Wedding Food Doesn't Have to Be Awful! (It Can Even Be Good.)

Oh, wedding food. Sometimes the best that can be said is that it’s entirely forgettable, overshadowed by the drama, excitement, and even the open bar of the big day. 

Hooray! Another dry piece of chicken or fish lying next to limp asparagus and a few oily potatoes, or a piece of steak carelessly cooked because it’s one of 120—all the better to wash it down with endless Pinot Grigio refills!

Such standard wedding meals have all the verve of a warmed-over dinner from a mid-priced hotel chain, which sometimes, to be fair, is exactly what they are. Sure, they do their part to keep people from falling dizzily to the dance floor at the end of the night due to hunger and/or intoxication. These are the foods that we, or people we love, have actuallychosen to serve, and so we guests will eat them. But we should probably all aim a bit higher. After all, anything with that “w”-word appended to it gets ratcheted up price-wise by a factor of at least 20 percent. Is it so wrong that brides, grooms, and even guests might hope for the delicacies served to be actually delicious?

As something of a wedding-going expert, with nearly 30 under my rhinestone-encrusted bridesmaid’s-dress belt, I say no, it is not wrong! My recent book, Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest, chronicles an array of wedding-attending experiences from my life—from the good to the bad to the intensely embarrassing. Food is generally a supporting actor in the drama of any wedding event, as unremarkable as the gift you choose for the couple from their registry. But it’s also very much necessary, and there’s no reason it can’t stand on its own, proud and tall and mouthwatering, whether it’s tomato soup with mini grilled cheese bites for dipping, a three-tiered wedding cake, or an ornate sushi buffet. Here, nine tips for better wedding food:

1. Go Big. Maybe you’re waiting for marriage for that other thing (that’s between you and your beloved), but with food it’s a different story: Don’t abstain. The #1 way for food to suck at your wedding is for there not to be enough. People aren’t going to care that you were short on artfully arranged flowers, or that you could have used a few more candles on the tables. But they will notice if they go home hungry and have to order a pizza because they only got one shrimp and a dab of cocktail sauce. And if you’re serving booze (note: generally, you should), goodness gracious, make your food hearty and plentiful and more than simply “light appetizers” … or prepare for the consequences.

2. Some Traditions Are Sweet. Trendy types may be tempted to try something wacky or new with regard to their wedding desserts—doughnuts, or even Cronuts™?—but my favorite wedding food memory involves cake. Just cake, cake alone. It was a white fondant-covered red velvet cake with a cream center and it was savory and sweet and, before you cut into it, looked just like a present, with a perfect fondant bow on the top. Fondant may get a bad rap, and people may scoff at red velvet, but when cake’s good it’s good, and this was good cake. My friends who were married at the City Clerk’s Office in New York City served it at the downtown dive bar where we gathered for their super-casual reception, and it cost them less than $100 (ordered in advance, of course). Perhaps it was because of its simplicity, or because it was the only food on hand, or, like I said, because it was that good; in any case, I ate piece after piece. We all did, until it was gone. Unlike much of the food I’ve eaten at weddings, I still haven’t forgotten it.
Wedding Food Doesn't Have to Be Awful! (It Can Even Be Good.)
3. Let It Not Be a Danger to You. Food can be very, very good, but it can also be very bad, particularly when it sends the bride to the emergency room because the pie—not cake—she’s ordered for her reception has been made with peanuts in the crust, and she is deathly allergic to peanuts. This particular bride was no fool, she had specified “no peanuts”; nonetheless, peanuts ended up in the mix. Luckily, they didn’t arrive until the dessert portion of the night, so at least she got to enjoy most of her wedding. For your own better-food purposes, make sure to say, loud and clear, and put in writing, too, exactly what should never appear on your wedding menu lest disaster result. Then repeat. After all, you’re paying for this stuff. You should get what you want, and no one should go to the hospital. (The bride was okay, thank goodness.)

