Culinary Failures

I get really down when one of my kitchen creations is a fail. I get mopey, grouchy, and I don’t want to talk about it. But since the whole idea of the Wooden Spoon Wanderer Project is to push my husband Eric and me beyond our culinary comfort zones, failures are inevitable.

When I was first learning, as a baby cook, to venture outside the recipe and try my own thing, I made plenty of not-so-tasty meals that put me in a bad mood. I get discouraged easily, and more than just experiencing the disappointment of having a mediocre meal, I was projecting my disappointment onto Eric, who more often than not would eat what I had made, proclaim, “This is fine!” and have a second bowlful. I might have lost my cooking verve had not my job at the time forced me back to the cutting board again and again to keep practicing. My screw-ups were quickly put behind me as I continued to forge ahead.

The first Wooden Spoon Wanderer (as Eric calls it, “WSW”) menu item that came up short was Togolese ablo bread. In the hot climate of Togo, the dough rises quickly, but in the cool air of a Toronto kitchen, Eric just couldn’t get that dough to rise. The bread turned out crispy on the outside, but underdone and sticky on the inside.

My first disappointment came with Samoan fa’alifu. I overcooked those root vegetables to within an inch of their lives. They ended up shapeless and mushy. Luckily, in that case, the taste wasn’t hugely affected, but they certainly would have been more enjoyable with  a firmer texture.

I was also let down by Burkinabe bean cakes. I’m new to deep frying–in fact I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve attempted it–and I find the whole process rather stressful. The oil was too hot and the bean cake batter too wet, and as a result, my cakes crumbled and burned in the oil. Eric still enjoyed them, but I ate my Burkinabe meal with a bit of a scowl.

Since WSW menus are often complex, composed of three or four dishes that are completely new to us, sometimes it’s difficult to estimate timing. Items are easily overcooked or burned when you’re juggling three other things–the oil is spitting, the fish needs turning, and a timer is going off somewhere, but what is it for!?

This is exactly what happened to Eric while making Haitian soup joumou. With some dishes cooking faster than others, he tried to speed up the soup by raising the heat, but in the thin-bottomed pot, better suited to cooking pasta and steaming vegetables than making thick soups, the soup at the bottom burned, and it adopted a smoky flavour that Eric didn’t like. I found it palatable, but Eric was frustrated, and cast his doubts onto the rest of the food he had made. He was wrong–everything else was absolutely delicious–but I got a glimpse into my own head in those moments when my culinary failures leave me flustered and disappointed.

Basically, we are learning that this venture is going to be a mix of successes and failures, but those failures will be, in and of themselves, opportunities to get better for the next assignment. After all, with over 200 assignments to go, we can’t expect perfection every time.

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