staged most things on Saturday evening so that food could be quickly set out after our church meetings on Sunday.

We were also gambling with the weather. Since it is summer, we planned to hold the gathering outside. This would minimize impact on the inside of the home. No one cares much when a drink gets spilled on the lawn as opposed to the carpet. Hosting the event outside also meant that we didn't have to worry as much about perfecting the cleaning and presentation of our home.

We own three banquet tables. We borrowed three others. We have about a dozen folding chairs and a handful of lawn chairs. We borrowed another dozen chairs and used our dining table chairs. After my morning meetings on Sunday, I came home and set up all of the tables and chairs. I hoped that the wind would die down, that the overcast skies would refrain from dropping rain, and that our setup would not be disturbed while we spent more than three hours away at church.

Our son delivered one of the finest outgoing missionary addresses I have ever heard in a church meeting. OK, so I'm biased.

We rushed home from our church meetings (except for our son who was greeting well wishers after church) to set up our feast. The wind had thankfully died down and the overcast skies took the edge off the heat just enough to make it relatively pleasant. By the time our son arrived, we had about two dozen of his friends along with a number of our extended family members. We blessed the food and then let people dig in. I spent much of the time taking video and photos.

Guests eventually started to say their goodbyes. An hour after we started, about half the guests had finished and left. Another half hour later, all but my son's buddies (his girlfriend called them his "bros") were all that were left of our guests. We hauled food into the house, put chairs and tables away, and returned borrowed items. The sun came out, driving our son and his buddies into the house. The friends all went home after a while and we finally relaxed.

Some of the lessons we learned from our missionary farewell party include the following:
  • We had nearly twice the amount of every kind of food as was actually used; more than twice enough of turkey, chips, and cheese. It's better to have more than enough than not enough. But if you're going to have a lot extra of something, it's better if it's something that can be easily stored.
  • Sandwiches are a good option for this type of gathering. But we could get more beef and less turkey, as well as less cheese. Setting out peanut butter and jelly was a good idea.
  • It's not a good idea to freeze thinly sliced meat in large blocks. I think this would be more successful if the meats were split out into 1-lb or even ½-lb bags. Or else buy the meat the day before the event and refrigerate it instead of freezing it.
  • Moving condiments and items that slow the serving line off to another location worked well.
  • Although we didn't have an extremely broad selection, the selection we offered was just fine. Limiting selection and not cooking on the day of the gathering constituted a good plan.
  • It's nice to hold the event outdoors if conditions permit.
  • Guests like to dine at tables. We had 50 chairs, but table seating for only half that many. It would have been nice to have more tables.
  • Serving only ice water to drink worked well.
  • Otter Pops were a decent outdoor summer treat. Maybe not so good for indoors or for colder weather.
We will get an opportunity to improve on our missionary farewell party skills in just a few weeks when we celebrate another of our sons embarking on his mission. Maybe we'll have decent weather then too. If not, we may gather in the garage. Then we'll get to reprise both of these gatherings when our boys return in two years. Down the road we hope to have similar departure and return parties for their younger brothers.

Of course, these parties are merely social formalities. They are nowhere near as important as the work these young men are undertaking. Still, if we're going to hold gatherings like this anyway, it makes sense to try to make them as good as we can. Please feel free to post your suggestions for good missionary farewell/homecoming gatherings in the comments.


Jane Smith said...

I have a son leaving on a mission and I had no idea how to prepare for a Farewell Gathering. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. I wish there were more posts on this subject.

mom2adrian said...

Very helpful advice. Sounds like simplicity is key!