4. Fire and Ice Are Volatile. At a wedding in Jamaica, we were served a variation on chicken and fish: coconut chicken, tilapia cooked in banana leaves, greens grown locally, and succulent, salty plantains. Paired with the tropical resort ambiance, this was just about ideal—until the ice swans set up on a serving table collapsed in the heat, launching an icy swan head onto the plate I’d just loaded up and sending my dinner to a premature, watery grave. The moral of the story? Don’t waste your money on elaborate ice sculptures (or other potentially hazardous décor) when people are very happy simply eating plantains and gazing at unfrozen water—you know, like the ocean, nearby.

5. Make It Mean Something. A dear friend who didn’t have a ton of cash to spend on a sit-down meal went with “heavy hors d’oeuvres,” served buffet-style so guests could help themselves throughout the reception. The story of the food highlighted the story of the couple’s relationship: She chose crab cakes to signify Maryland, where her new husband was from; mini ham and turkey sandwiches of the sort she’d grown up eating at Southern get-togethers; and smoked salmon and cheesecake to represent New York, where the couple had met. She also served tea, which came in handy for the single ladies who didn’t want to jump for the bouquet—we held dainty teacups in our hands and sipped while she tossed her nieces the flowers.

6. Go Local. Instead of orchestrating complicated deliveries from afar, consider keeping your wedding fare as simple and down-home—and therefore, as seasonal-and-style-appropriate—as possible. At a wedding in New Orleans, that meant gumbo and po’ boys; in Alabama, it was cheese straws and meatballs; in Jamaica, the coconut chicken and plantains. Real cuisine that people actually love to eat is so much better than the glorified airplane food that often arrives at weddings. As for going so local it’s homemade, potlucks may not seem as elegant as caterers in black tie, but they have their own real charm: At a wedding I went to in the Pacific Northwest, an array of homemade vegetarian casseroles and stews were brought by family members, and not only did they taste good, they were less of a burden to the couples’ budget, and virtually everything was a “chef’s special,” with the cooks on hand to explain the origin of their dishes (Great Aunt Mildred’s famous recipe stands the test of time!).

7. Flavor > Photographs. The pictures you’re going to frame and hang above your mantle are of people, not of your filet mignon. So worry more about how things will taste than what they might look like on someone’s Instagram. A mac and cheese I was served at a wedding once may not have been a beauty, but I would go back for seconds of it right now if I could. An artfully displayed piece of fish, on the other hand, offered little in terms of actual taste. If you don’t believe me, just ask New York Timesrestaurant critic Pete Wells.

8. Some Traditions Are Sweet. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the “supposed tos” of a wedding, but modern ceremonies and receptions allow for much improvising. I loved a recent event that felt a bit like dinner theater, those Sterno burner pans set out right in front of the stage where the bride and groom were married. We arrived, mingled, and helped ourselves to cocktails poured into Mason jars we personalized with our own name-stickers. (Yes, it was utterly hipster, but utterly fun.) We found seats at long tables positioned throughout the room and watched the couple marry. And then we ate, serving ourselves earthy food like beans and rice, going back for more all night long before feasting on cakes made by friends of the couple. True, one cake had been sacrificed to the food gods earlier that day when the oven it was cooking in caught fire, but that’s part of the fun of breaking the rules. And figuring out how to silence the fire alarm is just another opportunity for wedding-guest bonding.

9. Don’t Be a Foodzilla. Cakes get ruined. Wine spills. Biscuits refuse to rise. But none of that should destroy a wedding, which is, after all, about love, not food. Which means, really, the worst thing that can happen with regard to the food at a wedding—aside from not getting any!—is to freak out about it. Do your best, then let go, and enjoy. Note: If you must visit the ER because of the peanuts in your wedding pie, you have the right to tell that story to everyone you know for the rest of your life. As for us guests, we promise not to complain about subpar wedding food if you promise to read this list—and to incorporate just a tiny, delicious morsel of the advice into that upcoming event of yours that we are so looking forward to, food-wise and otherwise.

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One of the primary goals of Oudney Patsika is to use media to change the cultural narrative. He aims to impact today’s culture with more accurate, responsible, and positive media stories about Christianity and the Church. Get In Touch Today!
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