[This Commentary originally appeared in the August 31, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
Such a message never graces the sides of butter packages. As a service to all culinary illiterates (like me), I must urge you: pay heed to this warning! But, more on that story in a moment.
As much as I hate to admit it, everyone has certain limitations. Like a recalcitrant halfwit, I often refuse to abide by such diminished expectations. I have, however, never tried to top my mother in the gastronomical arts. She possesses a formal education in the field and cooks like an expert practitioner. In no sense do I use false modesty when I say I can only hope to microwave half as well in just a narrow band of her complete spectrum.
From my earliest childhood I set my goal much lower. I felt I might achieve a worthy accomplishment if I could merely concoct canteen creations as well as my father. You know, the man acts an artisan with tools, as might befit one of our heritage. Fortunately for my scullery aspiration, said tools do not include kitchen utensils.
Now, I’m not referring to barbecuing on an open flame. Like most fathers, mine performs quite well with that. In fact, as one of the initial signs of my entering manhood, I genuflected when my father honored me by explaining the meanings of “well-done,” “medium-rare” and “never-put-lighter-fluid-on-a-burning-fire-until-you-are-as-old-as-I-am.” Words cannot express the pride instilled within me when he finally permitted me to charbroil the steak on our gas grill.
That’s easy. What I’m talking about here is kitchen cooking: baking, broiling, roasting and all those other “ing” words which transform raw materials into delicious dinners. This represents the really hard stuff – the arena within which my mother excels. My siblings seemed to have benefited from genetic inheritance. Unfortunately, I have not.
Quite simply, I cannot possibly compete in this stadium. No, I have come to realize we best serve the family when each member concentrates on his or her own specialties. Mine do not include cooking. Instead, my family station places upon me the burden of knowing as much Star Trek trivia as feasible. Nonetheless, as previously alluded, I felt I ought to enjoy those kitchen talents on a par with those of my father (whose own particular gift seems to have become making his eldest son feel guilty for not visiting him every weekend).
Of course, my father earned his victual reputation during my mother’s hospital stay following the birth of my youngest sister. He attempted to convince three not-as-naïve-as-he-thought children he made the sauce from scratch. We sat at the dinette table unamused. I don’t think we even needed the empty jar of Ragu to tip us off. Still, he won back our hearts by taking us to the nearest McDonald’s (this used to be a treat until we could afford it ourselves).
With such a modest benchmark in mind, I embarked upon the slow road to my personal cuisine chef-d’oeuvre. I think I actually travelled about 50 yards before I decided I could more easily forgo eating than learn to cook. Twenty-five pounds of potato chips and three microwave dinners later, I decided I should learn to cook.
Then I discovered if I worked late enough, I would come home too late for dinner. This struck me as a workable strategy – except for weekends. Ultimately, I had to face up to cooking.
I quickly found I could effortlessly microwave vegetables. I also have one of those stoves a hash slinger can convert into a grill, so my outdoor expertise turned into an indoor asset. As for real cooking, I learned long ago how to make sauce and omelets. Since sauce generally requires the entire day (best suited to cottage weekends or football Sundays), eggs became my most practiced dish.
Eggs are great – assuming you don’t mind the cholesterol. Omelets are even better. You can put all sorts of things in omelets. Why, with omelets and toast, you can have everything from each of the four – or however many the new pyramid includes – food groups. Heck, it’s even fun cutting up green peppers or onions or mushrooms or pepperoni into pieces small enough to fit in an omelet.
And they’re easy to make. Just grab a frying pan, throw in the butter, mix up some eggs and milk and pour them in. You can add the various accoutrements once the eggs begin to solidify. After a few minutes, flip the thing over and presto! You’ve got an omelet! My kind of cooking – and cleaning. You only mess up a couple of things and these wash easily.
Now for the story…
This past weekend I found myself hungry for brunch, and I had the fixin’s for an omelet. I pulled out the frying pan, put it on the stove element and turned the burner on high. I took out some eggs, broke them into a mixing bowl and added milk. A thorough mixing gleefully occurred.
Meanwhile, the burner (on high, remember) did its job most effectively. I decided to get a chunk of butter. Splat went the butter into the super hot frying pan. The butter spit and then it spat. Then it started to smoke. A lot. “Strange,” I thought, “it never did this before.”
I turned on the fan to draw in the by now billowing effluvium. It took mere moments to conclude the white cloud denoted smoke and not steam. Suddenly, like a prop for an old-fashioned photographer, the pan flashed into flames.
“Wow,” I observed calmly, “this is a rather large fire to have in the kitchen.”
The fan began sucking the flames. I casually approached the refrigerator to pull out a box of baking soda.
But it wasn’t there! I looked back. The fire remained contained within the skillet. No need for panic. I knew water might spread the fire. I also figured it would entail too much risk to pick up the flaming frying pan and throw it out the nearest door (a full twenty feet away). Reluctantly, I reached for the dish towel and covered the frying pan, smothering the fire.
Only hours later did I call my mother. “Yes,” she answered matter-of-factly, “I always told you butter was flammable. Why do you ask?…”
Bachelor cooking. Not for the faint-hearted.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]