My cooking disasters began when I was eight years old. I made raisin-oatmeal cookies for the bake sale from my mother’s Maida Heatter book. My mother told me that, in her opinion, cookbooks always made desserts too sweet, and so to reduce the amount of sugar. I reduced the sugar to a quarter of a cup. My fifth grade teacher, feeling sorry for me, ate four cookies with a grimace and said they tasted “healthy.” For years, risotto was my albatross – cook it over a heat that is too high, and the rice is raw, cook it at low heat, and it becomes glue. It was even more painful because my mother was a risotto expert. Eggs were worse. My hard boiled would come out with so many green rings it looked like a slice of a petrified tree. My soft boiled would collapse into liquid because I hadn’t boiled them long enough. Don’t get me started on the subject of poached eggs. Also, I can count three times when I have set the kitchen on fire. The most recent time was when I made a Morton Thompson turkey. I was at my brother Yar’s house, and my niece had just been born, and Yar and I watched helplessly as flames leaped about. “Come see!” his wife cooed, “Charlie just made her first smile.” “I’m sorry,” said Yar, “but the house might burn down.”
Yesterday, I mistook a bitter melon for a silk squash. Okay, it is an esoteric mistake I grant you. Bitter melon and silk squash are both pillars of Chinese cuisine and one buys them both in an Asian market where there are very few labels, and the ones that exist are in Chinese. Both are elongated, pale green, and covered with horns. They both look a bit like the snozzcumber in Roald Dahl’s BFG. Bitter melon, however, is known for its mouth puckering astringency. Silk squash is soft, melting and delicate. With bitter melon, you are supposed to scoop out the flesh and the seeds and cook the rind. With silk squash, you are supposed to peel the rind and cook the soft pulp and seeds. I felt, glumly poking my silk squash rinds, alone in the world.
I ate the whole thing, just as I did in years past — the unsweetened cookies, the charred Thompson turkey, and all the risottos. Because that is what one does with a cooking disaster, isn’t it? You sit and grimly munch away at the whole thing. No one talks about that either. Over the years, I have eaten my way through bowls of buttercream that would not set. I have devoured batches of fried chicken, lovingly marinated in the pain-in-the-ass Thomas Keller brine, that is raw inside.
Why doesn’t anyone talk about their cooking disasters any more? Everyone, it seems, want to coo about their success. I made this brisket! and it was beautiful! Here are the pictures to prove it! I made this soufflé, for the very first time in my life, and it rose like an angel ascending to heaven! But I find stories about culinary catastrophe more humane, and frequently more instructive.
Supposedly, I am currently a good cook but if I am, it is only because I have cooked since an early age, and messed up a lot. And I continue to fail. The silk squash debacle rates about a 3.5 in the 1-10 scale of my cooking messes. The Thompson Turkey rates about a six. Nothing can quite match the humiliation of a meal ill-prepared, the people eating their food politely without comment, or grabbing the salt shaker and sprinkling salt with a wistful expression, hoping that the salt will act like a fairy dust and transform what they are eating. Every time someone folds their napkin well before they are finished with their plate – that is another wound upon my soul. I just wish that I didn’t feel like I am the only person in the world who suffers.
Certain cooking disasters are a result of bad timing, and too much of one ingredient. (In my case, it’s salt and sometimes heat, which I then try to correct with butter and/or sugar, always tragic.) Occasionally they are a result of miscommunication; I ask someone to braise and they misheard me and thought I meant broil. There is ingredient confusion, when one mistakes a Serrano for a long red pepper, or a silk squash for a bitter melon. There is also the cooking disaster that results in being too thrifty. Some bananas are going rotten, so cleverly, you mash them, combine them with flour and vanilla and egg to make banana cookies; when the banana cookies are awful, so you whip some cream and turn it into trifle. (I know lots of people who do this, and some of them are not even in their twenties.) Impatience is always the thing that fells me; not soaking your baccalao enough days and changing the water regularly; not thoroughly washing and drying your greens; removing a fried chicken from the oil because the outside is crisp and you are sick of standing over a pan of splattering oil – these things, I know, from experience, will bite you in the ass. Then there’s grit. A clam or a stalk of parsley with sand can ruin the most beautifully composed dish. People will praise it, but everyone knows that it tastes like a flip flop after a day at the beach.
There are the cooking disasters that, to quote dessert doyenne Maida Heatter quoting the writer Issac Singer, are the result of “demons.” You know what I’m talking about – when, in the kitchen, the forces are simply aligned against you. Your oil will not come up to temperature, your oven will not get hot, your knife slips, or the shaking-lid on your cayenne falls off, meaning that you have just dumped ¼ cup of heat into your main course. Sometimes, cooking curses are personal. For example, recipes hate me. If I follow something step by step, everyone that evening is ordering for Dominos. Then there’s Chinese food; people expect me to be able to make it because I am Chinese in origin, but Chinese night, in my experience, is another Dominos day. If I am cooking to impress someone, the evening is bound to tank. Also, I will never be able to bake my mother (who, apart from her risotto, is an excellent dessert chef) a birthday cake. On this hallowed occasion, I have burnt and sunk and at one point, when the cake layers were rising and golden in the oven, I realized I had forgotten to add sugar. The last cake I made my mother tasted vaguely of lemon, and looked like Java the Hut; I had to prop it up with toothpicks just to get it to stay on the plate while we sang the song.
