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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 136

To the Lord, Praises Be / It’s Time for Dinner so Let’s All Eat


      The problem is simple.

      The average multi-day forensics tournament has to feed anywhere from two hundred to six hundred debaters, Speechies, coaches, parents, and assorted hired judges, plus any felons hiding in the protective coloring of your average American high school (which is why some tournaments issue tickets upon registration, to make sure that the felons don’t eat some Polician’s share of the bounty), the local homeless who make it past the crack school security system, the gendarmes of the crack school security system, the custodians, the copy-machine woman, Republican Presidential hopefuls who can’t find New Hampshire, and any number of other freebooters whose stomachs start to growl at the appropriate moment. College tournaments usually don’t bother to feed the assembled multitudes, on the assumptions that any money they take in during registration is best kept on their own side of the ledger sheet, and that the debate universe is better off eating fast food at the same places the college students do. But high schools are not always surrounded by a protective ring of fast-food eateries, and dinner on Friday night is usually between the second and third rounds, where the last thing the tournament director wants is half the entrants wandering away seeking sustenance off the grounds. Any delay among the early rounds can lead to disaster later in the night, when the time comes to house the assembled multitudes. So high schools inevitably bring the food in to the students, working on the premise that the more they can control, the fewer horrible things will happen. This premise is not exactly true, but it is as close to a tournament-running maxim as has yet been developed.

      So the problem is feeding two to six hundred people in approximately one hour.


      The solutions are as simple as the problem.

      In the best-case scenario, the high school cafeteria staff works overtime, their faces decorated with gleeful happy-to-be-here smiles as they outdo themselves in the kitchen, laying out a choice of two main courses, soup, a pasta entrée, deli sandwiches, and a delightful and fresh salad bar featuring all-you-can-eat shrimp. Not only is the food delicious, but the school administration picks up the tab, allowing the tournament director to pocket more of the proceeds from the registration fees rather than spending a goodly portion of them on sustenance.

      But the best-case scenario never happens. And probably won’t, until Quilty Prep decides to host a tournament.

      The worst-case scenario, which every tournament director has attempted at some point in his or her career, is the other big money-saver, where the families of the host team all make X number of sandwiches, their contents clearly labeled, which are offered to the forensicians in neatly wrapped individual portions. Every forensician theoretically gets the sandwich of his or her choice, the costs are evenly distributed among the team families, and again the tournament director gets to pocket more of the proceeds from the registration fees rather than spending a goodly portion of them on sustenance. The reason this scenario is seldom attempted twice is that, while it would appear that the larger the team, the easier the load, in fact the larger the team, the more likely that half of them forget to bring their sandwiches, or refuse to bring their sandwiches, or simply arrive on Friday with the mantra, “Sandwiches? What sandwiches?” So there’s seldom enough to go around, and the ones that are going around tend to weigh heavily toward the butter of the peanut or the sprout of the bean, as compared to the ham of the Virginias or the beef of the Corningmen.

      In other words, if they go the sandwich route, the food sucks.

      So the usual solution to the dinner problem is to make it a catered affair. While most towns have local eateries capable of and eager to spend time on the other side of the serving table, and have numerous culinary suggestions that would please even a crowd as notoriously picky as a herd of forensicians (who, for instance, will never eat any pizza more than six hours old), as a rule tournament directors tend to rely on what apparently is a national franchise, an operation named Debate & Dinners Inc. (“Our Promise to You: Our food will sink in your stomach, not in your budget”). Algren is no exception to this rule, and their experience with D&D is the same as all schools.

      At exactly six o’clock, the Debate & Dinners truck pulls up outside the high school cafeteria. The driver, the only D&D employee who will be seen that evening, climbs down from the cab, wipes his greasy hands on his white coveralls, grabs his clipboard, and knocks loudly on the cafeteria door.

      His knock is answered by one of the parents assigned to the dinner brigade.

      “Sign here,” the driver says, sticking his clipboard under the poor mother’s nose.

      She signs there.

      “I need help loading this stuff in,” the driver says. In reality, help is not the correct word, as he has no intentions of carrying anything in himself.

      By now three other parents have joined the first one, and they march out in the D&D driver’s wake to the back of the truck. He reaches up and unlatches the door.

      The smell of baked ziti is overpowering.

      “That’s it,” he says.

      The back of the truck is stacked with large cooking pans covered with aluminum foil, plus a pile of serving utensils.

      The driver continues: “Ziti to the left of us, salad to the right of us.”

      Into the valley of death ride the four parents.

      It takes them half an hour to move the food and utensils from the truck and set it up on the cafeteria tables. The goal is to begin the line with plate pickup, followed by warm ziti, or at least ziti as warm as a can of Sterno can get a yard long baking pan, followed by salad, Italian bread, brownie, and at the end, plasticware and D&D Brand Italian Vinegarette (sic -- this is, presumably, some sort of small female vinegar). The first wave of forensicians is already drifting in before they finish the set up.

      “You think there’s any way we can heat these up a little,” one of the parents asks, eyeing the stack of ziti trays that they’ve placed on the floor next to the table. Fortunately, the Board of Health will not be visiting here tonight.

      “The kitchen’s locked,” a father replies. “It’s a union thing. They won’t let us in because they think we’re scabs.”

