Burnt Offerings of the Culinary Kind

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If you spend enough time cooking, sooner or later you’ll burn something. Trust me, I know. If you’re lucky, nobody will see you do it. But really, what are the odds of that happening?

Once when I was in college, sometime after the dinosaurs had died off, I was trying to cook a steak that had been given to me by a dear relative. And what a beautiful steak it was, nearly two inches thick and very well marbled. Problem is it was still frozen. Well, I reasoned, if I began cooking it, the steak would cook thoroughly on the outside and maintain some red in the center by the time it was finished. What can I say, I was young, foolish, and inexperienced. So I placed the steak in a pan, shoved it under the broiler and went to the living room to have a cocktail while my supper cooked.

Moments later, one of my housemates came through the front door and greeted me, “Hey, Mike.” He looked up the hallway, toward the kitchen, and then back at me. “Everything okay?”

“Hi, Rick,” I replied, “yeah, sure.” Rick shrugged and headed off in the other direction, to his room. Moments later, the smoke reached the living room, where I was still seated.  I leapt from my chair and ran to the hallway, peering through the light smoke only to see much heavier smoke billowing from the kitchen. My steak!

I ran to the kitchen, threw open the broiler door, and was greeted by blazing flames that appeared to be coming from a black, oily slab that had once been my steak. First I tossed some water on it… bad idea. The flaming and smoking only grew worse. Then I shut off the gas and slammed the broiler door shut, which seemed to do the trick. I opened the door again to find that the flames had gone out, but the billowing smoke had become ten times worse. I turned on every fan and opened every window in the house, before heading up the street to get a sub sandwich.

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Have you ever set corn on fire? I have.

Have you ever set pork ribs on fire? I have.

Have you ever almost set your wooden back porch on fire? I’m not telling!

Needless to say, I have more stories to tell regarding my culinary pyrotechnics. But you will have to wait until the book comes out before you can read about them. Ha! Thanks for hanging with me.

My Unfortunate Baking Misadventure

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As I continue compiling material for my first cookbook, I am reminded of the best and worst of my bread baking endeavors. I don’t bake bread often and what little I do, I learned from my mother, an Italian immigrant who make almost everything from scratch—and made it very well, I might add.

What I usually bake can best be described as a rustic Italian loaf. Long and somewhat oval in shape, it’s a somewhat hearty bread with a substantial crust, very well suited to dipping or eating with soups and salads. I tend to use unbleached and/or whole wheat flour, which makes for a more dense product than one would get by using bread-specific flour, which tends to contain more glutens. When it turns out right, my bread is a nice addition to the dinner table.

But alas, things do not always turn out as planned. Some years ago, when my parents were still alive, we were planning to have the family over to celebrate my young son’s birthday. In the tradition of my mother’s kitchen, where I learned so much about cooking, I had planned an abundant meal involving way more food than even this group of eleven people would ever be able to eat. I thought it might be nice to have a fresh-baked loaf of my homemade bread, but I would not have enough time to prepare and raise the dough. So I got this great idea to make up some dough, raise it once, then freeze it. On the day of our celebration, I would defrost the dough, let it rise one more time, and then bake it in time to serve fresh, warm bread for dinner.

To put it mildly, something went wrong. My guess would be that I hadn’t allowed nearly enough time for defrosting, so when I expected my loaf to be rising, some colder parts were still struggling just to reach room temperature. At some point, time had run out for rising because I needed to bake the loaf and let it cool a little prior to serving. My loaf looked okay on the outside, if a bit smaller than I’d hoped for. So into the oven it went.

I waited. I watched. The bread looked okay as far as the color and general appearance of the crust, but it was too small. That should have been my first clue. The second clue came when I picked up the loaf, wearing oven mitts, to place it on a cooling rack. Though slim, almost like a baguette, my bread loaf weighed as much as a loaf twice its size would weigh.

