Whether you’re a serious cook or just a reckless dabbler, you’ve probably at some point met your gastronomic Waterloo. What follows are assorted tales of woe, wrath, pain, suffering, and humiliation, all revolving around the theme of cooking gone wrong. Guten appetit!
Maja Ingeman, The Heavy Table
It had been a long work day, and my lunch of celery and baby carrots had done nothing to abate my hunger — tonight, I wanted meat. Too hungry, tired, and cranky to drive to the store for more charcoal for the grill, I threw a Braucher’s Sunshine Harvest Farm tenderloin in a glass casserole dish, sprinkled it with kosher salt and pepper, and put it under the broiler. I should have known something would happen — between the flaming crostini and billowing smoke I’ve created with the broiler setting in the past, I swear the oven in this house is cursed — but honestly, how can a simple, broiled steak go wrong?
After a few minutes my steak had reached the desired medium-rare, so I slipped on an oven mitt and pulled the steak out of the oven, imagining how delicious it would taste in a matter of moments. All of a sudden, my hungry reverie was shattered — in the most literal way possible — as the glass casserole dish exploded in slow motion in my oven mitt-covered hand, sending burning hot shards of glass flying in all directions.
If you’ve ever imagined the damage a volcano can do — spewing red-hot magma that burns anything in its path — this may be the kitchen equivalent. No kitchen supply was immune to the temperature and velocity with which the glass flung itself, leaving shards embedded in the varnished wooden tabletop, melted into a plastic cutting board, littering the depths of my purse, and sparkling on the floor like a million razor-sharp diamonds. Blood oozed from my bare hands and feet, collateral damage of the spontaneous explosion. I tried desperately to restrain our new puppy, instantly recalling my dad’s childhood tale that eating a bay leaf would grind up my intestines and picturing a far worse fate for my would-be glass-eating canine friend. My steak lay on the kitchen floor, surrounded by (and presumably embedded with) countless shiny glass fragments.
Though I cleaned up the mess, I found myself fishing bits of glass from my purse the next day at the office, where I cleansed and bandaged the worst spots on my shredded feet. I bought a new tenderloin that Sunday at Kingfield Farmers Market, and purchased more charcoal for the grill. Ever since, though, I’ve avoided that broiler — it seems I’ve finally learned my lesson.
Craig Drehmel, Gastro Non Grata
The first time I learned not to turn the oven on drunk was junior year of college in a dilapidated, condemnable house with no front door lock on Marshall Ave in St. Paul. At 2:00 in the morning, I started baking a gas station frozen pizza. I woke up at 3:45 to the smoke, yet there was still a thin layer of sauce between the heavily blackened cheese and crust. I was so poor at that point I was basically a vegetarian only because I couldn’t afford meat, so there was no waste amongst the boxes of tuna helper that rarely saw tuna. So, needless to say, I ate the worst frozen pizza I’ve ever made and washed it down with a plastic cup of two-day-old, warm, Busch Light keg remnants. It’s been uphill ever since.
My first job out of cooking school was as a culinary management trainee for a hotel in Southern California. I was 19 years old, skinny as hell, the only white boy in the kitchen, and nervous. I worked mainly in the hotel’s Italian restaurant kitchen. I would prepare food during the morning and afternoon, help out with the lunch rush, and then run the line during the evening. It was a lot of hours, but I was excited to have my first grown-up job and eager to please. My boss was named Howie, and he was a sarcastic Puerto Rican from Long Island who, for some reason, liked to talk about his daughter’s “bubble butt.” One day, Howie taught me how to make the pesto that we used on a variety of dishes and would prepare in five-gallon batches. First, we roasted the pine nuts, chopped the garlic, and gathered the olive oil, Parmesan, and basil that we used for the pesto. It took 20 pounds of basil to make one batch of pesto, and it would usually last us just under a week.
