On the shelf: Don’t Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs

I got a copy of How I Learned to Cook for Christmas. (Ever notice that book covers sometimes incorporate the hot colors for the fashion season? Gotta love the trendy blue and brown there.)

Subtitled “Culinary Educations From the World’s Greatest Chefs”, it’s the one I’ll be picking up after I finish Heat, which is another story of men who are (as my friend Branden says about me) “armed with enough knowledge to be dangerous.”

“How I Learned…” is a collection of essays detailing the first cooking experiences of food luminaries such as Ming Tsai, Daniel Boulud, Michel Roux, and the ubiquitous Anthony Bourdain. Despite myself, I launched into the book today at lunch, starting with Ferra Adria’s rise to culinary power and starting into Jose Andres- he of Jaleo, Oyamel and Zatinya. Neat stuff.

My own start is spectacularly unexciting. In Maryland we take our study of 18thc. history very seriously. Fourth grade is when we prepare for “Maryland Night,” when we square dance, make butter by shaking the hell out of a baby food jar full of heavy cream, make mobcaps, and generally learn how it was to be a rebel- fighting the king of England. A rebel who was never going to be any good. In fifth grade we get further into the politics and human cost of settling the New World. My teacher Ms. McKelvey had us do a project on indentured servitude- all those young men who wanted to come over to America had to pay for their voyage by basically enslaving themselves to landowners already settled in. (In doing so, they became tradesmen and after paying off their debt they occasionally opened their own businesses. Voila! The beginnings of a free market economy.) Basically, we had to attach ourselves to a master of something and “learn a trade.” I asked my mother to teach me how to cook.

I’m old now and frankly I don’t remember what we made, except for the main dish- Chicken Kiev- and some kind of fruit cobbler for dessert. The final part of my project required a demonstration. Rather than prepare Chicken Kiev for my classmates, we decided to have Ms. McKelvey to dinner. I got an “A” and I seem to remember that the meal was actually quite good.

That was perhaps the first and last time my mother and I coexisted peacefully in the kitchen. I don’t recall if she enjoyed answering my questions, or if she smiled at me lovingly, in fact it was rather uneventful. I do remember that, unlike my grandmother, Mom was not big on letting me lick the beaters when we made sweets- she was good at using a spatula to get every last bit from the bowl- and she drilled into me the importance of washing and putting things away immediately. Something she still tells me to do even though she knows I do it.

From then on, I did little in the kitchen except bake Christmas cookies. Once she helped me make a turkey-shaped pizza from scratch, which the family ate the night before Thanksgiving. But on the whole, Mom loves to have the kitchen to herself. Dad cooks on the weekends and pitches in when she works late, but generally she’s the only living thing in there and she does not like to be bothered. She gets intense and can be downright grumpy if interrupted.

Pets have always received a special dispensation. We’ve had dogs, who loved to eat, but they learned to keep their roles minimal. The first one, Pete, would stand up on his hindlegs and watch her work. Propping himself up against her left hip with his right paw, he shuffled along next to her, dancing awkwardly along as she moved from side to side; counter to stove, counter to oven. This made Mom laugh with frustration more than anything else, but she bore it well and so did Pete. But he did give up after awhile and contented himself with becoming an “Eat Beast” (thanks for that, Garret), polishing off hams, 1 lb boxes of chocolate and birthday cakes. His successor Harry took the same path.

My current level of kitchen dangerousness has consisted of burning myself a lot. My left forearm on a swinging oven door. My right knuckle on a broiler that was cranked up to 500F. I’ve grated fingernails, lacerated thumbs, planed the heel of my hand, etc. There’s a little bit of me in a lot of the meals I’ve made in the past year, something I don’t intend to repeat next year. What I do intend is to cook more, to enjoy it, and to have better stories to tell.

Stay tuned.

Note: Scanners rawk, don’t they? Still, I miss my camera.

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