My friend Tom Dantin was killed in a car accident on May 12th. He was a wonderful guy; devoted husband and father of 3, and the world is a darker, less interesting place without him. The last couple of weeks have been hard for me and our family, although I cannot fathom the suffering his family must be enduring.
We were kindred spirits- Louisianians living in Ponte Vedra, with a shared love of our families, cooking, the Saints, and many outdoor activities. Tom was a dear friend, and I think it will be a long time before the sadness I feel subsides.
I was honored to be asked to cook jambalaya for the ‘celebration of life’ party after his funeral. Tom was a gregarious, affable guy, who basically divided the world into two groups- friends, and friends he had not met yet. When I asked how many we expected for his party, estimates ranged from 200-500.
We like to entertain, and I love to cook for large groups, but this was an order of magnitude beyond anything I had ever attempted. Tom’s wife asked that I prepare his family jambalaya recipe, and I was happy to oblige. The recipe is included below.
Certainly not long on detail, but a reasonable road map for an experienced cook. The mushroom ingredients were new to me, but the ultimately added a umami-like unctuousness that merits further investigation.
The service was on Tuesday, May 17th, so I started with prep on Sunday the 15th. I picked up some of the ingredients prior to getting the recipe, so the amounts of vegetables don’t necessarily jibe with the recipe. On Sunday, I was a chopping fool. I diced 24 pounds of onions, 12 bell peppers, 6 bunches of celery, along with some garlic and parsley.
I agree with John Besh that the best way to incorporate chicken into jambalaya is with chunks of chicken thighs. However, I needed stock and time was of the essence, so I made a compromise and boiled whole chickens to accomplish both tasks simultaneously. Once the chickens were cooked and cooled, I removed the meat and packaged the chicken and vegetables in preparation for making a double batch of Tom’s family recipe on Monday night.
I came home from work at lunch on Monday to dice the pork shoulder and cut the bacon into lardons. At this point most of the prep was done, and our garage smelled like an onion farm gone bad.
I started cooking on Monday night around 6:30 at the cultural center (parish hall) at our church. The Dantin’s friend Latta, the banquet chef from the Sawgrass Marriott, was there to help me. She made quick work of slicing the sausage, and then headed to the Marriott to get a bigger pan then the two 40 quart stockpots we were working in.
I sweated the sausage and pork shoulder in the 2 huge pots, stirring as the fat rendered out. Once the fat rendered, we added onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic to the pork fat and sauteed the aromatics. As I added more ingredients to the pots, I soon realized they weren’t big enough, so Latta and I transferred everything to the giant pan from the Mariott (as she predicted we would). From then, it was a lot of waiting and stirring, as the mixture came together and the vegetables and other ingredients slowly came together.
It was my first experience cooking in a ‘commercial’ kitchen, and that was somehow exhilarating, despite the tragic circumstances. I was impressed with the convenience afforded by the scale of everything- giant pots, sinks, prep tables, and range burners made everything go faster. Despite that, cooking on that scale is still slow, and it was 11:00pm before I shut the burners down and started considering how to cool this massive pan to refrigerate it.
Doesn’t look terribly impressive, but the sink is probably 42″ deep, and the pan weighed about 60 very hot pounds. The outcome was mixed- flavor was outstanding (hard to go wrong with 10 pounds of pork), but the texture was a little mushy. It didn’t help matters that I could only add half of the requisite 12 pound of rice, as the pan was filled to capacity. I struggled to cool it enough to put it in the fridge, then finally headed home after about an hour and a half of ‘heat exchange’. I was pessimistic, tired, and depressed, and I wasn’t sure the jambalaya would even be edible the next day. I took solace in the fact that Tom’s brother-in-law had laid on a sizable stash of authentic Louisiana specialties from Copeland’s and Deanie’s.
I woke up Tuesday feeling empty. We got to the church about 10, in advance of the 11AM funeral mass. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the kitchen to check on the jambalaya. It seemed trivial and meaningless. I sat quietly in the church, and felt an overwhelming urge to be alone and experience my sadness in solitude. I must admit the mass proved to be more uplifting than I expected, and Father Logan, in particular, outdid himself with his homily.
After the mass I REALLY wanted to go home. The last thing on earth I wanted to do was to socialize and ‘share’ amidst such miserable circumstances. As Jennifer wisely pointed out, “WE’RE GOING!”, so I got over my self-pity and shuffled into the cultural center. I struggled through the crowd to find an icy Abita Amber (things seemed just a little brighter at that moment), and surveyed the buffet tables to find no evidence of the jambalaya. I took it in stride, assuming, as I thought the night before, that I had overreached and produced an inedible dish.
There were A LOT of people there- my best guess is three hundred or so made their way through the party. The food from Louisiana was good, but the crowd made short work of it. Slowly, the jambalaya started to appear on the buffet tables, and it seemed to be well-received. Much to my amazement, only a few quarts remained at the end of the party. It was, in fact, quite tasty- a slightly mushy bowl of spicy, pork- rich comfort food.
This post is much more about sadness and loss than food, and I don’t know that I’ll ever make this recipe again. The food connection is that in a dark time, cooking served as both a distraction, and also a therapeutic means to relax and to contribute to the effort to honor Tom’s memory.