A Recipe for Disaster

This I have noticed since I began blogging: the question of what to write about each week always seems to answer itself. Whatever other thoughts I may have had vanished at Thursday night’s Literary/Arts Series lecture in Benaroya Hall, Seattle. Our guest speaker was the very young, bright, attractive and accomplished Amanda Hesser, author of The Cook and the Gardener, Cooking for Mr. Latte, and Eat, Memory. Former New York Times food reporter, New York Times Magazine food editor, and compiler of The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, Amanda has done more than most of us even dare to dream. And now she’s gone on to co-found the site food52.com with Merill Stubbs, to “give people from all over the world a way to exchange their ideas,… to celebrate each other’s talents… and to create a buzzing place for others who do what we do all day long: talk about food.” And what is so likeable about Amanda Hesser is that I honestly don’t think she has any idea how extraordinary all that is.

One question from the audience, however, daunted her a little while it opened an enormous wormhole for me. The question was, “Tell us, please, of one of your greatest culinary disasters.” Amanda hesitated. “Oh there have been so many…” she mused, but personally I suspect she was searching the extensive culinary files of her brain to find one. This is where I had her beat. Both my husband and I, seated next to each other, went spinning through space/time, and visions of silver swans floated around our heads…

Let me explain. The time was twenty-five years ago. The place was an adobe brick house in the foothills of Tucson, Arizona. The setting, nearly a wildlife sanctuary with cactus-studded hills and winding roads, tarantula, scorpion, roadrunners scurrying by like commuters, and occasional sightings of bobcat and javelina (wild pigs). As young mothers out walking and pushing strollers we thought nothing of sharing the road with coyote who sauntered up daily from the gulch, like so many stray dogs.

It was a bit wild on the inside too. I had an infant and a two-year old, and a husband who had moved us all to Tucson for his job, only to wind up spending most of his weekends in Phoenix starting up an investment banking company that would later move us to San Diego. But I am getting ahead of myself. The fact was that he would be driving down with a couple of investors that evening to dinner at our home in Tucson, and first thing on that Saturday morning, my babysitter broke her arm in ballet. It would be just me and the babies, putting on this important meal. I had never met the guests before but was informed that one was a member of the Japanese royal family, a former Olympic marksman and a major sumo wrestling fan, and the other, a fullback on the Atlanta Falcons and in sumo wrestling training in Japan during the off season. That was how the two of them had met.

I did what I always did then when the occasion called for it, and reached for The Silver Palate Cookbook, the very first one. It was my Bible in the kitchen back then. And aside from the fact that it looked rather quick and easy, what captured my imagination about the recipe I chose was the fact that the lamb chops get wrapped in aluminum foil. I pictured making origami birds. Perfect, I thought. And being a perfectionist, I went for it. For this dish 1 1/2 inch thick boned loin lamb chops were arranged individually with assorted vegetables and fruit (kiwi balls, seedless grapes, asparagus spears, cucumber balls), sprinkled all over with mint and parsley and then sealed in foil. I cut the foil in large rectangles and shaped each one into a swan-like bird. This dish would take care of any accompaniments, and in my mind’s eye, we would be dining at The Ritz. That left me free to focus on the table setting, getting dressed, and picking everything up off the floor. (I was working in spurts, between feedings and changes and naps). Oh, and the recipe went on to specify 20 minutes in a 350˚ oven. I preheated the oven and knew not to even bother putting it in until they had all arrived and were settled with a cocktail.

The moment arrived. All the men were seated at the table, the babies, miraculously, were asleep, and my husband and I brought each plate out, setting a silver foiled swan before each guest. There were the usual umms and ahhs, but in this case I thought they really meant it. It looked to me like the ancient Japanese legend of a thousand origami cranes… Then one by one we opened them, and the lamb was raw.

