Monday, June 27, 2011

Feeding the Thousands, well, actually about 700

For the next, oh, perhaps forever, much of my food writing will be engendered by work for Lani Temple at Megunticook Market, where my first assignments are making pies and blogging.

Take a good cause, two energetic, community-minded women, their devoted employees and a few wannabees, Latin music, a wall of oysters on the half-shell, plates of rich, fresh, spicy food, free-flowing wine, harborside scenery and a covey of singing drag-queens, set them loose--no need to stir--and you have this year’s Pop the Cork fourth annual fundraiser.

The first time I heard the term Pop the Cork as applied to the local annual fundraiser, I had walked into Camden’s Megunticook Market on a Tuesday afternoon to look for work helping owner Lani Temple cater parties. Little did I know she and her crew were in the final throes of preparing for the biggest party of their party-centric year, a fundraiser for 700 people in Rockport Harbor. One of her capable, take-charge proteges, Matt, said I probably could not talk with Temple on such short notice because she was involved in the last deadlines for Pop the Cork. I could see he too was busy behind a beautifully stocked deli counter, so smiled understandingly and handed my resume over the high curved glass.

Only after Matt caught up with me in the parking lot to say Lani did have time did I learn from her that Pop the Cork happened in two days, Thursday night, and yes, she could use some help. A recent run for state office brought me the closest I’d been to catered food in a few years, albeit on the other side of the equation. I could infer, way before I remembered seeing Lani on WCSH6, from the clean, open kitchen and the well-stocked deli display that the food coming out of this place would be good. Having worked in food service for some period in every decade since the 1970s, my perspective is long and broad, and Lani’s bright eyes and direct manner boded well for this party, too.

When Lani said my first night with her crew would be at Pop the Cork, I was thrilled, both for the work, and for the theater, replete with suspense, climax and denouement, that was sure to occur when 700 hungry, thirsty people arrive in one place expecting high quality comestibles and entertainment in return for their generous donation to, in this year’s case, United Mid-Coast Charities. This consortium of more than 50 local agencies serves 35 percent of the local population in some manner is the fourth not-for-profit to benefit from Pop the Cork’s largesse.  Others have included Rockland’s Farnsworth Museum and Rockport’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Lani’s partner in good works, Bettina Doulton of Lincolnville and Rockport’s Cellardoor Winery, doubles the possibility of breaching the gaps between community needs and community support.

Thursday, I arrived at Megunticook Market a little earlier than the 3 p.m. meeting time. Lani, Matt and Ryan, another chef, had already left to deliver food to the venue 10 minutes from the market. Lani’s father Jim, up for a few weeks from Florida, greeted me and a few other crew members trickled in. Keisha, Whitney, Scout, Nick, Annie, Kristen and I made up a fraction of the small army needed to wrangle the 2000 wine glasses, several tons of plates and flatware, not to mention the food itself, for the battalion of party-goers. Discussion while we waited for our ride to Rockport Harbor ran from previous years’ Pop the Corks to the best shoes for the job. A cold fog that had gripped the coast all day entered into our wardrobe decisions, as did the fact that we would be under a tent on a lawn in the company of what passes for high society in pre-August coastal Maine.

Before long Keisha had decided to change from sandals to sturdier and warmer shoes. Taylor’s choice of snazzy black suede sneakers garnered envy me and others. My inner mother-hen worried for Annie and her filmy, short skirt. I only just managed not to ask if she thought she would be warm enough. Less than half-way through the evening, Annie had proved herself strong, inventive and willing to go far beyond what I was capable of. As usual, I needn't have worried.

When the three tubs we used to rinse the hundreds of plates of their crab juices, salsas and cocktail and mojo sauces were not much cleaner than the plates, Annie wondered aloud whether we should pitch one and refill it. Upon investigation, we learned that the nearest spigot had been turned off and Annie would have to walk a few hundred yards with a tub of water if she wanted to accomplish her goal. Without batting an eye Annie picked up a tubful of gruesome rinse water and headed out to the puckies to dump it, schlepped it up to the only available water source, and returned with water clean enough for a baptism. Of course, that lasted about a second. Nevertheless, her trek was nothing short of miraculous to me, too used lately to rooms of teenagers reluctant to pick up a pencil, let alone 35 pounds of liquid suspended in an unwieldy container.

The next two hours raced by in a blur of wine and cocktail glasses, crates, trays, scurrying servers, encouraging words, and piles of silverware, punctuated by the driving beats and horns of Salsa and Merengue music, applause and whoops of pleased listeners and dancers. I focused on the logarithms of three types of wine glass and two sizes of crate, while Kristen, Dominic, and whoever had a moment to spare rinsed, sorted plates and forks, keeping what could have been a Katahdin of china and glass to scalable Mt. Battie heights. When we lifted our heads, some 700 people had been fed and entertained, and moving up the hill to the old elementary school for a concert by 80s rock band Huey Lewis and the News.

Shortly after Ryan, in his most basso profundo voice, ordered us to eat as much of the remaining food as we possibly could, and we complied, the consolidating angels, Tracy, Sue, Whitney, and I’m sure others, set about collecting serving platters, trays, utensils and decor into a movable post-feast, most of it in need of a good soaping. We headed to Megunticook Market and its two generous sinks for the final stages of the evening. There I befriended Sue, another woman in her “middle” years who, like me, has a middle schooler at home. We talked about a recent community tragedy and our ties to the families involved, salved by the soothing banality of washing up.

In the space of just under eight hours, this group of capable people staged the food, performed feats of food and drink, and struck the set, shared a good night toast of a bubbly, SFW fruity beverage and headed out into the night. Despite the fact that my late-night attempt at a shortcut nearly turned into a trip up Ragged Mountain, I smiled all the way home.