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April 22, 2011

Kitchen Catastrophes

Jael McHenry Guest Blogs 


I love to cook. Love it. When my husband was in business school we would regularly invite over six or eight or 12 people, or as many as 20, for dinner parties. I almost always made something I’d never made before, because where was the fun in that? I roasted lamb, stuffed peppers, rolled fresh pasta, simmered molé, churned ice cream, and braised everything I could get my hands on, with or without a recipe. When people asked what the secret of my far-ranging cookery was, I answered cheerfully, “Don’t be afraid to fail!”

But here’s the thing: sometimes, I totally failed.

During a birthday party I ran so far behind schedule that I was still frosting the cake while everyone else was eating dinner. Two batches of ice cream froze so solid we had to chip, not scoop, them out of their containers. The Guinness pork with sweet potatoes was too sweet, the macaroni and cheese too rich, the carrot-ribbon salad too citrusy. And when I overreduced a balsamic vinegar reduction to drizzle over some strawberry-and-feta skewers, it was so black and sticky we couldn’t get the skewers off the plate.

Ddl 003 We all have kitchen catastrophes. On my food blog, http://simmerblog.typepad.com , I try to write about the failures in the same detail as the successes, because doing something wrong can teach you how to do it right. I never would have suspected that failing to seal a pan sufficiently would turn my sweet, syrupy homemade dulce de leche into an inedible rock-hard sugar-and-milk mess, burned nearly black in parts. On another occasion, I tried making mussels at home for the first time—they stuck to their shells so badly that I started to worry I’d undercooked them, and pitched half the batch directly into the trash and monitored myself for signs of food poisoning the rest of the night. I might never do it again, but I’m not sorry I did it the first time – cooking is about experimentation.

And that’s the thing. A kitchen catastrophe is rarely a real catastrophe. Your dinner guests want you to succeed. They want to eat delicious things and have a good time.

When I served all those flawed experiments to all those students, nobody really cared. They ate what was edible and chuckled over what wasn’t. They chipped away at that ice cream until every last bite was eaten. They tugged free the bits of strawberry and feta that hadn’t been trapped in the reduction and licked their fingers afterward. And they said thank you, and poured me a glass of wine, and asked when we’d be doing this again.

IMG_2439 Full disclosure: I did set the oven on fire once, which could have been an actual catastrophe, but I  learned from that too.

In my book, The Kitchen Daughter, a shy young woman who has always cooked just for the sake of cooking learns how to use food to connect with others. Ginny has Asperger’s syndrome, which makes social situations hard for her, and her parents have always protected her, shielding her from any interactions that might turn uncomfortable or confrontational. Basically, they’re afraid to let her fail. (And what parent wouldn’t be?) But when they are both suddenly killed, Ginny has to find a new way to navigate her world, including her overbearing sister Amanda. Amanda wants to take over their mother’s role of protecting Ginny. Ginny wants independence, and with it, the freedom to fail.

And what’s the worst that can happen? To Ginny, or to any of us? That’s a big part of what the book is about. What happens when we try. What happens when we fail. And how the word “catastrophe” is, like many other words, all relative.

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Jael McHenry is the author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster, 2011), and a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog, http://simmerblog.com. She is a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, a member of Backspace, and a monthly pop culture columnist at Intrepid Media. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Learn more about Jael's work at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry. She lives in New York City.


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Sounds like a wonderful book- definitely speaks to me.

I just ordered the book! Welcome Jael.

I started in the kitchen at 13, my dad and I started making jelly, then cookies, by 15 I was cooking dinner for the family, 5 nights a week. That was 35 years ago, I am kind of tired of cooking. I did the dinner party thing when I was married (good lord, that was 29 years ago!), not so much anymore.

Now with food allergies, I still cook all the time but have a tendency to make a lot of the same things over again . . . Tonight I was more creative, ginger beef with red pepper, broccoli and bean thread.