Howie took me over to the buffalo chopper and showed me how to assemble and disassemble the machine. A buffalo chopper is a machine used in large commercial cooking machine that consists of a rotating bowl and two very sharp knives. The knives are attached to a spinning shaft at the back of the machine, and the rear three quarters of the bowl (and the knives) are housed underneath a stainless steel guard. To make the pesto, Howie showed me how to put in the basil, let it run around a couple of times, then add the pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan, let it all get mixed together, and then add the olive oil until the proper consistency was reached.
While I was doing all of this with my right hand, I was also instructed to scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber scraper in my left hand to keep the pesto in the middle of the bowl where it would chop and mix better. “Whatever you do,” Howie told me, “don’t let go of the rubber scraper.”
The first couple of pounds went fine. I’d put in the basil, chop it up, add the pine nuts, chop them up, add the garlic and Parmesan, chop them up, and then drizzle in the olive oil while the whole mess rotated around and around. Then I would turn off the machine, take off the guard, unscrew the blades and remove the bowl so that I could scrape the pesto out of the bowl and into my waiting five-gallon bucket. Reassemble the machine and start over again. After about five pounds the job became methodical and my attention started to wane. Basil, chop, pine nuts, chop, garlic, chop, parm, chop, olive oil, and into the bucket. I started thinking about how sweet my new life was: I was living in Orange County (Basil, chop, pine nuts, chop, garlic, chop, parm, chop, olive oil, and into the bucket.) I had an awesome ’93 Saturn (Basil, chop, pine nuts, chop, garlic, chop, parm, chop, olive oil, and into the bucket.) I got to make super cool food like pesto (Basil, chop, pine nuts, chop, garlic, chop, parm, chop, olive oil, and into the bucket.) And I was pretty sure one of the waitresses had a thing for me. Life was cool.
It was somewhere around the 12th pound that it happened. My attention was elsewhere, and I failed to notice that my gloves had gotten slippery with the bright green pesto. While I was drizzling in the olive oil with my right hand, my left hand lost its grip on the white rubber scraper. I glimpsed the rotating bowl dragging the end of the spatula under the rotating guard and instantly reached for the power switch. As the machine spun down, my mind flashed back to Howie. “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the rubber scraper.”
I popped off the guard and looked inside. To my dismay, the knives had chopped all but four inches of the scraper into slivers of plastic. I threw away the remains of the scraper and looked around sheepishly. No one else looked up from their work stations, no one had even noticed. I quickly replaced the guard on the buffalo chopper and grabbed another scraper. Maybe I could pick out the pieces, I thought, maybe no one would notice. I knew I didn’t want Howie to know that I’d done the one thing that he’d warned me against, I’d never make Sous Chef if he found out! I started trying to pick out the pieces. Plastic or Parmesan? I’d ask myself as I pulled out one after another strand of white matter. After 15 minutes, I’d picked through about a cup of pesto and Howie came out of his office to check up on us. Giving up, I removed the bowl from the buffalo chopper and took it over to a trash can.
As I scraped, Howie approached: “What are you doing?” he asked. “Um, you remember what you said about the scraper?” “Nooooo-ahh!” he screeched in false irritation. “Well, don’t let it happen again.” He finished as he returned to his office, “And hurry up, you should’ve been done with that by now.”
James Norton, The Heavy Table
So, I’m feeling ambitious one night, and therefore have my heart set on making Ravioli Napoletana from the Silver Spoon. Serious business — pasta from scratch, good ricotta and mozz, tomatoes and basil from the garden, the whole nine yards. Everything is going great — I’ve got my tomato sauce made, my ravioli stuffing all set to go, and my pasta dough is ready to go through the pasta maker, which mounts right on the front of our KitchenAid.
This is where things start to go awry. Now, don’t get me wrong — I’ve successfully made fresh pasta a number of times before on this very same device, and I’m reasonably confident with it. But I don’t tighten the bolt that secures the pasta maker to the machine, and pretty soon the attachment itself is rotating at a reasonably high speed, spinning the floppy noodle along with it. As soon as I’ve sorted this mess out, I put my pasta through the rollers, and it tears in half. Damn. I try again, and it tears in half again. What the…
I look, and, oh, OK, there’s a stray grain of rice that somehow hopped into the machine’s stainless steel rollers. Concept: I’ll just take a good kitchen knife and flick it out of there, “there” being the still-operational pasta machine. And then: Whoa, the knife is suddenly getting sucked down… INTO THE MACHINE. Oh dang! Oh nuts! Uh — OK! I should turn it off!
