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.

dessert

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.

 

Photo by Taylor Kiser on Unsplash
Robin Dance / Posts / Blog

Southern as sugar-shocked tea and in a scandalous affair with her college sweetheart, Robin is mom to two in college with the third almost there. She believes the kitchen table is a sacred alter, first classroom, and safe refuge, where the currency is spoken in love and good food. She hates “cooking close” and shoe shopping (gasp!), loves snail mail and surcies, and finds holy communion where sand meets surf. She’s also rumored to make the best apple pie in the world. In addition to writing at robindance.me, you’ll find her at The Art of Simple, {in}courage and Deeper Story.

  • Elaine Pool

    Ok, baby girl, so I have to ask: did you EVER find out what went wrong? Overcooking? Using glycerin instead of corn syrup? Varnishing the top with, well, varnish???

    January 10th, 2018 18:04
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    • Robin Dance
      http://robindance.me

      I tried my best to figure it out, Elaine, and I’m glad you asked! This post was already getting long or I would’ve explained. I *think* I simply left out the eggs; when I got home that night, I studied the recipe, and it was the only thing I couldn’t remember adding (but I was never sure).

      Or maybe varnish…maybe I DID add that by accident ;).

      January 10th, 2018 21:43
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  • Susan G.

    Yah! That was my question exactly! What ever happened to that pie to turn into cement?!
    Every cooking disaster of mine has mostly been terribly embarrassing…even if it was just for hubby and kids. That pride thing I guess. I’ve never been a great cook, well maybe in my head.
    But the one disaster that didn’t bother me too much was my big dish of fudge I made in my early years of marriage. Probably 42 years ago now! I had made fudge before and it turned out pretty good, but this time it did not set up…ever. I did not want to waste all that yummy chocolate and ended up eating most of it with a spoon. 😉 I finally discovered much later that I was not supposed to add the whole (small) can of evaporated milk, just a few ounces.
    I now read every recipe’s ingredients very carefully!
    Thanks for your wonderful post Robin. I always enjoy everything you write!
    Hope your new year is going well!

    January 10th, 2018 20:53
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    • Robin Dance
      http://robindance.me

      Happy New Year, Susan :). It IS going well so far ;).

      I’ve had a similar but different experience with fudge, too; mine, I attributed to not cooking it long enough (didn’t have a candy thermometer and I was in a hurry. I think I ended up using some for ice cream but throwing most of it out.

      #solidarity

      January 10th, 2018 21:44
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  • Caryn Christensen
    http://carynchristensen.com

    Ah, I’m laughing on this side of the screen, but I’ve had like disasters.
    Most recently, I made a birthday cake for my daughter and made it GF for our gluten sensitive family members AND made dairy free frosting. Just. stop. and think about that combination for a minute.
    Like your pie, the cake *looked* good ~ just long enough to frost it. Even though I let it cool for an absurd amount of time, it was really soft, and by the time we were ready for dessert, I took the top off the cake stand and it had “melted” into a crumbled mess. Literally.
    I have always taken great pride (there’s that word again) in making and decorating my daughter’s birthday cakes as they were growing up, so this felt like a huge disappointment and failure…for about 10 min.
    My daughter laughed uproariously when she saw her “cake”, and we just ended up spooning the frosting covered crumbs into bowls and eating it anyway. It tasted delicious. Now I wish I had taken a picture of it. I was just too deflated at the time.
    Thanks for sharing your dessert failure with us. Truly makes me feel better knowing others have the same experiences and it’s really, truly ok. 🙂

    January 11th, 2018 11:51
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    • Robin Dance
      http://robindance.me

      Caryn,

      We’re all in this thing together, yes? Culinary misery LOVES company :). Most of the time, my desserts DO taste good (and are completely edible), but they may not look perfect. I’m very much a “don’t judge a book by its cover” kind of cook.

      I SO wish you had a picture to show with your telling of this story–I feel your pain, and I LOVE your daughter’s response. PERFECT.

      January 12th, 2018 18:13
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  • Theresa Boedeker
    http://TheresaBoedeker.com

    Love your story. I have enough cooking disasters to fill a few short books. But you are right. They are the most memorable for you and others. Because life is not about perfection. And sometimes we impress others more by our imperfections, than our perfect meals.

    January 11th, 2018 13:33
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    • Robin Dance
      http://robindance.me

      Oh my goodness, Theresa, you just reminded me of a WHOLE ‘NOTHER story–thank you! (Maybe a future GT post??)

      I think people admire our strengths but relate to our weakness; it’s hard to identify with those who seem unapproachable, perfect, etc.

      Yep…I’m glad there are readers who understand my “pain” experienced in this story from the inside out!! 🙂

      January 12th, 2018 18:17
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