I am waiting for the okay from the Dr. to be able to eat sugar again so I can start baking. I miss cookies.

This sounds like a fascinating book - must go order it from Mystery Lovers Bookshop - thanks for a great blog!

Welcome, Jael!

Your blog is so refreshing and fun.
I totally agree with your assessment of trying a new skill or idea and not being afraid..like what is the worst thing that could happen?
I was reading an essay today on the how a woman in the past was perceived in the home. A woman who gracefully evolved into a matriarch who guided the family and was a little oblivious to the new tech world. Although she was a comforting person I like the new woman that I see today. Women like yourself, Jael who are cooking and sharing through your writing and making the world a richer experience through the technical advances as well as bringing comfort to us with your cooking expertise.
Thanks for coming here today and I am on my way to purchase your book.
I cannot wait to read it.

You have just given me a total "Duh, Paula!" moment. I hate to cook, but never connected it with the fear of failure until reading this. I am not brave or creative in the kitchen (I heat, I stir, I follow the directions on the box...), but it makes so much more sense now. I am forever trying to beat back the perfectionist part of my personality; maybe this new awareness ("Duh, Paula!") will allow me to try some new things.

Thanks for the insight! I look forward to reading your book!

Oh, sounds terrific! And welcome.

My cooking life changed when I read a cookbook called The Blue Strawberry Cookbook It tells WHY things work..why a roux becomes a roux, and why you can put white into red, but not red into white. Once I grasped that,it was amazing..now I can open the fridge and (usually) make something out of whatever is there.

Weeellll..now that the writing thing is underway, I'm best at carry-out, I admit...

Graham Kerr's cookbooks always worked for me...:)

Thanks for all the great comments, everybody! And thanks to The Lipstick Chronicles for having me. Gaylin, I can certainly see why you'd be tired of cooking! I think part of the reason I love it so much is that it's an indulgence for me, not a chore -- if I HAD to cook every day I'd have to focus more on speed, and I know I'd be making only a handful of things over and over. As it is I only kind of have two speeds: "reheat" and "overboard."

Hank, knowing the "why" definitely helps. Cook's Illustrated is really good for that too.

Happy reading and happy cooking, everyone!

My favorite cookbooks are the ones that come from churches, junior leagues, fundraisers, etc. Why? Because those recipes have the names of the contributors on them and who gives out a bad recipe, right? Doesn't mean I don't fail at one occasionally, but then I can blame the contributor for not being clear on directions :o) However, I don't cook much these days since Chuck and I have "ships that pass in the night" schedules. And he's not an adventuresome eater...except for Chinese, and that's easier gotten from the fantastic take-out place that lives about a mile from us.

I do still love to bake though...my co-workers and kids are the beneficiaries unless it's holiday time. Then I give the goodies as presents...after I make sure they're up to my standards by tasting of course.
(We eat the failures too) And aren't Penzey's spices wonderful?

The Kitchen Daughter is on my list now...thanks for being here, Jael :o)

Maryann, alas, some of the recipies in those fundraiser cookbooks come from the publisher, not the organization.

I have had a few disasters in the kitchen. Fired bean thread noodles (the little white crispy noodles under your Mongolian Beef). Discovered they grow by 1000% when you drop them in oil. Discovered this with a handful of noodles that nearly took over the kitchen. Almost burned down the house when I fell asleep and the stove wasn't really off and the corned beef was still boiling.

Penzey's is fun. Get the real cinnamon. Taste the difference

Lovely blog, Jael, and your novel sounds wonderful!

You know what stops me from cooking a lot--it exhausts me. Maybe I get too tense? I look at friends who love to cook and who do cook a lot and they never seem to complain about the physical toll. I guess loving it gives them energy to do it? I also know from first-hand experience that I am living proof that not just anybody can make something from a recipe, hee. My worst failures have actually come from simple recipes that turned out bland because I don't have the talent for knowing how to spice them up.

Thank God for people who love to cook, and have the talent and skill, and are good at it!

