Learning How to Barbeque for Eighty People

My department holds a recruitment weekend every year to entice incoming graduate students to accept their pending offer of admission to UCSB. Most schools host a similar event, where they fill students with good wine and great food while enthusiastic staff and faculty demonstrate the best the school has to offer. Some schools conduct the visits as interviews, where the faculty and staff are seeking to find students with the right fit for the school. Often, the interview is just a formality and exists solely to confirm the interested student is a functional member of society or not a robot. Other schools, like UCSB, deem the application process adequate in selecting the best students and use the recruitment weekend to gain an upper-hand on competing offers.  As a prospective student, I attended last year’s recruitment weekend that was highlighted by 80oF weather in the middle of February, delicious Mexican dinner in a dimly lit courtyard restaurant, and personal interviews with inspiring and prestigious professors. Choosing UCSB over my other offers felt pretty easy after such an incredible weekend.

This year’s recruitment was held last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Visiting students arrived Thursday and were housed by current graduate students. This enables prospective students to gain more intimate perspectives on the program than they otherwise would if they were put up in a hotel; plus, the department saves money on lodging. The official weekend agenda included Thursday night reception at Pizza My Heart, a coastal pizza chain serving enormous slices that must be folded to consume; Friday continental breakfast and lab tours followed by catered lunch and faculty interviews; Friday night dinner for hosts and prospective students; Saturday activities including wine tasting, whale watching, and hiking; and, finally, a beach barbeque at Goleta State Beach.

The student affairs officer emailed the entire department a month before the weekend asking for volunteers to host students, lead Saturday activities, and organize the barbeque. I decided I didn’t want the responsibility of hosting a student during my first year, but I still wanted to help out. I emailed the student affairs officer asking if Kierstin and I could help set up the barbeque, thinking we’d be tasked with unloading vehicles, setting out picnic supplies, and cleaning up trash. I received a reply with a site permit, the number of students and hosts to expect, and the amount of money I could spend on food and drinks. I wasn’t going to be helping out; I was organizing the entire barbeque for 80+ people! One of my lab mates volunteered as well, and so the three of us began planning this huge event.

We spent the week leading up to the event price-checking and planning. I asked seasoned veterans what foods were deemed necessities and what the party could go without. I was given a wide range of information: get tri-tip, serve hot dogs and hamburgers, grill vegetables, buy veggies burgers for vegans, buy Portobello mushrooms for vegans, and get lots of beer. We ended up forming a list that incorporated a little bit of everything. We headed out to Costco to get our bulk items; some of the food we needed, like veggies, is fresher and cheaper at the local grocery store. You can also get some meats (like tri-tip), and anything you don’t really need in bulk (like aluminum foil), for a lower price at smaller supermarkets.

To give a sense at how green we were in planning this BBQ for 80 people, a few things should be noted. I was the most experienced tri-tip chef, since I helped cook tri-tip for about 15 people last summer. None of us had any experience cooking for vegans and had never grilled Portobello mushrooms. We didn’t even have any idea if they would taste good or not. Finally, we had definitely never cooked – or prepared anything – for this many people before. Luckily, the internet is an incredible resource where we found recipes, and the advice from previous years’ hosts proved to be sound.

After overloading our cars with multiple shopping carts spilling over with food, drink, and picnic supplies, we headed home to begin preparing the food. Kierstin and I spent the afternoon chopping up fruit, preparing the vegetables for grilling, and marinating the meat. We exhausted our supply of aluminum trays and mixing bowls to store and transport everything. We had two giant mixing bowls filled with a fresh fruit salad. There were two aluminum trays packed with sliced zucchini, chopped peppers of assorted colors, fresh string green beans, and sweet onion covered with olive oil and salt and pepper. We had 72 hamburger patties soaked in a Worcestershire sauce-base marinade and 10 pounds of tri-tip dry-rubbed with black-pepper, chili powder, salt, onion powder, and garlic powder. We thought that we would be bringing home too much leftovers; there was no way 80 people could eat all of the food we prepared.

We were wrong. We arrived about 15 minutes before the start of the party to get the coals lit. The location was right near the beach entrance, which is adjacent to the university campus. There was a giant grill, with an old stone base and about 20 square feet of cooking space in the form of a rusty iron grating. There were 15 wooden picnic tables overlooking the ocean, only 30 yards away. We dumped our two large bags of charcoal onto the grill. The charcoal barely covered the area under half of the grating, and so my lab mate left hurriedly to get more charcoal. This was our only mishap for the day – not bad for a few rookies. The coals were soaked in lighter fluid and lit so we could begin cooking.

My spatula and the party-goers plates formed an assembly line, and as soon as I started cooking, I didn’t stop until near the end of the party. We would set out slices of juicy tri-tip, and more people would arrive to gulp them down. I would fry up some hamburgers and have my eyes watering from dark smoke a minute later while adding more on the grill. Kierstin served guacamole, turned around, and then had to serve more. Both bowls of fruit salad were emptied before sundown. After bustling around the entire evening, we finally had a chance to eat as the sun started to set and the crowd influx winded down. We enjoyed our dinner with an ocean view, the setting sun displaying its vibrant pinks, yellows, and reds, satisfied with having learned how to barbeque for 80 people.

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