“Are you the Virginia Taylor from The Carey School’s Virginia Taylor’s Spaghetti Dinner??” Curtis Chen, one of my colleagues from the Financial Network, asked me as we were standing around during a break at one of our quarterly conferences. I am sure he thought it was a long shot, asking this woman who looks like she has children in college with a pretty common name in a business meeting for financial advisors if she was involve in the this Carey School event. What would the chances be that I was The Virginia from the Virginia Taylor Spaghetti Dinner?
“I started that tradition at my kid’s school in the early ninety’s and they ended up naming the event after me, a true honor”, I told my new friend Curtis as I grew a few inches taller.
I knew of The Carey School from my good friend, Sandi Nichols. She calls my boy Geoff, her blonde headed son. I brought three month old Geoff to the hospital when Sandi gave birth to her second son, Brian. They have been best friends ever since. Taylor, her older son was in preschool at Carey when I suggested that our twelve year old niece Monica live with David, me and our two toddlers to give her mom a break. She was twelve going on twenty one and her Taylor-made smarts caused friction in all areas of her life especially in the parental relationship arena. She was in a school for challenged children and was running circles around everyone so thought a good, normal private school would give her a better chance of success. “Mr. Simpson, what do you think about having Monica join the seventh grade class at the Carey School”, I asked the new Carey headmaster at our first meeting. Instead of easily taking on another tuition for the school (which was sorely needed), he spent an hour and a half guiding me how to navigate the unfamiliar private school landscape by giving me recommendations of which school would be appropriate for Monica along with the best way to present my case for her . One month later Monica was successfully transitioned into seventh grade at an excellent private school and was on her way to making top grades, with of course, a few hiccups in between as with most tweens. I will never forget the kindness and wisdom Bob gave me that day and knew that The Carey School was the place for our children.
“I’ll take on doing the carnival food for the Halloween Carey Fest”, I sheepishly told the president of the parent’s association when no other volunteers came forward. It was my first parent’s association meeting in my long life as a school volunteer and here I was taking on the least favorite of all positions; developing, organizing and running the food booth for three hundred plus kids and their parents over a three day carnival and haunted house on the school grounds. I stayed up late for numerous nights in the school’s kitchen popping popcorn for hundreds of popcorn balls and making batch after batch of cookie dough for oversized cookies. We sold those treats along with hot dogs and pizza (complete with rented oven). I learned how to work a soda fountain, organized all the help, shopped for all of the food and manned the booth throughout the weekend and I was crazy enough to do this for three years. The last year we did this, it rained the entire weekend and the three days of hard work netted us only $5,000.
In the early 90’s this fundraising business was a new thing for the Carey School. The Carey sisters, Mary T. Carey and Clare Carey Willard had just retired and a group of determined parents hired Bob Simpson as headmaster and did the work to made a go at creating a traditional, nonprofit private school. Tuition needed to be increased, the discount for multiple children was discarded, annual giving was established and the Parent’s Association was started to mainly raise funds to keep the doors open.
When Sandi and I became President and Vice President of the Parents Association, we knew there had to be a better way to raise money. Beth, my food partner in crime, had run a number of their children’s walk-a-thons for her children’s school in the Sunnyvale school district. Their event makes over $100,000 and while it was a much larger student body, Sandi and I estimated that our community could raise at least $20,000 with this new one day formula.
Beth gave me all of their walk-a-thon materials and Sandi and I patterned our walk-a-thon as much to West Valley Elementary as feasible, given our school was only one quarter the size. It was a stretch to ask every child to raise money through sponsoring them for each lap walked and creating a competitive atmosphere around their accomplishments. We stopped doing the haunted house, made a much smaller one day carnival and served one lunch for everyone to partake in. It was not an easy tradition to break, everyone loved the old version with its neighborhood feel but after our event netted $60,000 in one day, everyone in The Carey community was thrilled with the new format.
Sandi ran the walk-a-thon portion of the event until her youngest son graduated from The Carey School and when she left, they wanted to honor Sandi’s hard work and re-name the fundraiser The Sandi Nichol’s Walk-a-Thon but she kindly declined. “It takes a community to create that event, not just me”, Sandi explained. I was not so humble with The Virginia Taylor Spaghetti Feed.
I became known for my food at the Carey School. I weaseled my way into becoming a cook for the Carey School Board’s Italian dinner that was a popular item at their new auction fundraiser then added a Mexican dinner and cooking class. The year that I offered just one French dinner, it went for $10,000 for 10 people. Still thinking of ways to make money for the school, I recommended doing an annual spaghetti feed for the entire community charging for the adults and children. I figured we could add another $6,000 to $7,000 to the coffers and we would all have fun doing it. The parent association liked my idea but wanted to do it as a community thank you. The Spaghetti Feed was born and it was my baby to run.
Our menu consisted of an antipasto plate placed in the middle of the serving line to keep the crowds happy as they waited for their spaghetti. Along with the spaghetti, we served a mixed salad with kidney and garbanzo beans, cucumbers and tomatoes with Hidden Valley Ranch dressing that we made with the little packets of powder, mayonnaise and buttermilk. To keep the kids happy, we also made plain spaghetti with butter and cream and homemade garlic bread mixed with grated Parmesan Reggiano. All of this was prepped at my house with two batches of four helpers, the morning shift and afternoon shift, the day before the event. I had people prepping salad, frying Italian sausage, chopping basil and oregano, slicing mushrooms, pitting olives, dicing onions, mincing garlic, chopping sundried tomatoes and opening cans.