      “Think there’s any more Sterno on the truck?”

      “It doesn’t matter. The driver’s long gone.”

      “Isn’t he going to pick up all the empty trays?”

      “He’ll be back later tonight, after any possibility of his having to do any work has long passed.”

      The ziti itself, famous coast-to-coast, does have certain remarkable characteristics. Its color, for instance, a rather Gauginesque pink, is otherwise not found in nature, and certainly never found in food. Most interestingly, however, is that any amount is both enough and not enough. That is, no matter how hungry you are, no amount of it will fill you up, but at the same time, after eating one bite you really don’t feel hungry anymore.

      It is a paradox worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan tune.

      The salad is at best nondescript, a demonstration that there are indeed uses for the hard white cores of iceberg lettuces. D&D Brand Italian Vinegarette, a delicately seasoned concoction the consistency of motor oil, is the perfect accompaniment.

      The bread -- the staff of life, if you will -- has the virtue of never having hurt anybody, and what is served as a spread promises “true butteree flavor,” and is so delicious that if you close your eyes you can almost imagine that you’re eating real margarine.

      Finally, there are the brownies, a chocoholic’s delight of flour, baking soda, salt, a minimum of half a peanut in every other bite, and a soupcon of the best chocolate D&D money can, or, more to the point, is willing, to buy. At least one whole egg guaranteed to have originated within a bona fide chicken is used in the creation of each and every large baking pan’s worth.

      Of course, as the parents serve this delicious dinner to the desultory line of forensicians, wondering how the children could ever survive eating this fare, they, unlike the D&D caterers responsible for it, are blindly unaware of the reality of the debate diet, which is that, for the most part, debaters don’t eat during a tournament, and those debaters who do eat, will eat anything.

      Some of them have even learned to like baked ziti.

      The adults on the circuit, however, to a man (or woman), have sworn off baked ziti for life.


In Vedantic Tab, it’s a Dormouse

      A tab room runs on a schedule directly opposite from the tournament that surrounds it. When the forensicians are at their busiest, the tab room staff is playing Starcraft and chomping on powdered doughnuts, and when the forensicians are in the cafeteria staring in horror at D&D’s most recent edition of baked ziti, the tab room staff is furiously entering data, operating rounds, chanting intonations and sacrificing ferrets.

      “I don’t like this,” Mr. Lo Pat says, whirring through the doorway of the tab room.

      Nip Sazo and Tilde Hyphen-Emdash are sitting at the Macintosh. She is reading results off the ballots while Nips enters them into the computer. Tilde eyeballs each entry on the screen to double-check its accuracy. Neither of them respond to the bionic coach from Manhattan Lodestone.

      “Oh,” Mr. Lo Pat says. “I didn’t realize you were still tabbing.” He sniffs the air, his eyes darting left and right. “Blood?” he asks.

      “Three ferrets,” Nips replies.

      Mr. Lo Pat nods. “A three-ferret tournament is a good tournament.”

      “If we can keep it to three tournaments.”

      The number-crunching continues, until finally Nips sits back and announces. “It’s time to schedule the round. Let’s rock it!”

      He presses a button. A moment later, the printer begins to churn.

      “Should I get another ferret?” Tilde asks.

      “Third round is traditionally a hamster,” Mr. Lo Pat says.

      “In the Confucian system,” Nips agrees. “We’re using Coptic tab.”

      “Then it is another ferret.”

      Nips grabs the sheet when it is finished printing.

      “Every debater debating? Yes. Every room taken? Yes. Every judge judging? Yes. It looks good,” he says, handing the sheet to Tilde.

      “Every debater debating. Every room taken. Every judge judging. You’re right. It looks good.”

      There is a high-pitched screech from a cage in the corner from a ferret whose life has been spared.

      “Make a hundred copies,” Nips tells the girl.

      The third round of Varsity LD is about to begin. The other rounds have all been tabbed and announced. It is time for the tab room to relax and the forensicians to sacrifice their spiritual ferrets of evidence, logic and argumentation.

      “So,” Nips asks, standing up and stretching, “what don’t you like?”

      Mr. Lo Pat whirrs toward him. “Quilty are here without an adult chaperone.”

      Nip Sazo sighs. “I know.”

      “You shouldn’t let them register.”

      “What can I do? Send them back on a six hour trip back to Quilty after they’ve already gotten here?”

      “What if something happens?”

      “Like what?”

      “Like I don’t know what. But something can happen. There can be accidents. Medical events. Natural disasters. If something happens to a Quilty kid, where’s the adult to take some responsibility for it?”

      Nip Sazo shrugs. “Nothings going to happen, Lo Pat.”

      The Lodestone coach looks up from his wheelchair.

      “You may regret ever saying that.”

      He spins his chair around and whirrs back out of the tab room.

Will the delivery service come and pick up the dinner remains?

Will any forensician ever eat ziti again?

What about the poor vegans?

Will Mr. Lo Pat's dire predictions come true?

What are we going to do with all these canned goods and bottled water?

If we knew they answers, we wouldn't have to write our next episode: "Giuliani and Julie Andrews -- Coincidence or cosmic betrayal?"

Go to the next episode Jan 26, 2000.