This is not a post about how to recreate a complicated medieval meal, or a review of fancy heirloom stone-ground flours, or a story about doing something awesome and inspiring and historical. Rather, this is a post for anyone who is planning food for a vigil and who wants a great, crowd-pleasing spread that can be set up in a field or in a hotel room (so, when you don’t have access to a kitchen) with a minimum of misery while still maximizing the wow-factor. Basically, this is how to prepare vigil food that people will like and that is period-ish while relying almost exclusively on pre-made ingredients from Costco and Trader Joe’s. And now you know my shameful secret: I say I love cooking, but apparently if you ask me to do your vigil food I won’t actually cook a damn thing for you. (Okay, that’s not really true: I’ll probably bake some pies.) If that’s enough self-flagellation on my part, let’s begin.
First off, my philosophy of vigil food: vigil food should be easy to eat. Everything served at a vigil should be able to be eaten with nothing more than your fingers, a napkin, and a toothpick. The food should be easy to identify at a glance, and palatable at room temperature. Vigils tend not to be the environment for particularly challenging (for the eater) dishes. At the same time, though, vigil food should also always be passably historical or at least not obviously modern.
Also, some tips on servingware. With limited kitchen facilities, dishes can be an challenging part of the process. I like to have some disposable wooden spoons on hand, like these. You can use them for normal spoon things, and also as a spreading implement. I’m also a huge fan of a discovery my wife made a few years ago: palm leaf plates! They are disposable (or burnable if you’re into that kind of thing), biodegradable, astoundingly sturdy, and, while they are not as nice as actual period dishes, they are perfectly serviceable and do not look glaringly out of place. (Honestly we keep a stash of the smaller size of them in our feast gear basket, they are great if an unexpected dinner guest shows up.)
On to food! Start with the obvious stuff: artisan bread and good butter, crackers, sliced or bite-sized cheeses, salami / cured meats, cheese and cured meats rolled together (Costco and Trader Joe’s both stock these), nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios), fresh fruit (grapes, apples and pears, stone fruits, berries, figs, etc.), pickles (cucumbers, asparagus, artichoke hearts, beets, onions, olives, mushrooms, etc.), dried fruits, candied ginger — basically, think “tourney lunch.” The trick on this is go for broke on presentation; try to make everything look inviting and friendly, and I recommend putting out a little of everything at first and restocking as the night goes on rather than a giant pile of anything at the start.
The next level is taking these prepared foods and combining them in inventive ways. Three of my favorite creative vigil snack innovations are:
- Grind unsalted pistachios in a food processor. Roll fresh goat cheese into balls about an inch in diameter. Roll the goat cheese balls in the pistachios and set out. These are dead easy and have been the hit of the evening at the last two vigils I’ve helped with.
- Decant a container of mascarpone into a bowl. Spoon cloudberry jam (or really any jam, I just happen to really like the cloudberry jam from IKEA) onto the mascarpone. Put a plate of butter wafer cookies from Trader Joe’s next to this and encourage guests to spoon the mascarpone and jam onto the cookies. Takes 30 seconds to make and tastes amazing.
- Pull the pit out of a date. Stuff an almond in it and squish it back together. Wrap in prosciutto. Repeat. Variation: pull the pit out of a date, fill it with goat cheese, squish it back together. Repeat. (These look cute plated together.)
All of these are great for rounding out a vigil spread when you’re the one in charge of organizing and you also have people volunteering to bring snacks (which seems to usually be the case). If your volunteers bring their favorite home-made goodies, and you pad it out with store-bought stuff, it will be a genuinely nice spread. My two favorite things to get people to volunteer to make are homemade sausages and mini savory tarts or pies. It also is usually pretty easy to get people excited about bringing cookies, and there are good resources out there for late-period cookie recipes. I’m also a fan of roast meat with a period sauce, medieval gingerbread, and fussy medieval candies (like orange peels!)
The take-home message here is that if you’ve been tasked with doing food for a vigil, I promise you can pull it off without running yourself ragged. This isn’t to say you can’t also do an incredible spread entirely handmade from period recipes from a particular culture and time period; I’ve helped with vigils that had exactly that, and they were inspiring. All I’m saying is that you don’t actually HAVE TO go that route. After all, I’m apparently a cooking Laurel and yet the most highly praised dish I’ve ever brought to a vigil was that mascarpone and cloudberry jam; good snacks are good snacks whether you made them or just “made” them. Especially at a vigil, most people are not there for having a serious food experience. I think it took me a while to really grasp that and pull my ego back enough to get out of Artist mode and into Hospitality mode. Snacks are great, don’t stress, let’s hug!
PS: They really do sell marzipan at IKEA, but only around Christmas time. If you hate making your own, stock up (it keeps) and keep some on hand for marzipan emergencies. I happen to prefer the IKEA marzipan to other store-bought ones, but I am honestly not sure why.