Top | Between the Alps and Chesapeake Bay

Don't Try This in Your Kitchen!

(post, Margie Gibson)

Kiitchen disasters . . . they’re enough to put anyone off cooking for life, or at least for the rest of the day. Anyone who’s spent two hours or so, after a long cooking marathon, scrubbing the ceiling and walls and emptying the contents of drawers and cabinets that were open when you tried to puree hot split pea soup in a blender knows the price you pay for a moment of lapsed attention in a kitchen.

I've experienced more than a few of my own catastrophes. In the tradition of group therapy, it helps to share these burdens, right? So, let's see, where do I begin? My name is Margie and I have been cooking for 35 years, even longer if you count apprenticeship in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. I've had run-of-the-mill messes like trying to shake a bottle of buttermilk without realizing the lid was loose (the end result was similar to the pea-soup-in-a-blender scenario, only the buttermilk blended in better with the color of the walls) or dropping a casserole while taking it out of the oven and having its contents seep inside the oven door. 

One early, odoriferous disaster was the episode of the exploding garlic. I wanted to roast a whole head, which I massaged with olive oil and tossed in the oven on a pie plate. Next thing I knew, the toes exploded one by one and by the time I got the courage to open the door, burnt garlic was clinging like stalactites from the oven’s ceiling. That was before I had a self-cleaning oven. Well, I suppose it was self-cleaning; it's just that I, myself, did the cleaning. 

Then there was the incident of the roasted chestnuts. I had spent a year in Munich as a student and loved the roasted chestnuts that I bought walking through the pedestrian zone during the fall and winter—great hand warmers they were, in addition to being a tasty snack. 

I missed them once I was back in Washington, DC, and decided to try roasting chestnuts in the oven. A week or so before Thanksgiving, I pulled out Joy of Cooking and read the instructions, which said to cut a small X in each chestnut. It didn't say how small, so I simply used the tip of a knife to pierce a diminutive, neat x into the shell’s flat side. I popped the pie plate full of chestnuts into the oven at the recommended temperature, and turned to another project. Not long after, I heard explosions and shrapnel hitting the inside of the oven. Oh, Lord, what now? I quickly grabbed the pan and set it on top of the stove—and luckily stepped back, because the chestnuts continued exploding. They anointed the ceiling. They arced toward the counter top across the kitchen to the sink. They snowed down upon the recently-scrubbed floor and showered the broad window sill where I kept an array of houseplants, including African violets. Although the kitchen got an unscheduled thorough cleaning that day, the following Easter I was still finding shards of chestnuts nestling amidst the hairy African violet leaves. 

These episodes taught me an important principle: when something gets hot, molecules expand. This translates into exploding blenders (been there, done that), detonating garlic, bursting chestnuts, and who knows what else. This is a valuable lesson for anyone who plans to spend time in a kitchen, particularly if you snoozed through your science classes in school.

My most recent catastrophe occurred in November, 2007, on my birthday. It was moving day for me—I had bought an apartment in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a town in the Bavarian Alps south of Munich. I moved from the house I had rented for four years into my own digs. I had been working in the new apartment for the previous week, scrubbing and polishing, and had removed all the shelves and door fixtures from the refrigerator to give everything a good cleaning. When the moving men brought in the refrigerator contents, I quickly stashed them in the fridge until I could fit the shelves back in place later that evening. By 9 pm I was dead tired and ready to call it a day, but still had the refrigerator to organize. I wrestled the door shelves back in place and carefully put in six bottles of elderberry blossom and sweet woodruff syrups that I had made the previous summer. Just as the last bottle was in place, the shelf gave away. The bottles met the tile floor and shattered. Actually, they splintered. Syrup exploded everywhere, all over the floor, the cabinets, my shoes, my clothes, my hair. I stood there, stunned, amidst a pile of broken glass and what seemed like a tidal wave of sticky syrup spreading across the recently scrubbed floor. I could not have been more shattered than the bottles. 

It took forever to clean up. I couldn’t find the mop; the scrub bucket had disappeared among the piles of boxes. Paper towels? MIA. My shoes have still not recovered, despite numerous polishings and wearing them—with intent—outside through major rain storms. 

I don't think I've recovered either. Every time I opened the refrigerator, I worried about what might hurtle to the floor. Perhaps today will exorcise the memory. The offending refrigerator was just removed (the result of another minor disaster) and replaced with a new model. Now, I just have to fit in the shelves and stash in the food. And, the elderberry bushes are in blossom now throughout our mountain valley. I am about to grab my cotton sack that I use for foraging and go for a walk. I’ll begin plucking those blossoms. Then, I’ll make a simple sugar syrup, add the blossoms and let them bathe for a week or so, and ferret out some empty wine bottles I stashed away this past winter to store herbal syrups. . . . 

Copyright 2008