Result: An Arthurian sword in the stone-type situation where the knife is basically starting to wrap around the roller. After some nearly fatal pulling and tugging on the blade, Becca intervenes with a screwdriver. I tell her not to damage the pasta maker, which I guess was a moot point. We get the knife back, but the pasta machine doesn’t make it. I guess that was pretty stupid.
There was another time when I tried to deglaze a glass Pyrex pan on open gas burners — everyone in the house just assumed that Pyrex basically meant “fireproof.” I was just out of college and really didn’t know any better. The pan exploded. Like shards-of-glass-everywhere exploded. Fortunately — and this may be the apex of dumb — I was actually out of the room conferring with housemates when it happened, so there were no injuries… unlike Maja’s tale of woe.
Soleil Ho, The Heavy Table
This occurred in high school, when I was still learning my way around the kitchen. Or at least, learning how to cook things without the use of a microwave.
I was high one afternoon after school, and I had an almost violent urge to eat pizza. Unfortunately, all we had was a box of Jeno’s, and by that point I had already lost the ability to articulate myself clearly, so getting a pizza delivered would be out of the question.
Even then, I knew that frozen pizza made in the conventional way just sucked. Frustrated, I looked out the window and saw that some of the trees outside of our building were turning orange. Autumn, I thought. Yes. Soup. Perfect.
I started a few cups of vegetable stock in a pot, and snapped the frozen pizza in half.
My pizza soup tasted like minestrone from Hell.
A Twin Cities-Based Chef
The first thing that comes to mind happened a couple years ago. My sous chef and I were towards the end of a month straight with no time off, and we were definitely punchy. I don’t know whose idea it was, his or mine, but we really liked the design of some fancy sugar tongs that had been rented for a wedding. The ends that grab the sugar were shaped like a cool little claw. Wouldn’t it be neat to have a tattoo like that? Or what about a brand? So we bent the end of the tongs so it could be pushed straight onto the skin and fired up the burner. The kitchen was full of our prep guys and this was pretty early in the morning after a really long night of dinner service and events. I think they were pretty entertained to watch us. Anyway, I went first, rolled up my sleeve and bit into a wok handle. My sous held the red hot sugar tongs up and pressed it into my arm. The thing was so hot, it skidded as soon as it touched the flesh. It made a huge hole in my arm. Then it was his turn. We didn’t heat up the tongs quite as hot this time, and he got a nice imprint of the design. His healed in a couple of weeks. Mine took a few months.
Another time, we were cooking for a large, high-profile group. We had plated the salad, and were about to plate the soup. I was making sure the soup hot, when my phone rang. I put it up to my ear and held it there with my shoulder. Right away it fell into the 5-gallon pot of soup. It was go time, so we plated the soup and found the phone at the bottom before we moved on to entrees. It didn’t work anymore.
Jill Lewis, The Heavy Table
In February 2001, I was a 22-year-old recent college graduate who moved to Washington, D.C., for a guy. And if moving 1,000 miles for a boyfriend doesn’t say “I love you” enough, I decided to impress him with my cooking prowess. I pulled out one of my mom’s stand-by recipes: a cauliflower-cheese quiche from The Moosewood Cookbook. I wasn’t much more than a stove-top cook back then, but the quiche always smelled so good when my mom made it, so I thought, “Hell, why not?” I bought a huge head of cauliflower, not realizing that my mom always made it with frozen florets, and cut myself grating potatoes for the latke-esque crust. But somehow I neglected to buy onions during my shopping trip.
No problem, I thought — my mom stocked my spice rack with these dried onion flakes. I dumped them into the quiche with the rest of the ingredients and popped it into the oven. Only later, after taking that first onion-laced bite, did I realize that you shouldn’t substitute dried for fresh onions using a one-to-one ratio. My cauliflower quiche turned into an overwhelmingly onion quiche with a wee bit of cauliflower flavor. Luckily, my boyfriend — now husband — is an onion fanatic, but I think even he found it hard to choke it down. I’ve made the quiche many, many times since then without incident, and there’s a reason why. There’s no way my husband would allow an onion shortage to occur in our house.
