Sometimes it’s not what you serve that delights your guests, but rather how it is prepared and the experience of the evening.
Last weekend, Justeen and I hosted a dinner party for 22 friends that all live near our community of Serenbe, Georgia. The occasion was a birthday party for two of the guests. Our goal wasn’t to out-gourmet the great cooks we know – an unlikely outcome, as they are an incredibly talented bunch of foodies and chefs. Rather, we just wanted to muster an unforgettable experience for the guests and memories for the birthday girls. And, we wanted to maximize the time spent with our guests.
Thinking through our repertoire of dishes and skills, we were stumped on what to prepare. What would allow us to prep during the morning, and be done in the kitchen when our guests arrived? Justeen’s specially, Mexican? Nah. Matt’s Skirt Steak with Chimichurri Sauce? Too predicable. But, then I remembered a meal I had in Indiana at Justeen’s lake house…The Garbage Can Dinner!!
In the days leading up to the event, we received lots of “what is a garbage can dinner?” to which we responded…”You’ll see. Come casual and come hungry”.
Luckily, the typical mid-August heat mercifully took the afternoon off, making room for partly cloudy skies and a very nice breeze. Imagine guests arriving at our home at 4 PM to find, compliments of Justeen, a table for 22, beautifully, but simply decorated table with long, white tablecloths, candles, and flowers from our garden. (Actually, you needn’t imagine it at all…we had a camera!)
The table was on one end of our yard. On the other end, was a garbage can…with steam slipping out from under the lid. The meal…cooking in the garbage can. Lots of smiles, smirks, and lots of sideways glances, as you might guess.
Guests grabbed a cocktail. Then came the questions. “So, let me get this straight. The food is in there?” and “Is it a new garbage can?” – awesome!
So, what’s a garbage can dinner? Well, it’s exactly what the picture shows. We cooked the entire meal in a garbage can, repurposed to become a big steamer.
Backing up 30 years, Justeen’s engineer father, John, figured out how to treat the galvanized garbage can. (Legal disclaimer: do not cook in a galvanized garbage can that hasn’t been properly and completely de-galvanized. This cooking technique is popular, and the internet has lots of advice on how to safely treat the can, or you can buy an all-steel can.) Inside the trash can is a rack and screen that keeps the food 6 inches from the bottom of the can. The water is boiled to create steam, and the steam cooks the food. Over the past 30 years, John has cooked 40+ meals in the “official garbage can dinner garbage can”. I called to borrow the trash can for our event. John was more than happy to entrust me with the official trash can…”as long as I get it back!!!”, he added.
In addition to the trash can, we had a propane burner and propane. The burner from the turkey fryer I bought 5 years ago worked perfectly (the turkey fryer seemed like a good idea until I nearly burned down the garage…see picture below).
We put the empty garbage can on the propane burner, filled the the bottom of the can with 6 inches of water, just below the rack and screen. Then, we layered in all the ingredients (in order: corn, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, mushrooms, kielbasa, smoked sausage, andouille, and a variety of italian sausages). Then, we put the lid on the garbage can, turned up the propane and lit the burner. On high heat, it took about 30 minutes before steam began seeping out from under the lid. Once the stream began, the meal took 1.5 hours to cook. The steam rises through the can, cooking the food. The juices from the sausages slowly drip down to flavor all the layers below!!! Crazy, crazy good.
Secret ingredients…Into the water, we added both Zaterains concentrated crab boil liquid and crab boil bags to flavor and add a little kick the lower layers of corn and potatoes. We seasoned each layer with salt and pepper as were building up the can. The mushrooms and potatoes were coated in olive oil and tossed with salt, pepper, and herbs de province as they were layered into the can. Very simple!
I can say one thing for certain. We’ve never cooked a meal that generated so much curiosity and anticipation from guests. As we turned off the propane, and prepared to pull the lid off, every one of our 22 guests drew close in a circle around the can, excited to see what was inside. I couldn’t help but smile looking into faces of our guests as they waited in anticipation. When the lid was removed, the smells poured out, and the sausages on the top layer were revealed, there were more “ohhhs and ahhhs” then the 4th of July fireworks!
Presentation is everything, wouldn’t you agree? So, what’s the best way to serve food that was prepared in a garbage can? Justeen’s father, John, provided the answer to those questions when he also provided two pig troughs that we built about 15 years ago. The pig troughs were lined with aluminum foil and filled with the layers of vegetables and sausages.
Our guests grabbed a plate, utensils, and a napkin and worked their way down our pig trough buffet. We all sat down, poured the wine, toasted our two birthday guests, and dove into the garbage can dinner. ”Oh, it smells wonderful!”, said one guest. ”I can’t believe you made all this in that trash can”, said another. “This is the best cabbage I’ve ever had”, said a third.
there were happy guests and lasting memories of a great evening. The garbage can dinner was a wonderful success and we’re already making plans for the next one!