Thinking about it, I suppose I’ve been learning to cook my entire life. I can remember pulling up a chair to our kitchen counter in the apartment we lived in prior to my mother’s death, so I had to have been small. Boxed cakes with store-bought icing were downright magic. Seriously, mix together a bowl of dry ingredients with an egg and oil and you have a cake? Who cared what it really tasted like, because 1) sugar, and 2) making something myself.
Once I discovered cookbooks, I graduated from box cakes and slice-and-bake cookies to scratch-made. Clearly, desserts were my favorite category (disclosure: the only category I tried).
Bringing a recipe to life was adventure and art and accomplishment.
I still feel that way. But back then, nothing made me feel more grown up than cooking, except, maybe, “smoking” those candy cigarettes; but, seriously…whoever came up with that idea? In the kitchen, I had a lot of freedom to experiment, and something about that made me brave.This is one of the beautiful things about childhood: we haven’t learned to be intimidated by what we don’t know.
Fast forward decades, and my family would tell you I’m a good cook. What my children took for granted when they were young, they eventually learned to appreciate. I don’t share this arrogantly, as if I’ve “arrived” – I’m still learning – but thankfully, for all of those who’ve poured into my culinary life. I’ve learned at the side of dear family members and friends, people who have graciously shared their tips and time, recipes and recommendations.
My recipe book is splattered and tattered and now bound by duct tape, and when my husband suggested I needed a new one, I looked at him like he had grown another head. To me, it is simply well seasoned.
Unfortunately, and sometimes laughably, all these years of practice do not equal perfection. A few culinary missteps come to mind right off the bat, but the most embarrassing kitchen catastrophe was the time we were in a supper club and I signed up to make dessert. I was so sure of my baking abilities, I chose a recipe I had never tried before, a Kentucky Derby Pie. I was excited because chocolate! Pecans! We really loved this group of people and I wanted to make something special.
My children were still at home then, so I’m sure my day was busy and full of distractions. That was my life during this season, and I’d really like to blame what came next on something besides my own arrogance.
I got the pie made early in the day, and it looked and smelled delicious. I couldn’t wait to slice and serve it to our Supper Club, already anticipating how impressed they’d be.
Mercy–do you sense the pride? You just know a fall is coming….
We arrived at our host’s home and they covered the main dish, something savory and delicious cooked in their Big Green Egg. I don’t remember the exact cut of meat, but I do know I ate like a linebacker who had missed a meal or three. It was my way of complimenting the chef. In fact, everything was delicious that night, and my pie was the perfect ending to our meal.
We cleared the table and Greg, Ronda, and I headed to the kitchen to make coffee and ready dessert. Greg was practically salivating when he handed me the pie server–he and Ronda were great cooks, and I knew they appreciated dessert. I leveled the server to make the first cut…
and it wouldn’t penetrate the pie. I tried pressing harder and began sawing…and still couldn’t make a dent.
Concerned but optimistic, Greg handed me a serrated knife. The pie laughed at me–I tried to “hammer” the point of the knife into it, just to get a cut started. Nothing.
Not going down without a fight, Greg poured hot coffee over the entire pie, a culinary Hail Mary if ever there was one. That dessert may have looked like a Kentucky Derby pie, it may even have smelled like one, but it was false advertising, a book’s cover we shouldn’t have judged. We couldn’t even manage crumbs.
I was mortified.
I remember Ronda scavenging her refrigerator, looking for something, anything, that could pass as dessert. I think we had Chips Ahoy and ice cream, but honestly, the blood had drained from my head and everything’s fuzzy after even coffee not being able to soften that Kentucky Derby Brick.
Everyone was gracious and acted like it was no big deal (which it wasn’t in the overall scheme of life), and we had a great laugh. I went home, pie-brick in hand.
In one last-ditch effort to at least salvage my glass pie plate, I ran hot, soapy water over the pie and let it soak overnight. The next day, I still couldn’t excavate the sucker, so I gave up and threw the whole blasted thing away, dish and all.
The next supper club I brought broccoli casserole.
Twelve years later, I can’t recall details from any of the other times we met for Supper Club that year, but I remember that Dessert Disaster night, and how everyone was so sweet to me, how they laughed with me and not at me. If that Kentucky Derby Pie had been perfect, we sure would have missed one of the most important lessons about entertaining: Hospitality isn’t about perfection, it’s about people.