All the other foods we had prepared—grilled meats, pasta, veggies, salad, etc.—came off as planned. But when I set that loaf of bread down on the table, it looked and sounded like a wooden club landing. When my father first picked it up, he immediately looked over at me with his eyebrows raised, gently raising and lowering the loaf as if he were judging its weight. He cut off a hunk and set the loaf back down. Then it was my brother-in-law’s turn. He hoisted my loaf of bread, holding it at one end with both hands, and took a few practice swings, smiling at me as he did so, before slicing off another few pieces. I got the message.

Eventually, the bread came around to me. With only half a loaf remaining, the thing still felt heavy for its size. I turned the end cut toward me and examined the cross-section. Amidst the usual internals, I saw darker portions with none of the usual holes one expects to find in a slice of bread. Solids in my bread? Apparently so!

Some of the more dedicated eaters in my family took a few bites out of sheer courtesy. Others just passed. I was embarrassed, to say the least. But I learned a valuable lesson about cooking: No matter what your schedule says, every dish you prepare takes exactly as much time as it needs to be properly finished. If you need it sooner, begin sooner.

Nowadays I look back on these culinary setbacks and laugh, even though I assure you I wasn’t laughing at the time. You’ll learn more about these endeavors when this book becomes available. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.

The Night My Plastic Snowman Attacked Me

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We’ve had this plastic snowman since the kids were little, which means it’s been a while. He stands on our front porch from sometime after Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. He lights up after dark by means of an incandescent light fixture glowing from within his hollow body. Some of his painted features are now worn and faded. I no longer recall where we bought him, but he hadn’t cost a lot. Our snowman used to have a pipe in his mouth, but it broke off. That might have happened the night he attacked me, but I don’t think so.

Oh, haven’t I told you about that? Yes, it’s true. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the little bugger came at me one night, when I wasn’t expecting it. The whole ordeal was rather violent and caught me completely off guard. I mean look at him; he’s a four-foot tall molded plastic snowman and they are generally considered to be a benevolent sort. I don’t believe anybody else would have anticipated his violent outburst any more than I did.

The incident happened four or five years ago on a cold, winter night. A winter storm had passed through our area, dropping four or five inches of new snow. Once the snowfall had stopped, as the temperature began to fall, I suited up and went outside to clear our driveway and sidewalks. I rolled my trusty two-stroke snowblower out of the garage, threw the choke lever over, turned the key, yanked the starter cord and stood up with a look of great satisfaction as my machine roared to life. I squinted slightly as I leaned forward into a cloud of blue smoke to push the choke lever back over. The engine settled into a stable growl, which escalated to a controlled roar as I began to clear rows of snow.

I remember adjusting the directional chute as I moved along the curved sidewalk leading to my front porch, which was well lit, not only by the usual area lighting but also by the strands of Christmas lights, which my beloved wife and teenage daughter had strung up across the porch roof and front rail, and of course from our plastic snowman. He stood at the edge of the concrete porch, smiling at the world around him and glowing brightly from within.But an instant later, as I approached, his demeanor changed.

As the snowblower and I moved ever closer toward the snowman, he grew agitated, literally. First the little guy began shuddering and then rapidly shook from side to side as if having some sort of seizure. I stared at this amazing site for an instant, not yet comprehending the situation at hand.

Suddenly and without further warning, the snowman lept from his place on the porch, sailing through the air, straight for me and my snowblower as his pleasant glow from within changed to a brilliant white flash before going out completely. Startled, I released the engagement lever on my snowblower as the snowman crashed into us and then lay on the ground before us in total, dark silence. My heart beat like a triphammer as I stood there, piecing together what had happened.

My eyes traced the remnants of a slender electrical cord leading from the snowman’s backside not toward an electrical outlet up on the porch, but toward the intake of my snowblower. For whatever reason, instead of plugging the snowman directly into the outlet behind him, my decorating team had run his little cord out to a four-outlet temporary fixture on a stake in the front flower bed, which in turn was plugged into the outlet just outside our front door. Somehow, perhaps during the course of the snowstorm, a portion of the snowman’s electrical cord had strayed onto the sidewalk, only to be spooled up by the paddles of my snowblower. Good heavens, I’d all but disemboweled the little guy!