Oh my. With many apologies I picked up the plates and reconstructed the birds back in the kitchen, putting them back in the oven for 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, and still they were not cooked. (All I was asking of them was medium rare). Even another entire 20 minutes didn’t do it. Everyone got drunk waiting for the entre. The baby began to wake… I was devastated. I thought it was me. I thought it was my oven.

I don’t remember how that evening ended. At some point, the lamb must have cooked. The swans, I’m sure, lost their luster and shape with so many wrappings and rewrappings. I kept low for a few days, and then began to discuss the recipe with others. Culinary-wise others. Most everyone said readily, “Why a lamb chop that thick wrapped in foil would never cook in 20 minutes in a 350˚ oven!” Well, we’ve all heard of recipes being published that may never have been tested, and I guessed I had opened to one just when it counted.

So I sat down and wrote the ladies at Silver Palate a letter, describing the dinner party and its importance, and how their recipe had failed me. It felt good getting it off. All the arts need feedback. Then I sat back and waited. Waited for what I was sure would appear one day: a big beautiful basket at my door loaded with Silver Palate delicacies and an elegant apology. Every time I walked up or drove in the gravel driveway, I looked for it. And it was never there. It never came….

Eventually we moved to San Diego, as I said. Apparently my dinner party did not do too much damage. The investment banking company got started. Later I learned that the partnership at The Silver Palate had disbanded, so all I could imagine is that they must have been having their troubles at the time and never got around to addressing the letter from the nice lady in Tucson, Arizona, as they should have.

What I want to say is I don’t care if you are publishing a recipe in a book, posting it on a web site, demonstrating it on TV, or copying it down by hand on a 3 x 5 card for a friend. Just try to get it right. You never know what’s riding on it.


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8 responses to “A Recipe for Disaster

  1. Beth Yourgrau

    Oh my, until now I did believe published recipes were tested to some degree (meaning oven temperature and time needed). It did sound like an elegant and memorable dinner. This non perfectionist is now inspired to make the Silver Plate’s tried and true Chicken Marabella for guests next week-end.
    I increase the suggested liquid amounts in the marinade. Love that sauce! Thanks, Kim

  2. Paul Mayer

    As I recall, by the time the food came we were so plastered… it all tasted good!

  3. dulcie witman

    I love this story Kim, and I love it all the more for knowing you. You are still my hostess hero.


  4. Teri

    Great reminiscing on meals. I recalled a very similar one to yours where I was in graduate school, living in the country outside of Ithaca. I had gotten up the courage to make a dinner for my graduate advisor, her partner and a fellow grad couple. I cooked moussaka from the moose wood restaraunt cookbook. Similar evening unfolded, cocktails and turning up the oven in an attempt to cook the meal. Finally too many drinks later we realized the oven wasn’t heating up over 200 degrees. Learned that some spider has clogged the gas valve with her web; also, learned to always have an oven thermometer and a back up plan. Funny now but I remember the desperate feelings then! Teri

  5. Martin Kelly

    Great story Kim…….man that is tough when the pressure is on ! ANd you had investors wow talk about pressure. I’m late to the cooking game having never cooked until after college.There are times when I cannot believe my luck being able to somehow rescue meals that could have been a disaster. I remember Marcia telling me the first time she cooked for my father and a college buddy of his-I think she cooked a chicken brest with the plastic wrap still enclosed ! Somehow they all got thru the meal but my mom ofter talked about it !

    • Teri

      Funny that reminded me of when my husband Dan had his parents visiting us in our little RI house. I went to book club one night and left them to fend for themselves. I came home to Dan waiting for me and he asked how I got the shrimp to be that firm texture. I paused,thought and said “I cook it?” oh he said… Cook it? He had served raw shrimp to his parents…putting it in the freezer to chill it to get it firm!? They all lived!

  6. Lynn Dunn

    Food, always a great topic for me and I am still giggling over the swan story….I remember when you wrote Silver Palate. So many cookbooks today do not test their recipes thoroughly so it is always an adventure!

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