Kitchen disasters

Recently, an old friend emailed to tell me has been enjoying the blog, especially since he started managing a 1200-acre organic farm in upstate New York last winter and he’s been learning how to cook the wonderful ingredients that come with the job. I off-handedly replied that great ingredients require so little alteration, they make cooking easy. But of course it’s not really that easy, as my friend explained: he has enjoyed the parts of the blog that show how “it’s ok to fuck it up a little.”

Julia Child’s first meal for her husband of calves’ brains in red wine was so disgusting they scraped the plates into the garbage. Another of my research subjects, Jane Poultney Bigelow, made her new husband a “beef steak soup” on her first pass in the kitchen, which was so salty that Mr. Bigelow couldn’t swallow the broth. Coincidentally, one of the very first meals I made for my husband (then boyfriend) was a cheddar cheese and parsnip soup that was so revolting he still hasn’t let me forget it, eighteen years later. My excuse? I blame it on Molly Katzen. Someone had given me her Sundays at Moosewood cookbook, a compendium of the meals they served on “ethnic nights” at the famed Ithaca restaurant. Since the new boyfriend was English, I looked up the recipes in the English section. How I decided on making the soup I cannot recall. I don’t think I’d ever eaten a parsnip before. Maybe I knew he liked cheddar cheese? Or that he was from a town in Somerset nearby Cheddar? Whatever the rationale, the result was a giant pot of stringy, oily, watery, oozy, pale yellow, glop that went flush down the toilet, like the bodily effluvia it most resembled.

At least I have the defense of being only 19 at the time. When my husband was at least a decade older, he cooked me a dish of stir-fried tofu with shredded beets that I have made it my personal mission to never let him forget. The tofu was of the super-crumbly variety, which dissolved into irregular grits colored off-pink by the mangled shreds of beet. The whole dish was soft and undercooked and toothsome and bland and sweet at the same time. There may even have been some fish sauce in there, just to highlight how completely the dish reversed the delicious Thai formula of sweet, salty, spicy and sour.

Despite trying to blame my parsnip-cheddar-cheese soup on the follies of youth, the truth is that I continue to “fuck it up a little” in the kitchen fairly often. I couldn’t even eat the dinner I made last night. It was a simple meal of roast chicken, roast potatoes, haricots verts, and carrot salad. It should have been impossible to bungle. But I got caught up in writing, and started dinner far too late, and at 9:00 with the kids fainting from hunger I put the chicken and the potatoes on the table although I knew they needed another half an hour. The chicken wasn’t bloody, but it was tough. Maybe our corner boucherie is not the place to buy chicken? I’ll know next time. The potatoes were almost done, but who wants to eat almost-done potatoes? At least the green beans and carrots were ok. And considering the massive “sud-ouest” salad I had eaten for lunch – with foie gras, smoked duck breast, and preserved goose-gizzards – it was probably good to have an unintentionally light supper.

Julia Child is famous for saying “no matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize.” I am sure this motto is liberating for many anxious cooks. But applying this rule to the genre of kitchen-diary writing is like airbrushing the blemishes from home photographs. This is one reason why writing blog posts about food can seem superficial and self-indulgent. It blurs too easily with the aspirational lifestyle business. So if some of my blog posts slip too far in that direction, let me lay things out honestly here: last night I made tough chicken. The night before my fish filets stuck to the pan and turned out fairly bland. Tuesday night, I let the tendrons de veau reach a boil on the stovetop, they would have been more tender if I left them to stew at a lower temperature in the oven. Also, I have a habit of buying too much expensive cheese and letting the odds and ends go bad in the refrigerator. The apple tart my husband bought from the bakery behind the carrefour was just okay. There’s grease splattered behind the stove top. The kitchen towels are stained. And I really ought to sponge down the dining room table, where I am typing right now.



Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

One thought

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s