Susan Pagani, The Heavy Table
One November, my husband William and I invited a bunch of friends and their parents over for Thanksgiving. The plan was that we would serve a heritage turkey, they would bring sides, and we would all enjoy our meal at a long table next to the garden, set with white linens and bright pottery like some kind of foreign film.
We were living in San Antonio, Texas, which is pleasantly warm that time of year and where, at that time, CSAs and such things as free-range, organic heritage turkeys were still a relatively new thing. I had interviewed a pioneering CSA farmer for the weekly newspaper, so I signed up for a bird through her — or so I thought. Twice my mail-in order went awry, yet because we knew one another, the farmer held a bird for me.
I should mention that, from the start, the $80 bird was an issue in our household, but when Nadine arrived all that was put behind us. She was huge and freshly plucked, she was special, and she was all ours. As I bathed her, I noticed she was missing a couple of chunks near one of her wings, but it didn’t strike me as strange that a fresh bird had gotten dinged up between the farm yard and my kitchen.
I swaddled her in tandoori spices, yogurt, and pomegranate juice and stuck her in the fridge, where she marinated to a deep pink color. The next day, Nadine went into the oven, turned a beautiful hue of mahogany brown and emerged just in time for dinner.
It was a beautiful day. The table was set, said white linens billowing romantically in the late afternoon breeze. All of our friends were on the lawn, arranging their dishes and taking their seats, and William and I were in the house with the bird. He was happily carving, actually cooing over the meat; I was digging around for a platter …
I no longer recall which came first, the sound of William gagging or the smell.
Nadine, it turned out, had a few growths, dark sacks of putrid ook, in her armpit. When William’s knife opened them, a truly foul smell, some rotten combination of excrement and necrosis, spread over the house, filling our mouths and noses. No exaggeration: shit death.
We ended up dumping Nadine in a few garbage bags and, in our panic and, oddly, shame, stuffing her into the back of the fridge. The smell was so clingy, we both had to rinse out our noses and wash our hands several times — out, damn turkey! — before running outside.
In order to preserve appetites, we decided to keep the black death to ourselves. Happily, there was so much food, people sort of forgot about Nadine. Every now and then, I’d hear from the other end of the table, “Oh, I almost forgot to eat some of that special heritage turkey; could someone please pass it down?”
A couple years after I graduated from college, I was really starting to get into cooking and wanted to learn some advanced cooking techniques. Around the same time, I was talking to my mom on the phone and she mentioned that her local butcher had big bags of cheap frozen veal bones. I mentioned that I thought it would be fun to make a really decadent stock out of bones like that, and I didn’t really think about it again.
A few months later, my mom came to visit me in St. Paul and brought along a huge bag of these bones in a big cooler. By the next week I was already planning my excursion into haute cuisine. I don’t remember all of the details, but I remember roasting the bones in the oven for at least an hour, then putting them in a huge stockpot usually reserved for my homebrewing adventures. At some point along the way, I decided I was going to go all the way and make demi-glace, so I boiled and boiled, adding water and reducing the stock. At some point in the process, I had to leave the house for some reason, so I turned off the stove and covered the pot, intending to resume my reduction later.
When I returned to the house that evening, the entire first floor smelled of smoke. I was worried that the house was on fire, but I could hear my roommates in the basement, so I went downstairs to see what had happened. It turns out that my roomate, who was also my usual partner in crime when it came to getting in way over our heads in the kitchen, had decided he would continue reducing the stock for me in my absence. Then he went into the basement with my roommate and their girlfriends and spent the next couple hours playing bridge. By the time they realized what had happened, my demi-glace had become demi-charcoal, and the house smelled like smoke for at least few days.
There wasn’t really anything he could do to make it up. The labor of love was lost, but at least our relationship was salvaged… he was the best man at my wedding three years later.