I love your attitude of not being afraid to fail in the kitchen. In a previous life, my husband and I owned a successful bakery in Kansas City for 21+ years, and I can't begin to tell you how many times we threw away 75 loaves of bread without salt, 500 cookies that looked and tasted like hockey pucks, or 200 muffins that resembled horse apples. But we learned to experiment, because the successes were real successes, and experimentation breeds creativity and that's the fun part.

Yikes, Linda, that would be my worst nightmare!

I definitely can identify with the adventurous side of cooking, since I used to do the same thing. The usual advice is to never serve experiments to guests, but I've always tried out new recipes for special occasions. Who cooks that way otherwise? The first time I ever made potatoes Dauphinois (and the last) and prime rib was the occasion of my father-in-law's 90th birthday, for a sit-down dinner for 22.

My youngest daughter is 23, and in a high-stress doctoral program. To alleviate some of the angst she cooks, and she also blogs about it here: http://www.thetartskitchen.com/ And yes, she was inspired by TLC for the name. :-) Holly is also fearless when it comes to cooking, the only one of my three daughters who seems to have gotten the gene, which was passed down to me by my father. She and I also share a love of reading good books, so The Kitchen Daughter will definitely be one we will both read. Thank you!

I'm not a terrible cook and not a great one. I've served bad salmon and undercooked chicken at dinner parties, but for some reason, my ego's not tied up in my culinary ability (it's busy with all my other ego-driven pursuits!) and lucky for me, my friends are forgiving. I keep a quote posted in my recipe box: "The guests are coming to see you, not the chicken."

Welcome, Jael!

Paula--Here is the quote that I copied for my quilting room wall: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Voltaire

Maryann--I agree about fundraiser cookbooks, especially if the cook writes something personal about the recipe.

Jael--Thank you for your blog today. I will forward it to my foodie daughter who teaches special ed. and will find the Asperger's part interesting and related to her work.

Jael, you're inspiring. I am not a great cook because I've become bored with it, I think. My favorite recipes are the directions on the side of the McCormick's packages. I just need rejuvenation!

Thanks for being our guest!

Probably the only way not to have failures is to never try . . . and that would be no fun at all. One of the wonderful things my (now ex) husband did was to fully sympathize with my pie crust melt-down the first Thanksgiving I tried to prepare. His,"If you tell me how to help, I will," made me think . . . back . . . "Waxed paper!" and he ran to the store for waxed paper -- bless him. One potluck meal, my friends and I realized sauerbraten, German potato salad, and vinaigrette salad dressing might not have been the best menu planning -- but we just ate extra bread with the meal. The time I bought a stewing chicken, as the curried chicken recipe called for, and the meat was inedible, my friends said, "The sauce is good."

Enjoyed your posts-I don't cook as much as I used to, but sometimes, the "failures" were as good as the winners. Your book sounds wonderful. Will check it out.

I don't like to cook much, but I like to read about cooks and cooking. That's why "The Kitchen Daughter" is in my book cart. It sounds wonderful! And now I will actually buy it! Thanks for a great post. I enjoyed your blog, too.

Welcome, Jael. Enjoyed this post. For writers, the main lesson is to never, EVER, leave the kitchen with a burner on. (Unless, of course, you have coverage for a new kitchen.) Writers intend to just go and jot down a sentence and come right back. Hate to admit how many times it was the smoke alarm that got me back to the kitchen.

Great blog. I love special occasion cooking and rarely fail at what I plan. But the day to day pressure of fixing meals is just one more chore. Unless my husband asks for something specific, then it's fun again. I'm already sympathetic with Ginny's struggle for the freedom to make her own mistakes so I will have to read your book soon!

Thanks for coming over, Jael. I loved this blog. There are a lot of things that flummox me. One of them is hash browns. I don't know why mine fail nearly every time, but I've practically given up.

Or the old me would have. The new me is going to study the problem and see what I do wrong. I think it might be that they are too wet going into the pan.

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