I've always been a guest, never a bride, so I can say this objectively: Only airline food has a worse reputation than what's served at weddings. Captive audiences can't be choosy.
While air fare will always be a joke, wedding food is evolving thanks to what might be called "no trend left behind." Five years ago, brides could get away with putting their budget before their guests' palates. Now all the innovations changing the way America eats are being adopted by caterers and wedding planners -- and happy couples themselves -- who are taking cues from food television, the farm-to-table phenomenon, the organic/seasonal/sustainable movement and every other flash in the kitchen. Even food trucks are rolling up to the fanciest receptions.
"People want to push the wedding boundaries," says Andrea Duty of Bake Sale in Austin, which caters to couples who dislike cake and want a less hidebound dessert with a more individualistic feel. "This generation has almost a competitive attitude. They want their weddings to land on the big wedding blogs."
That means food with flair. A series of small plates, rather than salad followed by chicken or fish and a slice of dazzling but dry cake. A vegetarian menu. A whole pig roasted in view of the guests. A dessert buffet loaded with just pies or a variety of one-bite sweets.
"People's expectations are higher even when there are 300 or 400 guests," says Peter Callahan, a top New York caterer who wrote Bite by Bite (Clarkson Potter, $35), a collection of sophisticated mouthfuls for weddings and other soirees.
Or, as Sina Molavi, the chef at Occasions Caterers in Washington, puts it: "People are looking for more of a restaurant-style dinner." Rather than an industrial slab of salmon poached hours earlier and dressed with dill sauce, clients want seared-to-order halibut with celeriac puree and green apple ragout.
For the cocktail hour, Eric Michael, co-founder and creative director of Occasions in Washington, says his company has provided mixologists with unique cocktails and has set up food stations dispensing local charcuterie, made-to-order ceviche and single-ingredient stunts such as tomatoes prepared six ways.
Michael says clients are now so locavore-ish that Occasions can have farmers plant to order for a wedding, if time allows. Which is what La Prima Catering, also in Washington/Baltimore, is doing for a wedding in September. The seeds for the kale that will become a salad with lavender honey were planted June 20; the main course, chicken seasoned with lemongrass and paired with roasted eggplant, will be made with chicks that will grow up on the farm after they arrive Aug. 8.
"The bride and groom are very interested in sustainable agriculture and the environment and healthy food and organics," says La Prima spokeswoman Karen Bate. "It's how they live, and they wanted their wedding to reflect that."
The 120 guests at that wedding will not be receiving invitations asking them to check off their choice of protein; it's one menu fits all. Georgette Farkas, speaking for Daniel Boulud's Feasts & Fetes in New York, says that giving options is "completely passé."
More and more couples do not want a sit-down dinner at all, which has liberated caterers. Diane Gordon of Diane Gordon Catering in New York says: "Couples want people to mingle. Twenty years ago, there would be pasta stations. Now it's upscale street food."
She borrows ideas from food trucks to offer a menu that includes three types of falafel -- beet, carrot and chickpea-chestnut -- plus truffled wild mushroom dumplings, duck empanadas, mini crab tacos, lamb moussaka and tiny Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches.
"Brides want their weddings to be creative and really personal," Gordon says.
As for the cake at such a wedding, it might be supplanted by mini churros to dip in hot chocolate, or quartered doughnuts, provided by Three Tarts Bakery, also in New York.
Callahan agrees that creativity is a motivation but suggests that there is also an element of DIY.
"Even if they're not doing it themselves, brides want to be much more involved. One of the big things is to have the food not look like catered food. Not banquet-y, more natural."
He provides a three-course dinner but suggests that the centerpieces be supplemented by shared bowls of shaved corn, say, or a cake stand with slices of flatbread to nibble on.
Despite the limping economy, wedding planners are acting like fast-food chains that coax diners into extra eating opportunities. Some weddings have three stages: a cocktail hour, a sit-down (or walk-around) dinner and an informal after-party.
But guy food is also having its wedding day.
"All the television network focus has elevated awareness of food, and now the dad is leaving his high-powered office to come meet the caterer to taste and debate the merits of osso buco versus rib-eye," Callahan says. "They get bragging rights."
Grooms are speaking up more as well, says Andrea Duty in Austin. "Everyone has an opinion." Often they win only on the rehearsal dinner, choosing barbecue or hiring taco trucks. "But I make a ton of banana pudding for grooms."
Unwrap one of these, and the heady scent of cinnamon and chocolate wafts out. Pick up the filling with your fingers, or drizzle it with a little chocolate sauce and eat with a fork. For a retro taste, add miniature marshmallows to the filling to create s'mores tamales. Serve warm, accompanied by Mexican vanilla ice cream, if desired.
21 dried corn husks
2 cups masa harina
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups whole milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips or disks
1. Place the corn husks in a large bowl and cover them with boiling water. Weigh the husks down with a heavy plate or bowl to ensure that they are submerged; soak for 15 minutes or until the husks are pliable. Transfer to a colander to drain.
2. Use a spoon to combine the masa harina, cinnamon, salt, vanilla extract and milk in a medium bowl.
3. Combine the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer at medium-high speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the masa mixture and mix until fully incorporated.
4. To wrap the tamales, tear about three of the corn husks lengthwise into thin strips; you will use these to tie the tamales closed. Pat a corn husk dry and lay it on a work surface with the tapered end pointing toward you. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the masa filling onto the center of the husk and spread or pat it evenly into a rectangle about 4 inches across and 3 inches top to bottom.
5. Arrange a tablespoon of chocolate chips in a vertical line down the center of the filling. With your fingers, bring together the two long sides of the corn husk and press the two edges of filling together to surround the chocolate chips. Roll the corn husk around the filling until the tamal is closed and no filling shows. Use two of the corn husk strips to firmly tie the ends of the tamal closed. (The strips are stronger than you think.) Repeat with the remaining corn husks and filling.
6. Have ready a large pot with a steamer basket attached. (Or use a roasting pan with an elevated wire rack.) Pour 1/2 to 1 inch of water into the pot. Layer the tamales in the basket and transfer to the pot, making sure the water level is lower than the bottom of the basket so it doesn't touch the tamales. Cover the tamales with any remaining soaked corn husks, then cover with the pot lid. Steam over medium-low heat for about 90 minutes or until the corn husks can easily be pulled away from the masa filling. Serve warm.
Make ahead: The tamales can be assembled two weeks in advance, wrapped tightly in several layers of plastic wrap and frozen. Defrost them overnight in the refrigerator, then proceed with the steaming. The tamales can also be steamed, cooled, wrapped tightly in several layers of plastic wrap and frozen. To reheat, defrost completely, arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet, cover tightly with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until warmed through.
Nutritional information per tamal: 290 calories, 18 grams fat (11 grams saturated), 4 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 80 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 20 grams sugar, 56 percent of calories from fat.