Bill Roehl, Lazy Lightning
“The Security Deposit”
While traversing the narrow and rocky trails of Southern Iowa’s finest public parks, close to the famed Missouri border where distant banjos could be heard playing over the unmistakable sounds of livestock burning holes in the atmosphere, I make my way to the top of a ridge and find that my phone is buzzing loudly in my pants pocket. Pulling it out, I notice I have 16 missed calls and 12 voicemails from the woman who would eventually become my wife as witnessed by family, friends, and two of the Minnesota Zoo’s dolphins. Three of the voicemails let me know, repeatedly, that she has had a “major disaster” in the kitchen which needs my immediate attention from what we later and lovingly referred to as “Cowfuck, Iowa.” I decide to ignore the nine others and call her back, hoping to interrupt number 10 before it makes my phone disturb the quiet a woodland which smells oddly like manure.
I place the call from the ridge line with one foot on a long-forgotten glacier boulder and the other helping me to stand spread-eagle, like some contorted St. Paul hooker in the back of a 1981 Datsun hatchback blowing a 415-pound trick for $5 worth of crack rock. Bars are sweeping in and out on the phone but the connection holds and my significant other can be heard, as if in some distant country, screaming frantically, “…the apartment…is burning…smoke everywhere…smoke detector…”
“Honey?! Are you ok?! What the fuck is going on?”
Unable to hear anything but the methodical tick of the nearest mobile tower laughing at my feeble yet hilarious attempt to place a call in Cowfuck, Iowa, six years before they even had running water, I am now hysterical that my future wife is burning in our hellhole of an apartment in Burnsville, Minnesota. The $599/month we paid should not become her final resting place — a total unworthy internment, to be sure.
Instead of doing the smart thing and calling 911, I attempt a call back to hear that the grease from the premade meals I prepped for her and left on the bottom shelf of our grungy rented refrigerator ignited in an oven set to too high a temperature. Instead of using what everyone knows to put out grease, baking soda, located conveniently next to the oven, my commonsenseless girlfriend decided that water, poured from the faucet 16 times the distance away from the baking powder, would be a suitable substitute.
The call breaks up again and I find myself fuming at her for not following the careful directions I left her. I’m snapped back to reality with another buzzing in my hand. I look down to find the familiar number displayed on the screen. Should I answer it or should I let her deal with the fire department and apartment management herself? I decide to save myself a sexless relationship for the next 4 months and answer the phone.
The smoke detector has stopped its incessant whining. The significant other informs me she’s freezing because the sliding door and windows in our bedroom are now open. The air has cleared and everything is OK. I suggest she call management and inform them that all is OK and I remind her of the age-old knowledge about water and oil not mixing. She ignores me to rant about the smoke detector which she said is now “dead” for its misdeeds. I mumble, “OK, honey,” hoping the tirade, fueled by smoke and fire like some camping bonfire made of pallets, kerosene, and cat carcasses gone wrong, will cease. The call ends and I move on down the trail and off the ridge line to quell any more calls from Burnsville while I’m squarely located somewhere deep in Cowfuck.
I return home four days later to a house which reeked of the aftermath of The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 and a hallway and living room littered with the shrapnel-like remnants of the famed smoke detector. When she said the smoke detector was now “dead,” she was not hyperbolic. Instead of waving an extremely handy dishtowel or the final copy of my Hustler subscription left over from college located in the nearby kitchen or bathroom, respectively, she decided the obvious solution to silence the screeching of the life-saving device was to beat the living shit out of it with one of our two hammers located at the very bottom of the unorganized bedroom closet, rendering the loudmouth piece of plastic hardwired into the building’s fire suppression definitely “dead.”
I hug her and say I missed her, eying the damage over my shoulder, all the while wondering what story I was going to concoct when we made our eventual report of the demise of the smoke detector. I decide on: “A crazed woman entered my apartment while I was away on vacation in Cowfuck, Iowa, and ransacked the place — up to and including severely damaging the insulation lining the oven door and the smoke detector,” and being that it is 100% true I figure it could work.
We never did get our security deposit back…