- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2007

We now stand in solemn silence and pay homage to great kitchen disasters. The dishcloth is at half staff, a hush has fallen over the pantry. Soon, there will be a 21-pot salute for every scorched, rancid, dessicated, curdled, grainy, imploded, freezer-burned, undercooked, over-salted culinary mishap ever known.

Think of it. Just consider our assorted food follies: The mysterious rubber chicken a la something, the vol-au-vent served to Aunt Madge’s bridge group in 1958 that they never quite forgot. The seven-layer cake that became five layers somewhere between the counter and dining room, the bobby pin in the Caesar salad, the mousse au chocolat that went nova without warning.

We laughed. We cried. We called our mothers.

“Oh. Oh. Ma-ma. Mamie Eisenhower’s recipe for puff pastry was a dee-zaster,” we whimper in little halting tones.

The rest of our personal disasters flash by like an end-of-life experience: the burned cookies, stringy stroganoff and unctuous sauces that are born once naive ambition is combined with inexperience. This is a phase in which amateur cooks believe they can produce things such as fondant and chaudfroid.

Then there is the sobering category of disasters we could have avoided but didn’t — foolishly heeding the siren call of bogus recipes and questionable ingredients, or believing that no one will know if we make some handy-dandy substitution in the kitchen, with only the dog as witness.

“Don’t tell anybody, but I’m just going to use some ketchup here in place of the wine,” we whisper, handing the dog a meaty bribe.

Yeah, right, the dog thinks.

But he takes the bribe, knits his brow in sympathy, then wonders if there’s some patsy at the dinner table who will slip him a tidbit of, say, filet mignon.

Meanwhile, the subsets of kitchen nightmares go on. There are some that center around faulty equipment (“Honey, I told you to throw that thing out last year …”), or the proverbial slippery floors, threadbare potholders and trembling gateleg tables. Food in this case either plummets dramatically to some unknown destination, or is launched skyward. There are also moments that are beyond our control, like when the electricity goes out, the cat has kittens in the guest bedroom or there is news that alien life has been found in Chevy Chase.

“I lit my cookbook on fire once,” noted Angelina, a friend who also survived the inexplicable burning of chicken curry as 36 guests sat on velvet cushions just outside the kitchen door, waiting for an exotic feast that included multiple chutneys and garnishes.

“Hey, honey? Everything all right in there? Did you have an electrical fire?” Her husband had called out helpfully.

Well-versed in disaster preparedness, Angelina’s best friend Amy discreetly slipped into the kitchen and saved the curry with much grated garlic, lime juice and a judicious splash of cream.

“Next time,” she told Angelina, “Use two pots, not one giant one. Low heat. Stir often.”

Angelina herself admits that the torching of her cookbook would warrant a higher score on the disaster meter, though.

“Yes. I did light my cookbook on fire. It was the ‘Joy of Cooking.’ Put it down on the burner by mistake, turned away and bingo. Smoke alarms went off big time,” Angelina said.

She kept the volume, however, branded forever by its torrid encounter, now doomed to peek out from the top of the refrigerator like a lost icon.

There are some kitchen disasters involving living things. A gentleman friend recalled that he served his family a perfectly cooked and seasoned bouquet of fresh broccoli — which included a giant green hornworm, also perfectly cooked and seasoned, lurching out of the side of it. All present screamed.

Yet kitchen disasters are also cultural moments that gauge the mettle of all cooks, be they Angelina, standing at the ground zero of curry destruction, or professional chefs of every persuasion. Among those who have offered disaster counsel to the hapless, hopeless and maybe even tasteless; Julia Child, Rachael Ray, Emeril Lagasse and the entire cast of the Food Network’s “Iron Chef.”

Yet there can never be too many recountings of such things. The cooking mavens of yore — Fannie Farmer or Irma Rombauer — instructed earnest young brides to correct over-salted soup by adding potato slices, or to turn that fallen cake into a trifle and be done with it. Time and kitchen timers tick on, though. The 2005 book “Don’t Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs” showcases the pros’ mishaps with eels, food processors, chocolate ganache, pheasant and one another.

“Food is fast becoming entertainment, so it’s only natural that it follow in the footsteps of sports and show business and offer a collection of bloopers,” noted Publisher’s Weekly at the time.

Yes, well. Let us salute our kitchen disasters and be done with them. And, uh, don’t forget to curry some favor in the meantime.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and perfectly seasoned hornworms for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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