To Make A Mess

To Make A Mess

            My mother’s old cookbook is a thing of beauty. Every single yellowing page is stained with some kind of seasoning or sauce, and it’s so old that the spine’s been replaced with binder rings. In it you can find out how to make a salty sweet stew with tomatoes and sweet potatoes, how to roast a whole chicken, or how to make a chicken pot pie from scratch. There’s nothing in it  though about scraped knees, or how to lose an adolescent fight, or what to tell your mother when she comes home to find cooking spray all over the kitchen floor. There’s nothing in that old cookbook about the actions we took as children, with little consideration for the consequences. The old cookbook doesn’t feature our many misadventures, though many of them feature the kitchen—a place where we learned directly from both our elders and mistakes. It isn’t that kind of book. This is. The following is what you get when you mix three to five people in the middle of nowhere and leave them unsupervised with access to a kitchen. The following is essentially a childhood.

How to Make the House Smell Horrible (a recipe perfected by my brother David)

First, take a break from videogames while your parents are out. Realize you are hungry, remove soup from fridge, and forget to take it out of metal pot. Set microwave on ‘Hi’ for five minutes. Go back to the living room to play videogames with your brothers. Add liberal amounts of adolescent stupidity for flavor. Stir in laughter. Forget about soup. Ignore black smoke coming from the next room. You’ll know you’ve left the soup long enough when your older brother asks “What’s that burning rubber smell?” Then jump approximately three feet out of your seat at the couch and swear liberally. Allow the pot to spark in the microwave for several seconds longer before turning it off. By now the handle of the pot and pot lid should be sufficiently droopy and melted, filling the room with the characteristic “burning rubber smell”. Once this smell permeates the whole house, throw pot of soup in the sink and pour water over it.

Get a sponge and remove scorch marks from the microwave while saying “mom doesn’t have to find out, does she?” Examine melted pot in sink, smell smell, concede that yes, she probably will. You should have another few hours before anyone comes home, so open all windows and turn the ceiling fan on as high as it will go. Then have yourself and two brothers retreat into the farthest room from the kitchen (your parents’ room) and bar the door against the smell, while the fan does nothing. Bring Playstation into parents’ room. Let sit as needed (i.e. all day) while your brothers laugh at you and call you an idiot. Serves family of 5.

***

            Somewhere in the same chapter as How to Make the House Smell Horrible, is a similar but more festive recipe of my mother’s, from one of my more exciting memories of the things that have happened in that kitchen. It happened one morning in the week leading up to Christmas when I was 12 (or thereabouts):

Roasting Fires on an Open Chestnut:

In a metal mixing bowl, 1lb of chestnuts with ½ cup of brown sugar, 2tbs of butter, and 1 oz. of spiced rum (to make it taste like Christmas). Stir until legumes are sufficiently coated in the sugary, goopy mess, then place them onto a tinfoil-covered cookie sheet. Place cookie sheet on stovetop to roast. Then crank up the burner to ‘Med’ and leave them to roast. You must then leave the house to go by groceries without telling your three sons in the living room watching TV to check on the chestnuts while you’re gone. The recipe then calls for 30 min. to an hour for the chestnuts to roast, darken, blacken, and eventually burst into flames.

After 30 seconds of uninterrupted conflagration the recipe calls for the oldest son, Brian, to wander into the kitchen in search of a snack and yell “Holy shit the kitchen’s on fire!” several times. Very loudly. That should bring the other two out of the living room to gawk at the two-foot high chestnut flames now blackening the microwave above the stovetop. Next have one of the boys ask “what the hell do we do!?” excitedly and franticly, while another answers “Put it out for fuck’s sake, retard!” Then add a large serving bowl of water to the pan, and when that fails to upset the flames, gently whack the cookie sheet with wet towels until the fire actually goes out. Have one of the boys don oven mitts and dispose of the still-smoking sheet of chestnuts in a snow bank in the back yard where they can’t set anything else on fire. The other two should try to sponge off the black residue from all kitchen surfaces, and giggle at the absurdity of what just happened. Never make candied chestnuts again.

***

No matter how bad things ever got during those early days of our culinary experience, our parents never seemed to come down as hard on us as when we misbehaved in other areas. Our mistakes were met instead with patient amusement from our parents. We were learning, and they were teaching us. There was something in that; learning from a parent and being allowed, no, expected to screw up and burn the house down. If anything they seemed impressed that we hadn’t yet. The kitchen was where we had adventures growing up. Before long, the three of us had grown tired with reheating leftovers and putting out chestnut fires however. The obvious next step was for us to start cooking dishes on our own, learning the finer points of the noble art. That sounded a bit long and tedious however, so we jumped ahead several steps.

