I suppose that, in the big scheme of things, nothing’s really a culinary disaster unless your evacuated guests are standing shivering on the lawn while burly firemen tramp through your blackened kitchen and start chucking fire-damaged pans out on to the terrace.
Oh I suppose there’s the other culinary disaster of incoming phone calls on the Sunday morning from guests telling gory tales other sorts of evacuations during the night and wondering could it be something to do with the oysters…
Even if all goes more or less to plan, some people get all worked up and tense about inviting people to eat. They fuss and faff with charger plates and everything matching and insist on the cutlery being perfectly arranged like a royal banquet.
I hate that formal stuff. I like people to quaff wine, grab some nibbles, play with the cats, tickle the ivories or just wander around having a bit of a chat.
I try not to let cooking mishaps bother me, either. There is usually a bit of tea-towel burning. It’s as traditional as burning of American flags in hot-spot flare-ups (geddit?) in the Middle East. It happens when you’re juggling pans and tea towels. Perfectly natural. The smell of burning tea towel, wafting gently into the living room where people are gathered in anticipation of a meal, incites a kind of dread. I imagine them looking at each other transmitting “Oh God she’s ruined the meal.”
It’s the kind of thing that lesser women would cry over, but actually this kind of excitement works in my favour every time. When they sit down and are served food which hasn’t been ruined, they are pathetically pleased and grateful. If you lower expectations far enough, everything that follows is a plus.
Occasionally, I admit, things do go terribly wrong – and it’s usually when I’m busking it a bit. There was the time I cooked a really nice curry with really old curry spices, so it just tasted of the one spice I bought fresh – cumin. I realised it would be disastrous, so bunged in random exotic spices to beef it up a bit – star anise, smoked paprika (I decided against asafoetida, probably wisely) but as none of the surprise ingredients was younger than four years old, it didn’t really make much difference.
My brother liked it, which proves his tastebuds have been eroded to vestiges of their former tastebuddiness.
“It’s really unusual. You must give me the recipe” he said. I never did. I cannot shatter his illusions and admit that essentially, it was a one-spice curry.
Then there was the pyrotechnic pudding. I always flame the Christmas pud and carry it into the darkened dining room where people are eyeing my entrance nervously wondering if the patio door is unlocked because if I drop that pudding, that’s going to be their only exit from the conflagration which will rapidly follow.
The lovely dancing blue flames are only a sign that the alcohol burning off… unless… unless the top of your pud has been reluctant to leave the top of the bowl and you have a kind of volcanic pudding crater instead of a dome. In this case, the crater fills with flaming brandy and it all looks very dramatic. Science being what it is, the brandy flames don’t actually go out of their own accord. They just keep burning and burning so you can enjoy the spectacle for longer. Well, that was my view anyway.
No1 son said “The pudding’s burning.”
“Yes I know it’s flaming. It’s supposed to do that.” Silly boy.
“No. It’s burning. Actually burning.”
He said it in an understated way which was easy to ignore but for once, I had to take notice and as it was, as they say in fire brigade circles,”well alight” I threw a folded tea towel over it to quench the flames. There was extensive central incineration but the sides were still edible, I found, as I shaved them expertly like a doner kebab chef. The guests had brandy cream too. Nothing to complain about there, then. Ahem.
The most dramatic culinary event was the one that happened when I was working home alone intending to have a late breakfast of lightly boiled egg. Something cropped up… some urgent eyebrow plucking, a phone call or I was suddenly inspired to write. Anyway the next thing I knew the house was shaken by an explosion.
Nothing was amiss in the kitchen, apart from the dog scrunched up wild-eyed with terror in his basket, a blackened saucepan on a hob shimmering with intense heat and a contemporary artwork of blacked bits of eggshell all over the ceiling.
Last Saturday night my culinary adventure took a very wrong turn but in an internal more than an external way.
It was a Jamie Oliver 30 minute recipe for jerk chicken. Never made jerk chicken before. For a change, I followed the recipe to the letter. It involved chicken, herbs, shallots and a scotch bonnet chilli. Now I don’t know the usual size of a bonnet chilli but this would have fitted a six months old baby. I would have thought they are usually a bit smaller, say hamster-bonnet sized.
Suffice to say that the finished dish looked incredibly tasty and promised deliciousness on its cosy bed of vegetable rice…but actually, in reality, it tasted as though it had been touched by the Fires of Eternal Damnation.
The first mouthful induced Richter-scale hiccups was accompanied by involuntarily loud noises reminiscent of an elephant seal disappointed to discover that his hot date was in fact an inflatable boat. The meal was fiery, but bearable. I mean, I’m not a wuss. I’ve had hot Rogan Josh. I’ve had very hot Chicken Jalfrezi. Hell, I’ve even had Madras, with three jugs of water.
So as we didn’t have company, I persevered, wracked with juddering hiccups but it just got hotter. We had now attained Phal heat and the temperature was still rising. I had no yoghurt or cream in the house, so I had to abandon the meal half way through and slowly slowly swallow half a tub of Haagen Dazs, moaning gently.
It didn’t end there. The fire ball made its way inexorably through my digestive system and we had, as Bette Davis memorably put it, a bumpy night.
So it was a bit of a disaster. But then it was my fault. The clue was in the name; Jamie’s Killer Jerk Chicken.