Opening cans was one of the most important but least loved job. “Virginia, I have a present for you, actually two”, one of my helper said as she walked into my house ready to put on her apron. “Two brand new, sharp can openers to make our job a bit easier”, she beamed as dived into the first restaurant sized can of whole tomatoes. By 4 pm we had three five gallon pots of sauce ready for a few hour simmer on the Carey kitchen stove. The day of our event, I got up early and boiled and oiled twenty plus pounds of pasta and place it in extra large zip loc bags. No need for a facial after that. I would have a group at school working on the bread, the antipasto plates and making the quarts and quarts of dressing. Getting the sauce on the stove early was important. It took close to two hours to bring the sauce to a simmer, then another few hours of cooking to meld the flavors. I always added fresh basil at the end for a refreshing blast of zing. Betty, our receptionist and excellent server came in at 5 pm to take her place of honor on a stool on the left hand side of the serving window and served everyone their pasta.
After Betty arrived always with that twinkle in her eye and smile on her face, I brought the water to a boil, dumped a pound or so of pasta in a make shift strainer basket and boiled the pasta for a minute or so to heat the noodle. After straining the pasta, leaving a bit of the starchy water clinging to add body to the finish dish, I would add the sauce, toss and dump it into the “red sauce” chafing dish. I did the same with the butter noodles. Periodically, Betty would yell out,” More red sauce”, and I would jump into action, dumping in another pound or so of pasta in that starchy water. It was hot, hectic and a heck of a lot of fun.
I am not sure how they pull it off now but I know the numbers of guests have doubled. I do not think they make the sauce or boil the pasta or make the bread but something tells me, Betty still serves the pasta.
A few weeks ago The Carey School called me up and asked if I would make four quarts of the Virginia Taylor Spaghetti sauce to give as a parting gift to the accreditation auditors that were visiting the school. I was honored they thought of me and immediately agreed to make the sauce and bring it over on Wednesday morning. Tuesday evening, as I was getting ready to jar the sauce, I discovered I was out of quart sized jars so made a mental note to buy more jars in the morning after my 8 am meeting. As I was shopping for dinner that night, I remembered about the spaghetti sauce in my outside refrigerator still waiting to get jarred while I am sure, the auditors were happily done with their audit and on their prospective planes back home, with no sauce.
“We couldn’t take the sauce home anyway since we have carry-on bags”, the auditors kindly told the headmaster, trying to make light of not having the sauce he promised. Luckily Lisa, the head of development had a great suggestion when I called her at home to apologize for my forgetfulness, “Jar the sauce up, put it in the freezer and I will overnight it to them tomorrow with an ice bag.” I was thrilled that I could still be a part of reviving the old history by bringing back the original sauce.
I remember telling Bob that I must have done something right in a past life to be blessed with such unbelievable children. To my observation, he said, “The apple does not fall far from the tree”. I now know the Carey school has to be one of the main branches of that tree.
My Favorite Spaghetti Dinner Menu
I love the combination together and have been known to mix the green beans and salad directly into my spaghetti. I love the crunch of the toasted almonds in the pasta. I usually make extra toasted almonds and top my spaghetti with the nuts versus Parmesan cheese. I also love this pasta with bread smeared with lots of butter that was cooked with a few minced garlic cloves, combined with freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano then toasted, like I did for The Carey spaghetti dinner. Actually, I love that toasty crunchy bread with the sauce. To satisfy this craving, I serve extra sauce on the side for those who like a little more sauce on their pasta or for those like me, who use the bread as a vehicle to eat the sauce. I do not have a recipe on the blog for this bread but you really do not need one. Just melt a half cube of butter in a small saucepan and cook two mince garlic cloves until soft but not too brown. Take the saucepan off the heat and add the rest of the butter to just barely melt and add about a half cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, stirring to combine. Season with salt and pepper (especially if you use unsalted butter). Cut the loaf in half and spread with half the butter mixture evenly on the cut side and do the same with the remaining piece. Cut the bread into serving pieces but not going all the way through. Broil until just brown, watching carefully.
Many desserts go with this meal; just keep it simple and not too heavy. This recipe deserves a top billing on my blog because if its ease, versitility and crumbly goodness. Trixie Putnam, a parent of a Woodside Priory child and excellent cook, sent me this recipe (along with numerous others) as a candiate for our school’s community cookbook. After reading the recipe, I knew I would love it. The crust and crumb is the same dough and it is easy to switch out the fruit filling to whatever fruit you have in your refrigerator or your garden. I have made these bars with apricots, peaches, plums, blackberries, apples and rhubarb all with wonderful success. It makes enough for a crowd and also freezes well for a future treat. All great reasons to get into the kitchen and cook up a batch.
Click on the links to find my recipes for these dishes and for tips on how to make them picture perfect. Also, if you want to know more about the pictures in the post, hover over them for the explanation.