This led to one of the greatest discoveries on a summer afternoon. It was my brothers Brian and David and I, joined with our step-cousin Graham, who lived next door. History will remember it as The Day We Found a Blender In The Kitchen. The blender had in fact always been there next to the coffee maker, but up till that point we had had no interest in it. None of us could think of why though; we knew full well what it was and what it was for, but we could never remember using it. We told ourselves it was because we’d never had smoothie ingredients before, but a quick glance in the freezer proved us wrong. So what were we waiting for? That day led to many new creations in the science of stuff made out of ice-cream, and I mark it here the end of a long period of accidental mishaps, and the beginning of an era of purposeful ones.

Things To Do With A Blender (Some of Which You Probably Shouldn’t)

These recipes require everything within reach. They are compiled in no particular order. Recipe 1: Take all the fruit out of the fruit drawer of the fridge, take any and all yogurt from the fridge, and combine bananas, strawberries, blueberries, and a kiwi with some vanilla flavored yogurt. Put the cap on wrong. Clean up tastiest mess ever. Drink.

Recipe 2, like 1, is also brief and simple: Break out chocolate ice-cream. Laugh maniacally. Put several scoops of chocolate ice-cream in the blender’s pitcher and look at each other wondering vaguely what to put in next. Grab the remains of the bananas, cut into slicer, put in with chocolate ice-cream. Add milk. Discover what all the different settings on the console mean. Decant strange banana-chocolate-hybrid-milkshake into four glasses. Clink glasses together to celebrate brilliance. Drink.

Recipe 3: Run out of combinations from the fridge you haven’t tried yet; raid the pantry for things that sound like a good idea. Scoop peanut-butter and marshmallow fluff into blender together, add vanilla ice-cream and chocolate syrup, and a strawberry just to see if it will make any difference. Drink.

Recipe 4: Convince yourselves that you can do no wrong. Take those ice-cream cones that have been in the pantry for like, forever, and crush them into pieces. Throw some peanut butter on top. Add vanilla ice-cream as a blending agent. Add chocolate chips. Add milk. Decant into four glasses and then look deeply at the thick bubbly foam which has formed on top of you beverage. Have doubts. Do not under any circumstances be the first to sample it, just look at it. Question why you ever decided to play food-God. Dare someone else to try theirs first. Argue; repeat as necessary. Finally settle on a competition; whoever drinks all of theirs first wins. Everyone there is really competitive so it doesn’t matter what you win, it’s a contest. Take a sip. Cringe. Drop out of the contest. Don’t drink.

Lastly, recipe 5: This last recipe is perhaps the most purely experimental thing to happen in my family’s cook book. It is very short and simple, and came to us courtesy of my cousin Graham. It goes like this: Get bored once you’ve run out of ingredients you haven’t combined yet. Wonder out loud “I wonder what would happen if we just put a bunch of chocolate chips in the blender for like, a second.” Get your cousins to agree with you. Make them curious. Add 1 cup of chocolate chips to the blender, with nothing else. Propose a second idea. “Now I wonder what would happen if we did it without the lid on…”

***

 To get an accurate picture of the results of Blender Recipe #5, let me present you with an image. The kitchen in question is very small. It is much longer than it is wide, and it is not very wide. It has all the things a kitchen should have: an oven to your immediate right when walking into it, a refrigerator opposite it on your left, a counter that stretches the length of the kitchen from the fridge to the wall, which then wraps around the corner to the sink. The wall above has a row of cabinets hanging on it and there is another row below that. We are still finding the odd chip in this kitchen to this day. The chips stayed in the blender for less than a second before exploding in every direction. Many stuck on the walls on the opposite side of the kitchen, or went up and ricocheted off the cabinets above and deflecting onto the counter. It sounded like machine-gun fire for one second before stopping completely, leaving us in a stunned–no–awed silence as we beheld the war-torn kitchen before us.

David eventually came to hate that blender several years later when he was put on a liquid diet after fracturing his jaw, shoulder, arm, and skull in a nasty go-kart accident. It was months before he could eat anything solid, so while his jaw was wired shut all of his meals were taken through a straw. The blender became a dark figure in his mind for those months, always looming in the corner and waiting to eat all his favorite foods and spit out the same red liquid that tasted more like V8 juice -my mother’s juice of choice for trying to liquefy meals that were never meant to be liquefied- than it did like pizza. The last we ever saw of it, the thing had what looked like a bullet hole in it after David tried to blend his frozen jelly beans from Easter while we were away. Shortly after that last incident he was able to chew solid food again, though he’s been a bit twitchy around blenders ever since.

Over the years a lot has changed in all of our lives, but out idiocy in the kitchen is something we’ve always hung onto. Whether it be ironically almost roasting the house down over an open pan of chestnuts, or putting marshmallows in the microwave to watch them get giant, when my family is all together in that kitchen, somehow we all revert back to children.

And it’s awesome.

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