Fires, Explosions, and Betty Crocker!

Fires, Explosions, and Betty Crocker!

When Liam and I were newly married and living out of state, my parents came to our area for a rodeo.  My mom’s birthday happened to fall during their visit, so I was excited to make her birthday dinner.  I made pork roast (from our first home raised pig), carrots, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and dark chocolate cake with boiled fudge frosting.  The smell of that roast was wonderful!  Lying on its bed of caramelized roasted vegetables, it looked just like a picture in a cookbook.

The meal was timed beautifully.  I finished the frosting, poured it over the cake, and pulled the roast out to rest for ten minutes.  Suddenly, a shot rang out!  Shrapnel went flying through the kitchen.  Dogs went running for cover, and my family dove behind the counters.

Too late, I realized, I’d set the roast on the burner used to make the boiled frosting.  It was still hot…and the roasting pan was glass! That pan didn’t crack!  It didn’t shatter!  It exploded!  I don’t think there was a single glass shard larger than my pinky fingernail!  Au jus came pouring out and dripped morosely through the burners of the stove.  Not only was the meal a total loss, but my guests could easily have been taken out in the blast!  Heck, even the cake had to be trashed.  It had been sitting on the counter to cool, and we couldn’t risk feeding glass slivers to anyone.

I. Was. Mortified.  I can’t remember what I cobbled together to serve them.  It was the first time my parents had visited our little farm, and I clearly tried to take them out with a roasting-pan-bomb.  Usually, I can find the humor in kitchen plans that go awry.  However, that night,  I just wanted to sulk in the pantry and throw things at anyone who laughed.

The great glass explosion of ’89 popped into my mind as I was talking to a young woman at work recently.  In an effort to protect the cookery impaired, I’ll call her Daisy.  (I tried to write this post without using a name, and it was overrun with “she’s” and “my friend’s”.)

Daisy grew up in a wealthy family.  Dinners were either boxed meals, takeaway or restaurant fare.  I don’t know if her mother can’t cook or doesn’t like to, but either way, Daisy is intimidated by all things culinary.

Daisy was happy to continue the family tradition when she was single and earning nurse’s pay.  However, she’s now married and a mom.  She wants to cut back her working hours to spend time with her babies, so she needs to stretch her dollars.  Daisy also wants to feed her young family healthy meals.  Actually, that was what kicked off our conversation.  We were talking about how much easier it is to get kids to eat healthy foods if it’s what they’re used to.  She asked if I’d be interested in teaching some basic cooking classes to her MOPs group.

I told her I’d be happy to spend a few evenings in her kitchen, but that I really didn’t think she needed that kind of help.  I gave her my usual speech.  This involved reminding Daisy, that she’s both smart and literate.  I also pointed out that she doesn’t need to cook cordon bleu cuisine, just tasty stuff for her family.  Then, I suggested finding a simple recipe from family or a friend who a) cooks and b) knows that PBJ’s are the height of Daisy’s culinary experience.  I followed this up with an offer of a ‘recipe’ for simple easy pork chops.

Daisy’s response took me totally by surprise!  She leaned forward and in tones of very real fear said, “But what if I mess it up?!?!”  Folks, this is someone who effectively manages the care of critically ill children!  Daisy makes literal life-or-death decisions on a daily basis!  And, she’s terrified of a pork chop!  I know there are people who don’t like to cook and those who aren’t comfortable in the kitchen, but I never realized there are those who are scared of it!

I put some thought into our conversation.  I think it reflects the priorities of our culture.  There’s tremendous focus on college, school, and formalized training.  This is why Daisy’s first thought was to take a class and prove (by passing) that she had mastered the subject matter.

Now, I went to college and I graduated with a very respectable GPA.  If a nurse is caring for my child, I want to know that they passed the classes and sat the exams.  However, when it comes to cooking, the proof really is in the pudding!  There are some things best learned through ‘doing’!  I feel, that unless you want to be a master chef, cooking is one of these.  Daisy didn’t want a class to learn to cook; she wanted a class to approve her learning and give her confidence.

One of the great things about cooking is that (unless you decide to serve raw or spoiled meat or chocolate cake laced with glass shards), kitchen mistakes don’t kill people!  If you screw it up or the recipe isn’t good, most of the time, it’s still edible.  I’ve served my family a few things through the years, with the prefacing statement, “Don’t worry, we won’t have this again”.  If it’s REALLY bad, you chuck the mess to the dog and eat PBJ’s or call out for pizza.  In the worst case scenario, the dog won’t eat it and you have to bury it in the backyard under cover of darkness.  But, even then, no lives are lost.  Although, nosy neighbors might suspect you of burying a body and report you to the police.  (Imagine their confusion when they dig up the charred remains of meatloaf!)

