That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Kitchen Misadventures: “Homer, I have to go out to pick up something for dinner.”

Posted by kozemp on January 22, 2010

I am not, in the head, a well person.

Okay, let me walk that back a little. I’m not going to start, like, recreationally murdering prostitutes or anything. But speaking as someone who, for example, has to sit in the aisle seat at a crowded movie theatre or run the risk of a complete psychological freakout  – surely the stupidest presentation of claustrophobia in the history of mental health – I worry that the parts of my brain I can’t control are starting to outpace the parts that I can. I have found, though, that keeping busy is a pretty reliable way of making sure that that things stay reasonably in line. It’s tough for the crazy bits to get out of hand if they’re always pressed into service doing stuff.

But – my life is a neverending series of ominous conjunctions – I was recently set on something of an enforced vacation, and this has presented a new sort of problem. My job ate up a lot of available resources, and that was a good thing. I’m not saying that the 40 hours a week I was there I was necessarily pushing 100% CPU towards work-related stuff (I mean, let’s be honest, here), but it was a solid 45-50% at the very least. Even more important was that when I wasn’t there, resenting the very fact that I had to go to work at all still managed to take up maybe 20% in the background. This went a long way towards keeping things in check.

The problem arose when I found myself without a job to go to or resent the existence of, and the bad parts of my brain had much more space in which to stretch their legs and really get comfortable.

Something had to be done, clearly. And something was done. Well, something was thought about being done. Thought about being doing? Thought about having been done? Thoughten-on been doing-ton? Stupid verb tenses. I will consult Dr. Streetmentioner’s book later, but the point is: at some point on a continuum I will not attempt to distinguish with any more specificity, I had a thought about what to do with the problem of all my unused brainpower.

The original plan was to spend my entire prolonged period of not-working-ness just reading books, watching movies, and playing video games. This strategy lasted almost two days before I realized that there was a limit to even how much time -I- could spend in front of a television and, prior to my back surgery a couple weeks ago, sitting in a position required for long stretches of reading was incredibly painful. So that plan wasn’t going to fly in any long-term sort of way.

Around about 10PM on the third day I had this mental conversation with myself:

“I could take this time to learn how to play the piano.”

You already know how to play the piano.

“I knew how to play the piano when I was a kid.”

You still know.

“I haven’t touched a piano in almost 20 years. It’s not like riding a bicycle.”

Sure it is.

“Remember what happened the last time I tried to ride a bicycle? I almost put myself through the windshield of Kenny’s dad’s ’68 Bel Air, and that car was still in the garage.”

Come on, that was ages ago.

“It was September.”

Come on. I bet you can still play the Sonata Pathetique.

“I assure you I cannot.”

Sure you can, slugger! Go try it now. I bet it comes right back.

I went to our piano and proceeded to remember exactly 2/3s of the first chord of the adagio and not one other note from the entire 17-minute piece, after which I took that specific part of my brain and bludgeoned it to death with a metronome.

How, then, was I going to fill all this time I now found myself with? If my brain sat unused much longer it was going to start doing things on its own, and when you consider that one of the few projects I completed my first time through college was a semester-long seminar paper on the production of chemical and biological weapons, my brain’s version of idle noodling could result in a number of major treaty violations.

Then it hit me: I had just started watching Good Eats on the Food Network. Why didn’t I take all this copious free time (and far more dangerous free brainpower) and spend it learning to cook? Like, REALLY cook?

I started cooking for myself in high school and the things I have made since have met the barest conditions of edibility, I suppose – no one ever died from anything I made, no one that I am aware of at least – but I couldn’t really COOK per se. I could follow a recipe and not set a kitchen on fire (the latter is no longer true), but that’s not the same thing. We’re talking about COOKING with a capital C (and, apparently, capital everything else as well).

It also helps that Alton Brown’s cooking philosophy hits a deep groove in my brain. Most cooking shows are just food porn, but Good Eats is basically a science show that happens to be about food. “Cooking magic?” Fuck that noise. Maillard Reaction? Now you’re speaking my language.

(Good Eats is, in fact, on in the background while I’m writing this.)

So I started devouring watching Good Eats with reckless abandon (great gods what a terrible pun that would have been had it escaped). Unfortunately this wasn’t really helping. For killing time just watching Good Eats for hours at a stretch is fantastic, but in terms of actual practicable learning it’s far too scattershot a method to be useful. Change of plans, then: try learning one thing at a time.

My original thought had been that I would quite literally only cook one thing repeatedly until completely mastered. This plan went by the wayside when I made the I think not-unreasonable decision to start learning with the first episode of Good Eats, which happens to be about steak. I wanted to learn, yes, but I wasn’t about to just keep buying and cooking steaks over and over again until I got them perfect. Aside from the fact that steak isn’t exactly the cheapest food in the world, I am fairly certain that much red meat in succession would be fatal. Deliciously fatal, yes, but I’m not sure any modifier really makes “fatal” any better.

