An ode to disastrous dishes
Prepare yourselves, friends: the season of gastronomic gloating has begun. I plead guilty, myself, to occasionallyscraping aside the rubble on my kitchen counter to frame and post a filtered image of a felicitously turned out peach pie, with a humblebrag tag line like: “Fun to put the ol’ rolling pin to work.” Soon, our social media feeds will flood with photos of brining and bronzing birds and glamour shots of caramelized yams.
But in the seasonal mood of gratitude, I am dedicating this essay, instead, to disastrous dishes — the ones we have all likely served up on our way to Instagrammable Hasselback gratins and our post-worthy pecan pies. I’m hungry for your horror stories, but in the spirit of humility, I’ll begin:
I hosted a summery backyard party, a dozen years ago, when mojitos had hit the scene of the suburban set. I rarely mix cocktails, and I pretty much followed the recipe but was confident that to infuse the minty goodness throughout the drink, it would be better not just to muddle the mint, but to twirl it to bits in a blender. I poured the beautifully speckled concoction over crackling ice, handing them around cheerfully: “It’s called a mojito! You’ll love it!” And people did. At first. But then things took an unsettling turn. As I sipped, my conversational companion began glancing worriedly at my teeth. It was weird. Until I looked at hers … and saw that every single tooth was disgustingly flecked with green specks of mint. I covered my own mouth, scanned the yard, and saw everyone’s fingers shooting up to hide their mouths in mortification. A dinnertime debacle! No one wanted refills.
There was a winter catastrophe early in my entertaining career, when I invited a long tableful of guests for supper, and was so worried the food would get cold that I heated both the food and all the plates to 350 degrees. Once everyone was seated, I merrily invited: “Help yourselves!” But … they couldn’t. After a chorus of “youch!”s, it was clear they could neither pass the food nor their plates without frying their fingers.
Truthfully, there are too many disasters to recount: There was the grated potato-crusted cauliflower cheese pie from the original Moosewood cookbook, which was the size of a standard pie but, defying the laws of physics, weighed a metric ton … and tasted like it. There was the brunch when I celebrated a salary raise by preparing a gorgeous goat cheese omelette that, on the way to the table, slipped off the platter and was gobbled by our dog. His heartburn turned into a case of pancreatitis, the vet bill for which cost – oh, poetic injustice! -- exactly the amount of my raise. I have made pie crusts so durable that friends delicately scraped out the filling and left behind naked pastry triangles, embarrassed on their plates. There was the spanakopita from H-E-double toothpicks that left me in tears and the kitchen in phyllo-flecked ruins. I could go on. Hopefully, I’m not alone.
I’m reminded of the remarkable mid-century food writer, MFK Fisher, whose vast repertoire includes a recipe forrevenge that is timely for a news cycle filled with comeuppances of predatory men. In 1937, MFK Fisher imagined a world in which a woman, using only the tools in a well-stocked kitchen, could single-handedly overpower a man with a meal designed to “floor him like a stunned ox.” Here is her recipe:
“I would serve one too many martinis, that is, about three. Then while his appetite raged, thus whipped with alcohol, I would have generous, rich, salty Italian hors d’oeuvres: prosciutto, little chilled marinated shrimps, olives stuffed with anchovy … things that would lead him on. Next would come something he no longer wanted, but could not resist, something like a ragout of venison, or squabs stuffed with mushrooms … and plenty of red wine, sure danger after the cocktails … I would waste no time on a salad, unless perhaps a freakish rich one treacherously containing truffles and new potatoes. The dessert would be cold, superficially refreshing and tempting, but venomous: a chilled bowl of figs soaked in kirsch, with heavy cream. There would be a small bottle of a Sauterne, sly and icy … and then a cup of coffee so black and bitter that my victim could not down it, even therapeutically.”
MFK Fisher concludes: “All of this would be beautiful fare in itself and in another part of time and space. Here and now it would be sure poison – given the right man.”*
Thanks for the pro-tip, MFK Fisher! Many of us will give thanks if this is also a season of just desserts.
* Thanks to my librarian friend, Elizabeth Van Jacob, for helping me locate “W is for Wanton,” from MFK Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets.
Music: "Come On-a My House" by Rosemary Clooney