I did my best to hide my shocked, sorrowful state by laughing uncontrollably at the memory of being attacked by our plastic snowman. I spent no small amount of time freeing the stripped, stretched and broken electrical cord from the snowblower’s intake. And in the days that followed, I spent more time acquiring and installing another incandescent light fixture inside of my little friend.

Before long he was back out on our porch, glowing from within as usual, and he has done so ever since. We tend to be a little more careful these days about where we run the electrical cords when we put up Christmas decorations. I can’t help but smile whenever I think back on that incident. This usually happens while I’m removing snow from the front walks during the holiday season.

Just last weekend, for example, I was clearing several inches of snow for the first time this season. As I came along the front walk toward our house, I glanced at the little snowman and smiled. A moment later, as I turned to pass in front of him, I was certain I heard him utter a derogatory remark about the legitimacy of my birth. I can’t imagine he would still bear a grudge against me after so many years, especially after I took such care to restore his innards, but one never knows.

Tales from the Dockside

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Before I was a biker, I was a boater. Before I became a boater, I was just a guy who wanted a boat. But all that changed on July 4, 1990 when I was thrust into the world of recreational boating by the makers of Royal Crown Cola. Let me tell you about that.

It had been a typical 4th of July holiday in Bensenville, where my wife and I lived at the time. I had been grilling outside and drinking copious amounts of Diet RC Cola. In fact I had been drinking cans of Diet RC for weeks, because of a contest they had been running at the time. Specially marked cases of the product had been proclaiming, “Win A Boat Instantly!”

So there I was, doing some dishes in my kitchen. I had just drained another can of Diet RC and was tossing my can into the trash when I remembered the contest. I literally stopped in mid-toss, drew my hand back away from the trash bin, brought the empty can up to my right eye, and peered inside to see the winning code printed across the bottom.

BOT

I put the can down and stared straight ahead, stunned into disbelief. After taking a breath or two, I put the empty can back up to my right eye and looked inside again.

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Now my heart was racing. I had just come that close to throwing a 17-foot Bayliner into the kitchen trash bin. But I hadn’t thrown it out. There I stood, alone in my kitchen, still just a little bit dumbfounded by the whole thing as I stared at the winning can in my hand. I had to tell Karen. I wanted to call out to her so eloquently, “My dear, come see what I have here,” but instead I began bellowing at the top of my lungs, “Boat!” That wasn’t what I’d meant to say or how I’d meant to say it, but that’s all that came out, again and again. “Boat! Boat!”

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My poor wife came scrambling into the kitchen at top speed, probably expecting to find that an ocean liner had somehow crashed into our heavily wooded back yard. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

I still couldn’t say any multisyllabic words, so I held the can out to her and said, “Look!”

Karen looked at me as one might look at a deranged lunatic wielding a bloody machete. Ever so tentatively, she reached out, accepted the empty can, and held it up to one eye. Her other eye popped open when she realized what she was seeing. Then seized by the same excitement, she began to yell at the top of her lungs, “Boat! Boat!” I’m sure we sounded like a couple of overgrown Muppets on Sesame Street. Eventually we regained the gift of human speech, but that’s pretty much how it started.

Months later, we took possession of the craft. While at the dealership, no fewer than three people jokingly cautioned us about remembering to install the boat’s drain plug. First there was the business manager, who collected the sales tax for which we were responsible, executed various forms, and otherwise gave us legal possession of our new boat. “Here’s all your documentation, here are your two keys… oh, and here is your drain plug.” She handed over a plastic bag with the little brass plug inside. “Don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!”

scan0004Then there was the young man who took us up on the boat to give a crash course in what and where everything was. The last thing he said was, “Did they give you the drain plug?” I nodded. “Good! Well, don’t forget to put it in. Ha!”

Finally there was the guy who helped me hitch the trailer to the back of our tow vehicle, a 1980 AMC Eagle (we were people of simple means back then, as we pretty much are now). As I got into the car, he called out after me, “Hey, you know the drain plug is out. Did they…” I held up the little plastic bag and waved it back and forth. “Ah, good! Now don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!” I shook my head, smiling. Don’t forget to put the drain plug in… What kind of an idiot did they take me for, anyway?