I still decided to start field testing with steak, though, which brings us to the crux of the matter at hand:

Being, as I am, a person who gets a little weird about some things makes cooking much more of an adventure than it needs to be sometimes.

Take, then, my first attempt at actual cookery: steaks. I had all the equipment required for this particular application; in this case that meant a cast-iron skillet, which has a dreadful cure and should really be replaced, and an oven, whose controls are so extraordinarily fucked-up that it should not be replaced so much as I am seriously considering inventing time travel so that I might go back and murder the person at the Kenmore plant who assembled it to prevent me from ever having to attempt to cook food in it. It’s one thing for an oven dial to be off by 50 degrees, that’s fine, but for anything past “on” my oven dial is a schizophrenic crapshoot – making anything in it requires adding an extra half hour or so to cooking times while I swing the dial back and forth every 5 minutes trying to figure out what position on said dial will make the oven stay at 350.

(It has not, to date, ever been the same thing twice.)

I had, as Alton Brown would say, the hardware, but I needed the software: the actual steak. This, I determined, would be obtained at my friendly neighborhood Pathmark.

When I walked up to the meat cooler I immediately regretted not just going to the butcher up the street and saying “give me a 3/4″ ribeye,” because once I saw the approximately 4,000 different steaks available I was paralyzed by choice. Latent perfectionists in the audience will recognize this feeling instantly, that depressing notion that when presented with an array of options too vast to count you must pick the ONE PERFECT ITEM amongst the innumerable hordes.

I stood there in front of the cooler, looking at something like 300 square feet of steak, and quietly said, “fuck.”

I started looking at the steaks. This took longer than you might think. Because in addition to the things I had learned about how to buy a steak – color, evenness of cut, marbling, etc etc – all the steaks available had those handy little price tags on them that listed things like price per pound and sell by dates, so in addition to the soft scores of color and cut I had quantifiable data about freshness and price which needed to be maximized. This required looking at as many different options as possible so as to build up the largest possible data set. This is how I buy food. Normal people walk up and buy the first piece of meat that looks good. I perform a statistical regression in my head.

Eventually I found a New York strip that I deemed to be the perfect combination of good steak and available mathematical data and took it home for my first attempt at serious cooking. This attempt lasted almost 45 seconds before I had a complete freakout. I was all set to go. I had finally gotten the oven to settle at 350 degrees. The skillet was in there heating up. My ingredients – kosher salt, black pepper, canola oil – and my tools – spatula, meat thermometer, pot holders, plates – were neatly placed on the counter and ready to go. I took the steak out of the fridge, placed the package on the counter, stared at it for 45 seconds, and then thought I was going to faint.

Cooking the steak would involve TOUCHING the steak.

This was problematic.

The bad part of my brain, perhaps angry that it was being shoved aside for something so trifling as “learning to prepare sustenance,” had lashed out and convinced the entire place that “touching raw steak” was one of those things that, surprisingly enough, would kill me.

I stood there and realized that if I ever wanted to really cook I was going to have to learn how to make myself do things like touch raw meat, but that first time it flares up trying to beat a compulsion is like trying to stop the Juggernaut. No, I had to get around it. Trick it. I had learned with the Christmas shopping it could be done; it was just a matter of figuring out the right way around.

This led to the following little internal monologue:

“Okay, okay, how do I rub the oil onto the raw steak… hmm… put my hands in ziploc bags? No, too clumsy… latex gloves? I don’t have any, and that’s just stupid… put the steak on a grill fork, pick it up with that, and brush the oil on? That’s even dumber than the latex gloves… oh, okay, I’ll cook the steak first, then touch it… wait, that’s the problem in the first place… I wonder if there’s anything in the cabinets that will help…”

I turned my head to look at the corner cabinet at my 4 o’clock.

I thought, wait a minute.

I looked down at the steak.

I twisted my head back to look at the cabinet.

I looked down at the steak again.

I thought, that couldn’t work, could it?

I took out a knife and carefully – oh god so very, very carefully so as not to touch anything  – cut the plastic wrap off the steak and threw it out. I upended the now open package and deposited the steak on a waiting plate. I poured a little bit of canola oil onto the center of the steak.

I twisted my head back around to look at the corner cabinet and started rubbing the oil over the surface of the steak.

I said out loud, “this is really fucking stupid.”

When I thought I had gotten decent coverage over that entire side, I took my hands away and turned back to look at it. Not too bad, actually. A nice, thin coat of oil over the surface of the steak – just like I had learned.

As I sprinkled the salt and pepper on it and prepared to avert my eyes so that I could flip the steak to its other side, I thought of the Army saying my friend Larry once told me: “if it’s stupid and it works, it isn’t stupid.”

I turned to look at the cabinet again, flipped over the steak, fumbled around with my hands trying to grab the bottle of oil, and said, “no, this is still really fucking stupid.”



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