However bad the food tastes, no lives are lost, lessons are learned, and your kids get a great story to tell at your funeral luncheon!  “Do you remember the time Mama was frying bananas and the butter exploded like Mt. Etna?  It rained molten lava all over the kitchen.  The floor was so greasy she and the dog skated into each other and landed in a heap while she mopped?!?”  (True story!)

When I explained the above to Daisy, she responded with, “But, you can cook!  I mean you’re Betty Crocker!”  I swear some of these young women think I exited the birth canal holding a pan of cinnamon rolls and a cast iron skillet!  However, that is simply not the case.

I did grow up cooking.  I’ve had my own kitchen for 29 years.  I enjoy making different cuisines and historic recipes.  I’m adventurous about creating my own recipes.  This isn’t intended as braggadocio, it’s intended to explain how wide and varied are the opportunities I give myself to look like a fool in the kitchen!  If you do something consistently and passionately, two things will happen.  You’ll get better at it, and you will on occasion really mess it up!

In order to make cooks and wanna-be cooks embrace their dinner time flubs, I thought I would share a few of mine!

  • Several times, I’ve put a pot of beans on to boil, forgotten to set a timer, and gotten lost in a book or homeschool lesson.  On these occasions I surfaced only when thick black smoke had oozed its way through the house and the bottom of my bean pot had become one with legume detritus and ash.
  • I have a habit of using cup towels as hot pads and oven gloves.  I periodically grab one in a hurry, don’t bother to fold it, reach into the oven, and set the straggling edges alight in a pyrotechnic display accompanied by the music of intermittent yelps and swear words.
  • The first Thanksgiving we were married, I wanted to make my favorite holiday dessert to share with my new husband.  We had no money.  (Seriously, there was NO money.  We were newlyweds, who paid the bills, then had to stretch whatever was left to feed ourselves for the month.  Remember those naked beans?  Well, there were a lot of naked potatoes too!)  I saved up to buy poppy seeds, canned milk, extra sugar, and a few other ingredients. In my excitement, I forgot to add the salt. The resulting ‘cake’ was a solid mass of yuck. I was heartbroken.  I’d wasted the money for ingredients, and we had no more to replace them.  However, no one was killed by my brick of a cake, and we’ve been chuckling about that cake for 25 years. (The ‘cake’ was made 29 years ago, but it took me a while to see the funny side. 😉 ) And, I’ve NEVER forgotten to put salt in baked goods again!
  • That same year, I wanted to make a special dinner for our first anniversary.  Again, I saved up and bought bay scallops.  I made a cream sauce, broccoli, and pasta.  At the last minute, I decided the sauce was a little bland.  I added a dash of lemon juice to perk it up.  Yep, you read that correctly.  I put lemon juice in cream.  The resulting cheese/yogurt/buttermilk mixture was disgusting to look at.  Eating it wasn’t even a consideration!  It was years before I was brave enough to face a scallop again!
What can I say? I set timers, because I’m easily distracted!

Through the years, I’ve doubled the rice and forgotten to double the water making for a very crunchy side dish.  I’ve had a spring form pan develop a leak, so that when I went to remove my ah-maz-ing Chocolate Ganache Cake from the oven the batter had leaked out and turned the water bath into a wasted mud pit.  I’ve made gravy with lumps, food that converted to charcoal, and meals where one dish gets stuck in a time-loop and refuses to be done!  Seriously,  I’ve held the rest of the meal and tapped my foot in pursuit of tender potatoes.  I’ve put too much cumin in the taco meat and not enough curry in the biryani.  I’ve used old yeast, so my bread dough sat like a shriveled old curmudgeon refusing to rise up and great the day.  I’ve put dough in too small a bowl, so it climbed out sidled across the counter ready to take on all comers.

Don’t be afraid to try new things in the kitchen!  If you cook, you’ll make mistakes.  Heck, if you breathe and have a pulse you’ll make mistakes.  That’s okay!  Learn from them.  Lob things at the wall in a fit of pique if you need to. Eventually, you can laugh about them.  The most important thing is: refuse to allow fear of making mistakes to stop you from growing.

If you’re new to the kitchen, I’m happy to share some recipes to get you started.  If you already cook, try baking bread or making a dish from another cuisine.  If you’re really at home in the kitchen, try jams, pickles, canning or whatever challenge lights your fire.  Just be careful, and don’t set your cup towel ablaze!

Have you had any cooking disasters that have reached the funny stage?  Do you need a good pork chop recipe?  Have you ever blitzed gravy to get the lumps out?  Please leave a comment if you have the time!

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