Here's a food essay I pulled from our site. In times like these, a little laughter goes a long way.
Four meals I'll never forget, for all the wrong reasons. I'd rather skip a thousand desserts than live through these again.
1. Dagger Soup. My mother was a brilliant woman, but not a great cook. No problem, when dinner was hamburgers, broiled chicken or a simple stir fry. But now and then she'd attempt a recipe, and we suffered the consequences. She found some formula for celery soup in a magazine and spent the whole day preparing it. This wasn't a slow-cooked stew, but a quick-blended soup, requiring celery stalks be pureed and quickly boiled with curry and other spices. Unfortunately, she never knew to remove the veins/ribs of the celery before blending, and unless you cook them long and slow, those veins don't get tender. Imagine a thick, green aromatic soup dense with thousands of celery veins, hard as nails and only 1/16th of an inch long. Every spoonful stuck a dozen spikes into our tongues. They tore at our throats as we swallowed. There was no way to chew it into submission. It was like drinking porcupines, like a broth made from cactus spines. I called it "Dagger Soup" and refused to eat another spoonful. "You'll eat that soup I slaved all day to make, or you'll lose your allowance!" No problem. "You'll be grounded for a week!" My pleasure. "Two weeks!" It became clear that no threat was worse than the reality of that soup. Finally: "I tell you it's delicious!" but after a single spoonful--she broke out laughing. We poured it down the toilet and went out for pizza.
2. The Meal Without Flavor. One dish my mother prepared well was a stir fry of shrimp and broccoli, rich with butter. We all liked it. Nothing seemed amiss when we sat down to Sunday's meal, but when we took a bite--nothing. No flavor at all. Two bites, three--still no flavor. I don't mean the food was bland, or that it needed salt. I mean it had no flavor of any kind: taste buds simply wouldn't register it. You got texture, you could tell shrimp from broccoli, but it was as if an invisible hand was pinching your nose shut. Three solid minutes of silence later, I ventured, "Does this taste funny?" My sister nods, my father (ever politic) commanded, "Your mother does this dish, so no complaints, you eat it!" We ate, but even he started making faces. The orange soda had its familiar twang of saccharine, but the meal had nothing. Finally my mother couldn't stand it any longer, throwing down her fork and turning furious eyes on the stir fry. We eventually found the culprit. She'd mistaken the corn starch for baking powder! All flavor is based on the play of acid and base, and baking powder left the whole dish completely neutral. That dinner became the legendary Meal Without Flavor.
3. Chicken Tetrachloride. College dorms are famous for bad food. That's why everyone at the University of Connecticut wanted to live in a large dorm, where the cafeteria boasted half a dozen choices at each meal, as well as a salad bar. Even so, some days were bad. Chicken tetrazini was the worst night. When it came, you knew one choice was already inedible, so it lowered your chances. One Monday night in my sophomore year I joined my friends for dinner. We stood on line, bypassing the salad bar (it looked limp, brown and suspiciously like last week's), and skipped the chicken. The other choice was the tofu lasagna. Goodyear never made a rubber so effective as that "tofu lasagna." We couldn't eat that. Back to the salad bar--nothing. Well, they keep cereal under the salad bar when it's not breakfast time, but the cabinet was locked. We formed a human screen to conceal my friend Tom as he tried to pick the lock, but we were caught. They sat us down and served us all a lecture about respecting school property and that horrible chicken tetrazini. Instead, we found the one thing on the salad bar that didn't look too bad, the cucumbers. We sat there and ate cucumbers and drank Pepsi while the chicken tetrazini cooled into a landscape on our plates. One of us joked "Chicken Tetrachloride" and it stuck.
4. The End of Ambiance. When I was fifteen I had a couple of close friends who invited me down to Thanksgiving dinner with their very respectable Quaker relatives in south NJ, one of the grand families of Moorestown, with a line back to the Mayflower and a reverence for propriety. It was ruled over by their matriarch, a 90-year old dour thing, half deaf, used to bathing in ice water each morning at dawn, spending twelve hours a day at her stove and needle, and you'd darn well better appreciate it. Dinner was long and not without humor, but a sense of decorum floated over the table, as of a tradition generations long. Then the cat started puking up hairballs. Loud, wet sounds, throat-smacking, moist, evocative. Grandmother couldn't hear it, so we pretended not to. A hairball hit the floor with a splash, and my friend's father broke the table's symmetry long enough to put the cat out. Then the cat climbed back into the room through the ancient heating ducts, stuck its head out above the grate, and started coughing up hairballs again. Father went over and tried to pull the cat out of the vent by its head, but it wouldn't budge. It remained there throughout dinner, a living doorstop, stopping conversation every few moments to vomit up another odious mass. Grandmother couldn't hear or see it, and kept digging into her food almost in time to the cat's upchucks. We almost died trying not to laugh--couldn't eat a thing, kept having to run to the restroom to let out gales of laughter. That's the worst ambiance I've ever endured during a meal.
A Burke & Wells Essay
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