Kitchen failures are common. Cookies spread out and run together into one giant flat cookie pancake. The bread doesn’t rise. You overestimate your spice tolerance and make a stir fry so spicy that just breathing near the pan makes your eyes water. All of these things have happened to me. Kitchen disasters are so much simpler than life disasters, though. A flat cookie pancake might not look pretty enough to take into work, but it still tastes pretty delicious. Even if you’ve concocted something truly inedible, the worst kitchen disaster can almost always be solved by ordering pizza.
At this point I have years of kitchen disasters to look back on. We’ve never starved, and I’ve never poisoned anyone. My kitchen disasters range from insignificant to hilarious now that I have the buffer of years between me and the events. At the time though, there were a few kitchen disasters that left me furious, frustrated or nearly in tears. Usually this was because I was cooking for someone other than myself, and the audience added extra pressure and (mostly self-imposed) expectations to the situation.
Early on in our relationship, I refused to cook for J. Partially this was because my cooking skills were built on a firm foundation of scrambled eggs and boxed macaroni and cheese. A second critical factor in my refusal to feed the boy out of my own kitchen was that he liked to talk about what a wonderful cook his mom was. About how they ate something different for dinner every night that he was growing up, and it was always delicious and gourmet. How he never bothered to order macaroni and cheese or spaghetti carbonara when we went out to a restaurant because they couldn’t possibly be as good as his mom’s. Talk about pressure.
At this point I was still teaching myself to cook. I’d had some honest successes with frittatas and risotto, and I could easily follow any recipe involving pasta. I’d even made some pretty delicious seared scallops. So while I could follow a recipe, I lacked the kitchen confidence you build up over time, sort of like the callouses you get from grabbing hot cookie sheets that eventually make you impervious to pain. (or are these just a myth?)
Still, I’d been having a lot of success with a very simple bean dish. I’d sauté onions and garlic in some olive oil, add a few cans of white beans, some water, and a pint of beer. I’d cook the whole thing down, add some spinach at the end so it was just wilted, and happily eat it with sourdough bread. J was newly vegetarian, and it was winter in Boston, so this seemed like it would be both hearty and satisfying.
We weren’t going to be eating in my kitchen in Boston though, we were headed to his family’s house in Rhode Island. This piece of information is critical for a couple of reasons. First, I’d be in a foreign kitchen, which can be nerve wracking for even experienced cooks. I actually didn’t know enough to be freaked out by this though. Second, and far more important, all other sources of food in town were closed by the time we made it to the house. There was no pizza or Chinese available as the back up plan. I was working without a net here, people!
Still, I think everything might have been just fine, if it weren’t for this criminal. Yes, I place all blame for our dinner’s failure right here, on the slim shoulders of what seemed like a perfectly nice beer:
I’d always made my bean dish with a pint of Sam Adams Boston Lager. It didn’t even occur to me that swapping a lager for a Belgian blonde was going to be a problem. We’d drunk Leffe before and I’d always enjoyed it. That night I was more concerned with locating a cutting board and the right pot in a new kitchen than with the six of beer that J had picked out. I (messily) chopped my onion, crushed my garlic, and started sautéing. While this was going on, we searched for a can opener to open the beans. Everything was proceeding smoothly. I added the beans and a bottle of Leffe and cooked everything down to a nice thick stew. I stirred in the spinach, and just before reaching for two bowls, I took a little taste out of the pot. And it was disgusting.
I was instantly upset. It was neither bland nor too salty, both problems I’d have known how to fix. No, this tasted like beans and the concentrated essence of things that should not be combined. If you look up tasting notes for Leffe, you’ll find a horrifying combination of descriptions “warm caramel and banana” sit next to “moldy yeast” and “toasted nuts” and “candied grapefruit rind.” I can attest to the presence of all of these flavors, and I can further attest to the fact that they should not be concentrated and served with beans.
Another favorite quote notes that this beer “really leaves an aftertaste in your mouth that can’t be rivaled by anything else.” True. And not in a good way.
It was horrible. I started to get upset and told J that I’d ruined dinner and we’d have to survive on tortilla chips until morning. He assured me it couldn’t possibly be that bad and took a spoonful out of the pot. He ate it and suddenly this curious expression crossed his face. “Really, I’ll eat it,” he assured me. “You can’t!” I shrieked tearfully, “it’s horrible!” (Horrible and disgusting were the only two adjectives I had available to me in the midst of this culinary crisis, but later we’d come up with a whole host of other applicable descriptors). He burst out laughing and agreed that it was, in fact, horrible. He bravely attempted to save it by straining out all the liquid and adding a bunch of water back to the pot, as though you can dilute out disgusting. The damage was done, though, and the beans were now delicately flavored with some inimitable combination of moldy yeast and candied grapefruit rind.
We dumped the whole mess in the trash, though frankly if the ground hadn’t been frozen, we probably would have been better off burying that evil deep in the ground. I don’t remember what we ate that night, but I do remember what we didn’t drink. Since that night, neither one of us has been able to look at Leffe the same way.
What’s your worst kitchen disaster?