I’ll never forget the first time we took that boat out. We had hauled the boat up to my in-laws’ place in Kenosha. Yes, it was a bit of a drive from our home, but they lived a lot closer to water than we did and had ample space in which to store the boat and trailer, when we weren’t using it—which turned out to be most of the time. I still remember what great pains we had taken to ensure that we had everything before leaving Bensenville. We had picked up a lot of essential equipment in preparation for our maiden voyage: PFD’s, dock lines, anchor and rode, a chart of Lake Michigan, 2-way marine radio, air horn, first aid kit, and on and on and on. Then there were the few things that had come with the boat, like the ignition key, hitch lock key, operating manual, and—oh, yes—the drain plug, which I stuffed down into my right front jeans pocket, so as not to leave it behind.

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A couple of hours later, we were at Kenosha Harbor, preparing to launch our Sweet 17 for the first time. Karen and I were both a little nervous, having never launched a boat before, but we had gone over the process many times on our way up from Illinois and worked as a team to ensure a smooth execution on the ramp. Right.

I was at the wheel, trying very hard to look cool as I backed the trailer into position on the ramp. Karen stood on the dock, signaling and calling out helpful directions. “A little left… A little more.. Straighten out… Go right… No, right… No, your other right… Wait! Okay, pull forward and straighten out.” You get the idea.

We were finally lined up relatively straight on the ramp. I set the car’s parking brake and got out so that the two of us could make ready. We removed all the tie downs, fastened the dock lines and fenders, and unhooked the bow eye safety chain. Karen took the dock lines into her hands and stepped out onto the dock as I got back into the car and began backing down the ramp. Slowly, slowly, slowly I went until the boat floated free and Karen drew the lines in. She would stay with the boat at the dock while I went and parked the tow vehicle. That hadn’t been so bad! I felt proud as I drove away and up toward the parking lot.

I pulled into an open parking space, shut off the car and got out. Being the conscientious sort, the last thing I did before shutting the car door was to feel my right pocket for the car keys. I slapped my hand down against my right leg… and felt that little brass drain plug.

Dale Earnhardt would have been proud to see how fast I sent that car and trailer across the parking lot and down the hill, back toward the launch ramps. As I barreled down the hill, I could see Karen waving frantically and pulling on the dock lines for all she was worth as the back end of the boat sank lower and lower into the water. She didn’t even have to direct me as I backed down the ramp—not that she could have, anyway.

I put the back end of the trailer as far into the water as I dared to, set the parking brake, and flew onto the deck to help my wife draw the boat forward, its bow now pointing up toward the top of the ramp as­ though to say, “Get me up there now!” It took some doing to winch the boat onto the trailer, but we got it done. Then, with the bow eye chain safely in place, I hauled my boat, trailer, and quite a few gallons of Kenosha harbor up to the top of the ramp, where we let the incline and gravity help drain the water out.

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While we were standing there, another couple pulled in on the opposite side of the same dock. The man hopped onto the dock and began walking up toward the parking area, to retrieve his tow vehicle and trailer. He paused as he passed us, glanced at the water streaming out the back of the Sweet 17 and deduced, “Forgot to put the drain plug in, eh?” His tone was not the least bit unkind as he said this. Rather, he just looked at me knowingly and nodded, his gray hairs catching the sunlight as he did so. I felt a little better after that.

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We did get out on Lake Michigan, once we had gotten everything relatively dried off, and had a wonderful time out on the water. I felt rather skipper-like as we skimmed the waves, waving at other boaters and observing people on shore as they watched us passing by. Gulls flew overhead. The sun shined down upon us. Despite a rather challenging start, it turned out to be a good day.

mason-awardIn the months and years that passed, I made a point of furthering my boating knowledge. I took a safe boating class offered by the United States Power Squadrons, then went on to join the Chicago Power Squadron, became instructor qualified and began teaching sessions of the course myself. One year I even won an award for my teaching efforts. My students always appreciated the stories I offered as real-world examples of certain principles they were trying to learn, but my drain plug story always got the biggest laughs.

Until next time…