Every successful dish I’ve made has left a trail of corpses in its wake. That crisp pork skin on a pork belly? Seven times out of ten, it’s been shoe leather. Crab and lobster I find prone to over or undercooking, and that shit is neither cheap nor low maintenance. Then the more expensive ingredients that you end up defaming because you are in a romantic Babette’s feast type of mood. I’ve melted a torchon of foie just by looking the other way. One friend tried to replicate the quail with rose petals from Like Water for Chocolate, just to get the mood steamy. Don’t, she told me, I don’t think that Laura Esquivel had a test kitchen.
My granddad was my familiy’s first kitchen iconoclast. An architect by trade, he was a marvelous chef, but things had to be done with his own flair and his own technique. He was also a perfectionist, which meant many of his kitchen meddlings went into the bin. By the age of eleven, my older cousin Jay was microwaving Betty Crocker brownies, pureeing potatoes and olive oil in the blender, and making a risotto in a steamer with beans and his mother’s secret truffle stash. (Only the brownies were successful.) As my granddad and Jay have shown me, one cannot be both experimental and a perfectionist without generating a lot of waste. I am lucky. I don’t have a family or a clientele to feed every night, and most of my expenses – instead of gas or heating or books or clothing — go towards the meals that I make, that often disappoint me, and that rarely see the light of day. These days, it’s more morally difficult to swallow with meat; over the years, I’ve become more soft-hearted. I’m conscious that for every piece of flesh I ruin, it’s a being that gave up its life just to go into the trash. I still do it though. Last year, I massacred 10 pounds of beef in a week, to come up with the perfect roast.
I get why people don’t want to share their failures. Cooking is like every performance, it is an illusion. A piano teacher of mine was giving a dinner party. Because she didn’t cook, she taught herself veal marsala, and then cooked it every day for two weeks so she could make it perfectly, on the day of the dinner party, with a flourish. Perhaps it’s the years of piano I had, but I realize that life is about constant practice behind closed doors; how after weeks of struggle one then produces (hopefully) something that resembles spontaneous perfection. These days, I am okay with dinner parties because I know to steer away from the things that I regularly fuck up. There will be no poached eggs, fried chicken, or Chinese food at my dinner parties. Nor will there be birthday cake. Still, like anyone who cooks regularly, I am still dreading that telephone call: “We’re afraid there was nothing we could do to save her. No, she was perfectly healthy. The last time we talked, she said she was going jogging and then going to have dinner at your house.”
I understand why a kitchen failure is a touchy subject, and how for many people, kitchen disasters, like most muck-ups, are a private thing. But maybe I am an Asian-American, Gen-X puritan. I believe the only way one learns is through failure. Cooking well is frequently not about immediate success, so much about it is the set-backs, and one learns from one’s mistakes and those of others. So why not share? In the end, it is only cooking, after all. This is from me, the queen of the teary kitchen meltdown. (“Someone get her a cigarette and a drink,” is what people normally say to me at least once during a dinner party.) Yes, from time to time, a kitchen meltdown is fueled by a more private despair, like when I over-salted the crab cakes at my father’s funeral. Still, a kitchen disaster isn’t a marriage or a substance abuse problem or a childhood gone astray; and in all the ways in which life derails us, surely, the times in the kitchen are the ones that we can afford to chuckle over and share.
I’m just going to revisit the last time I set a kitchen on fire. It was Thanksgiving Day, and a Morton Thompson turkey – a turkey from the 1930s that is legendary for the number of ingredients involved. It weighed about thirty pounds, and while trussing it, I gashed myself deeply on the arm with a skewer. Also, my boyfriend was breaking up with me while I was doing it. In any case, because we had no proper roasting pans, we used one made of foil, which cracked under the weight of the turkey, and then the ten pounds of butter that I had put into the turkey began to melt and drip into the flames below. Lessons learned so far: Do not use an aluminum foil pan for a Morton Thompson turkey. Also, do not, as Morton Thompson himself suggests, start pouring yourself your first cocktail the moment you begin.
My niece was cracking her first smile. My brother, who is preternaturally calm, looked a little tense. We watched the flames for a while, and then Yar said to me, “What should we do? Should we throw water on it?”
It is generally accepted that my brother is the genius of the family. I am at peace with this fact, as is everyone else. However, water, as most people know, can splatter the droplets of oil and cause a fire to spread, turning a cozy oven blaze into a kitchen inferno.
I turned the oven off and said, “Yar, sometimes, it’s good to know that every now and then, you are a moron.”
When the fire finally subsided, we surveyed the remains. My sister-in-law, also a genius, said, “I think we should chop it up.”
I stuck firm. Maybe it was the fire, maybe it was the slash on my arm, maybe it was the breakup or the stupid futile thing that was the Morton Thompson Turkey itself, but I said, “Let’s get another pan and keep cooking it.”
In the end? It was delicious. Okay, the outside tasted like ashes but the inside was quite tasty, and for some reason, my brother and sister-in-law have insisted on only making Morton Thompson turkey since.
I’ll post the recipes for silk squash and bitter melon soon; really, they’re very nice, and I feel like I am only five or six squashes away from perfection. In the meanwhile, have you any kitchen disasters to share? Please do. Keep in mind, I don’t want the perfect popover, I want to know about the one that sunk and why. And while I read them, I will nibble on my squash rinds.