CHARLESTON, S.C. -- When South Carolinians want an oyster roast for 10,000 people they turn to Jamie Westendorff. He can provide the 212,000 pounds of oysters, the Charleston Oyster Machine he invented to cook such volume, the four tractor trailer trucks to haul them to the picnic site, as well as the picnic tables he devised with holes in the middle for scraping the used shells right into barrels.
If what they want is a Frogmore Stew for a thousand, Westendorff has another invention for them: a Frogmore Stew cooker that can steam enough shrimp, sausage, hard-shell crabs, potatoes, onions and corn on the cob to feed the masses.
And for a South Carolina pig picking, Westendorff can bring his own stainless steel hog cookers that once were dishwashers.
That's right, dishwashers. And that's a hint to the secret of Jamie's success. "I worked for all the great restaurants in Charleston," says Westendorff. "They taught me all their secrets. But they didn't know it -- because I was the plumber." As he plied his trade -- sometimes getting paid with shares of the restaurants -- he heard the restaurateurs all talking about cooking outdoors. They talked about; he did it.
First he did it with Charleston Oyster Machine Company in 1982, then Charleston Outdoor Catering the next year, now with an offshoot for smaller parties, Jamie's Outdoor Cuisine. From the start Westendorff built his own equipment and always cooked from scratch on-site. As it turned out, by doing old, traditional whole-hog barbecues Westendorff was doing something new. "Nobody cooked hogs in Charleston. That was country stuff," he says.
The critical part of the business is the equipment. The nightmare of a barbecue is the hog cooker breaking down in the field before the hungry hordes. Thus, for the barbecue business there could hardly be a better combination of talents than chef and plumber; fixing equipment is for Westendorff just a matter of doing what he has always done.
But bigger. Westendorff has cooked so much chicken in the past decade that he's been introduced as the King of Wings. He fries 10,000 pieces for a single dinner, in four or five commercial fryers he has bolted to his trucks. When he prepares fried chicken or fish fries on offshore islands he has to carry those fryers on boats. And fish frys to serve 1,000 people are so routine he needs only one other person helping -- someone to bread the fish while he fries it in five fryers simultaneously. "If you have the third person or fourth person, they get in your way," explains Westendorff.
The hogs he uses for his gigantic pig pickings weigh a hundred pounds each and take about seven or eight hours to cook. Some, however, are as big as 400 pounds. "They look like Volkswagens," says Westendorff.
His giant hog cookers were invented out of the necessity for feeding 2,000 people without the faintest prospect of procuring the 50 normal cookers that would require. An idea hit: "I'll go back to my plumbing days." As it happened, he had saved a warehouse full of old stainless steel restaurant dishwashers, so he put racks in them, and suddenly they were hog cookers. "They even have temperature gauges," he realized. "I'd like to patent these things, but I think Hobart already did."
So Westendorff took his converted hog cookers out on the road, and people said, "Jamie, are you washing those hogs?"
No, he was slowly cooking some of the greatest barbecued hog meat of the South. The proof is in the taste. A Westendorff barbecue consists of pork that is silky and tender. His barbecued chicken bursts with juices, his chopped barbecue has a teasing taste but only a very slow burn.
As for his Frogmore Stew, it features pearly, delicate fresh shrimps. And his fish fries show off kingfish and mackerel, hush puppies and fried okra that are greaseless as well as crisp. For some dinners he might add a tomato-based fish stew or his buttery, fragrant deviled crabs. And no matter what the meal, it will include Low Country Red Rice, flavored by green peppers, onions, sausage or bacon and tomato sauce. "Where I come from, rice is about the most important meal in the world," says Westendorff. And people who take their rice that seriously wouldn't expect anything less than rice cooked fresh on location, on the back of a truck -- rice that is likely to someday be written in South Carolina's culinary history as Jamie Westendorff's Tailgate Red Rice.
Tabletalk One thing Gorbachev left behind when he departed Washington after the Summit last month was an unquenchable rumor that a two-star chef from Perigord in Southwest France, Solange Gardillon, had secretly cooked for Gorbachev and Reagan in the White House. The French press has continued to report it, while the American authorities continue to deny it. As Mary Gordon of the White House press office declared, it was absolutely not true, but in her four years at the White House, "I can't remember a story persisting like this."
Clearly 1988 is going to be the year of nostalgic food, though it will also remind us that memory is short. New York's Post House restaurant is reviving "classical American favorites," and those classics include Beef Wellington. But now it is made with shiitake mushrooms and New York state foie gras instead of the usual cultivated mushrooms and canned tinny-tasting mushy goose liver pa~te'. It sounds as if it could make us forget why we crossed Beef Wellington off our list in the first place.
JAMIE'S DEVILED CRABS (8 servings)
1 pound crab meat
3 slices bacon
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce or more to taste
3 tablespoons unsalted crackers, crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste
Carefully pick over crab meat and set aside. In a large pan fry bacon until crisp; crumble and set aside. Drain off all but 2 tablespoons bacon fat from the pan. In remaining fat saute' the green pepper and onion until soft but not colored. Add butter to the pan, stir in worcestershire and hot pepper sauce. When well blended, stir in crumbled crackers. Add crab meat and salt and pepper to taste. Mix gently but thoroughly. Pile mixture into crab tins, cleaned crab shells or individual casseroles and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
1988, Washington Post Writers Group