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Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Cooking Disasters

I may have given some of my friends the idea that I have always been some fabulous cook. Yes, I'd like to think of myself as Nigella Lawson in cape dress and prayer kapp.

Probably I look a little more like this.

My mother had this cookbook, as did many women in the 1960s and 1970s. I don't hate to cook, and some of the recipes from this book were quite revolting, involving cans of tuna or salmon, cream of monstrosity soup, and noodles. And tinned peas. And catsup as a sauce.

I've had my share of kitchen mishaps and total disasters. I left home when I was seventeen, settled down into my own home at eighteen, and proudly invited my mother's parents to a Thanksgiving dinner. What is so hard about that? Mashed potatoes, roast turkey with stuffing, salad, two vegetables, and Nana bringing two pies.

No one told me that turkeys come with the giblets and neck stuffed in the cavity. I had used a spoon to stuff the bread mixture into the hollow place where Mr. Turkey was once solid, and I was a little surprised that more did not fit, but the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook said to pack it loosely. I put the rest of the stuffing in a baking pan and basted it with turkey pan juices, as my mother had done.  Nana asked if I wanted to make gravy with the giblets, but I said, "The turkey didn't come with any." She thought this was a bit odd, and wanted to know where I had bought the bird; she had been a butcher for the IGA for several years.

When it came time to serve, my grandmother came into the kitchen and helped me carve the turkey. She scooped out the stuffing and then exclaimed, "Oh, my! Whatever is..." And then she started to laugh. Nana had a piercing, cacophonous laugh. I'm sure the neighbours heard her, and they probably heard about the cause of the merriment. ("Donald, you will never believe what your granddaughter did!") The gizzard, giblets and neck were nicely cooked inside their cellophane wrapper, inside the bird. She soon relayed the story to my mother, and it was something of a family legend.

I managed to get through a few more years without a total failure beyond a pot of burned rice. I turned out a fair number of grilled pork chops, beef stews, pots of soup and loaves of bread, although I shied away from exotic things like pie crust and cake. I had the opportunity, though, to work on a cookbook for the importer of a quality ingredient (expensive and rare, and I had the luxury of oodles of it to work with) and my cooking skills expanded and improved. I made infused Austrian tortes, baba au rhum, and bay scallops en flambe. I made real corned beef, and juniper scented aged roasts. Then I was asked to produce an authentic Swiss fondue, flavoured with my rare and expensive ingredient. I was to host a small party, with the daughter of one of the company's principals invited along.

This daughter was a bit of a flibbertigibbet, beautiful, young and careless. She was a darling to her father and his associates, and it was unthinkable that we would have the party gather at the table without her. I started the fondue in the kitchen, hovering over the pot like a mad scientist. I timed it right down to the minute I planned to serve, with a heap of french bread cubes ready to serve in bowls with the fondue forks.

The darling daughter was late, late by half an hour. My precious fondue suddenly gave up, and glopped into particles of cheese curds in a greasy wine soup. I simply did not have enough cheese on hand to make another pot. I grabbed my whisk, and did all the things one does when the cheese fondue separates. I managed to get it back into a passable suspension, but it was hardly fondy anymore. I buttered a casserole, tossed the bread cubes and some diced parsley in, beat in my special ingredient, poured the cheesy sauce on, sprinkled lavishly with bread crumbs, and baked it for fifteen minutes, finishing it under the broiler. I snatched the fondue forks off the table, laid out proper flatware and plates, served the salad, and presented my fromage en croute as the divine daughter arrived. I poured white wine generously, and little Miss D.D. said, "Oh, I thought this was going to be fondue."

"It is," I said through gritted teeth. "It's an oven fondue. Something new."

I am not a casserole person. I can make a nice white sauce in the blink of an eye; I make my own noodles; I am not opposed to meat and vegetables mingling in a dish. But the average casserole recipe leaves me uninspired. Unless they contain lobster and shrimp, with a touch of kirsch perhaps, I am not fond of a casserole. I make them for other people occasionally, but I'm more likely to serve my leftovers in a soup or simply heated in the oven under a blanket of gravy.

My church was having a huge public buffet dinner, the one big moneymaking fund raiser of the year. I had been let off the hook from cooking for some other event, on the grounds that some of the ladies had been in my kitchen, and I had no food. This was not true - I had chicken breasts and shrimp along with some packets of lovely, high-end frozen vegetables in the freezer. I had a wedge of Parmesan to grate. I had fresh angel hair pasta. I had salad ingredients. I had flour and yeast and salt and honey and olive oil. I had hummus and toastable

I had nothing in a tin or a can or a box. I had a bowl of fresh eggs from my own chickens, but I never bought a dozen eggs.

I lived alone. I was thin and elegant and ran three times a week.

The week before the big event, one of the women on the committee called me. "It's your turn to make a casserole." I put my head down on my desk. I hadn't made a casserole in about 20 years.

"Couldn't I bake some bread? Or brownies? Or baba au rhum?"

"No, the baking is all taken care of. We need a casserole."

"I've got a great recipe for a salad that has watermelon and feta cheese and black olives. From Nigella Law..."

"I'm afraid people are expecting a casserole."

I called a sister. "What do I make for a casserole? Not tuna. And not Nana's salmon loaf."

She suggested one my mother used to make. Tinned corned beef, macaroni, cream of something soup, with those fried crispy onions from the fancy little can ornamenting the top. I think it had a grated cheese product in it, too.

I threw this concoction together, baked it and sneaked a bit out from under the oniony crust. Bland, ugly and salty. I took it down to the community hall anyway. The ladies in the kitchen eyed it, and I know as soon as I went out to help serve, they hid it under a box.

At the end of the evening, as I helped clear tables and bag the trash, one pulled out the remains of the woebegone casserole. It looked as if someone had half-heartedly tried a spoonful, to show willing. "We didn't get this served until the end," she said. "Do you want to take it home?"

No, I did not. And as I had wisely baked it in a foil pan, I foisted it off on someone with a family. I don't know if they ate it, but I never heard anything of it again.


  1. Makes me smile, Magdalena. I hate when the church ladies call and just assign a dish. I'd rather they let me decide. They always tell me to make things that I don't have the ingredients for. Like the turkey vegetable soup I need to make Friday. Who has turkey around?!! Luckily my mom had an extra turkey in the freezer. I much rather they had asked for rolls :)


  2. Well many years ago when I started cooking my first turkey I forgot to take out the neck... Lol
    Love to read ina plain kitchen... Brenda