The occasion was Thanksgiving. The place, an upscale restaurant in North Carolina. Jeff Pennypacker, chef and masterful ice sculptor, had carved an exquisite centerpiece for the buffet: a Pilgrim with rifle in hand. But what happened as guests gathered around to serve themselves stole the show. The temperature in the room began to heat up, the Pilgrim started to melt, and where it had once been holding a rifle, it now appeared to be holding
Kitchen disasters. We've all had them. Some are embarrassing. Some are funny. Some, like the randy Pilgrim, are both.
My own disaster story is one of attempted heroism meets poor planning and even poorer judgment. It unfolded on a lovely Mother's Day weekend. In my defense I was young, and the stakes were high: My mother, brother and sister-in-law were driving up from Atlanta to my place for lunch. My boyfriend (now my husband) had yet to win their hearts. The place where we'd be lunching was my claustrophobic tin box of a singlewide house trailer in Chickamauga, Georgia. And it would be my first time cooking for a crowd.
I brushed six Cornish game hens with butter and left them in the refrigerator to marinate in a luxurious blend of Champagne and orange juice. I then tediously handcrafted a small flight of exquisitely misshapen chocolate liqueur cups as a surprise for my brother, who'd had one once and whose life was reportedly never the same again. Pleased with myself, I carefully slid them into the fridge on the shelf below the hens. Then I went to bed and dreamed of the cooking accolades awaiting me the next day.
Instead I awoke to a gruesome scene. The raw-hen marinade had overflowed the platter, showering and filling all five chocolate cups. I would have to throw them away.
Except I didn't. I wiped them off with a paper towel, and when it was time for dessert, I filled them with liqueur and served them.
"L'chaim," I said as we drank. "To health."
We at Chatter wondered about others' memorable kitchen disasters, so we did some asking. Read on to see how many ways there are to flub a meal. And take heed! The holidays are almost here, and you don't want to wind up in a story about kitchen disasters.
Some of the best worst cooking fails come from meals made in an attempt to impress others. It's typically when we pull out all the stops and try to take on the persona — and recipes or cooking methods — of expert chefs.
» My talented cousin Karen tells me about making a lovely duck dinner for her brother-in-law and a guest, a famous researcher her brother-in-law was hoping to impress so that he could co-edit a book with him. But the duck, says Karen, was so tough human teeth could not penetrate it.
"Luckily, the sins of the sister-in-law do not fall on the brother-in-law," she laughs.
He got the gig and has been working with the researcher for over 30 years.
» Then there's Chattanooga writer Mimi Hedwig's story. She was cooking for the parents of the man she hoped to make her husband, and thought she'd make a teensy adjustment to her pecan pie recipe. In "a nod to healthfulness" she subbed in whole-wheat flour for white flour. Her now-husband's father attempted to cut the pie, "first with a dinner knife, and then a sharp kitchen knife," neither of which could break through the rock-hard shell. At last he gave up. "I'm sure the filling is wonderful," he chirped, scooping out the Karo-syrupy mess onto plates sans crust.
"If this had been the 1950s, I'd have had to slit my wrists or at least burst into adorable sobs," says Hedwig.
» Retired nurse Frank White recalls a female friend's attempt to impress her own father, an avid gardener, by baking him a rhubarb pie. "She baked a couple, but was puzzled when the flavor and texture were not quite right," White says. The problem became clear when her irate father " stormed into the kitchen vowing destruction on the swine that cut the tops off his nascent okra crop."
» Chattanooga nurse Sarah Talbott attempted to make fried fish tacos for a potential boyfriend, which set off the fire alarm, which resulted in a visit from the actual fire department — and no boyfriend.
Very Bad Dog!
Children star in some of a family's best stories, and four-legged little ones are no different — especially when that sweet little angel morphs into a "Very Bad Dog!" Anyone with a dog has a stock of Very Bad Dog stories.
» Chattanooga nurse practitioner Carol White had created a wonderful scene: "Lasagna bubbling away in the oven. House pristine. Vacuum cleaner tracks in the carpet. Flowers on the table. Chocolate cheesecake cooling on the counter." With her work done, she decided to treat herself to a long, hot bath. The thought briefly crossed her mind: Where was the dog? But she did not follow up. Instead she dressed, put on makeup and fixed her hair before heading back into the kitchen, where she found her chocolate cheesecake filling gone, a comically thin perimeter of crust still intact. At that moment the dog burst through the door, "a telltale chocolate rim around her snout."
» I, too, have had my share of Very Bad Dog stories. I once excused myself from my Thanksgiving guests to carve my turkey in the kitchen, only to find the 22-pound bird lying on the floor beneath the 20-pound dog, who was staring at it like he could not believe his good fortune. I heaved the bird into the sink and rinsed it off. We have immune systems for a reason, I thought, and this (along with my failed chocolate liqueur cups) was one of them.
Where There's Smoke
Smoke and fire also make a regular appearance in kitchen disaster stories.
» Stephen Black, an avid art collector living in Dunlap, recalls the day his mother made pea soup in an old pressure cooker that blew its lid. The scope of the explosion was so grand, they had to scrape and repaint the ceiling and two walls.
» My own mother-in-law admits she once set a cast-iron pot of beans on the stove to heat, forgot to add liquid, then put the whole cooking endeavor out of her mind entirely. She returned three hours later to find the house filled with smoke and the pot permanently sealed shut.
» Chattanooga artist Durinda Cheek's husband set their deck on fire attempting to use a turkey fryer.
» And retired Chattanooga physician Steve Coulter tells of the time his then-fifth-grade daughter decided to bake cookies while alone at home. "But she didn't really understand the difference between bake and broil," Coulter recalls. She chose broil. Copious smoke resulted, setting off the smoke alarm and the sprinklers and alerting the Chattanooga Fire Department, who had to evacuate the apartment complex of mostly elderly people. When teased about this incident, Coulter says, Sarah responds that she learned from the best, as her mother once set the kitchen on fire making microwave popcorn.
Where Was I?
Some of my favorite stories are the forehead-smacking tales of people who simply forgot what they were doing while they were doing it.
» Arthur Salm had spent an afternoon lovingly creating a chicken soup stock. After boiling the chicken and vegetables for the requisite interminable number of hours, he inexplicably "went into pasta mode," got out his colander, and, to his immediate horror, poured the entire pot of broth down the drain, reserving only the boiled-to-death chicken and depleted vegetables.
» Retired counselor Martha Anderson tells about laboriously hand-pitting cherries from her own tree to make a beautiful homemade pie complete with a lattice-top crust. "I left it on the glass-top stove to cool instead of on the baking rack I always use. Shortly afterward, I inadvertently turned on the burner under the pie, and a few minutes later, the pie plate and its contents exploded all over the kitchen."
Kitchen disasters. If you cook, you've had them.
But, like Thomas Edison, who famously said, "I have not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work," I like to think of our disasters not as failures, but as stepping-stones to our next great meal. So put on your apron and get back in the kitchen. Just be sure to keep your head in the game.