We’ve all had experiences with “bad food” – food prepared improperly or maybe not agreeable to our taste buds.
Topping my list of “Bad Food” would be my mother’s library-paste rice and Hasenpfeffer (sweet and sour rabbit). The smell of the marinade in which my mother soaked the rabbit made my stomach churn. I knew it would be on the table in the next few days—only recently did I discover how my younger brother Bill side-stepped anything he didn’t like that was going to be dinner one night—he would hang around at Aunt Dolly’s until she asked him if he wanted to eat with them. Of course he did! (It never occurred to me that a person could deliberately skip a meal).
Mom didn’t have much talent with cabbage, either. She would put it on to boil around 9 am so it would be slimy mush by dinnertime. My sister Becky shuddered at the memory of mom’s lima beans while we all pinched our noses remembering the smell of kidney stew. (Maybe not Bill—he LIKED kidney stew–I did too until I discovered what task the kidneys perform inside a body of a person or an animal).
My mother’s philosophy seemed to be, if the recipe required one or two hours cooking time, all day would be much better. Granted, we never suffered the ill effects of eating undercooked food and dinner could sometimes be a mystery, guessing what was in the pot.
I was an adult living in California before I discovered how wonderful a pilaf rice can taste or how delicious corned beef and cabbage is when the cabbage hasn’t boiled all day.
I was born on the brink of World War II and many groceries were rationed or simply unavailable. My mother stretched her ten-dollars-a-week grocery allowance by cooking a lot of organ meats, which were cheap and un-rationed (liver, kidneys, tongue, heart and BRAINS). Ew, ew. No, don’t tell me it tastes just like scrambled eggs.
And, a child’s imagination can run amuck with the names of certain things. Take “head cheese”. Actually, it’s not a cheese but a lunchmeat, served cold–but do you know why it’s called “head cheese”? It was made with the head of a calf or a pig. As for my own particular aversion to stewed rabbit, I’m not sure which I despised the most – the rabbit or the occasional BB that might be found floating in the gravy. We only had hasenpfeffer when my father went rabbit hunting. The rabbits were cleaned at the kitchen sink; some things are better done out of the sight of small children.
After I watched my then-husband clean fish shortly after we were married, I only ate fish sticks for several years. I think the only kind of fish my mother ever cooked were salmon patties (which, oddly enough is one of my comfort foods) but bear no resemblance to creatures that once swam in the ocean.
All of which only demonstrates that much of the visceral reaction we experience with certain foods can be traced to how the food was prepared, along with the deep-seated American aversion to eating some parts of an animal but not others (such as brains, liver, kidneys ).
I became curious about bad recipes initially when I read that many recipes in cookbooks aren’t actually tested prior to publication.
Have you ever followed a recipe in a reputable cookbook, only to find the results dismally disappointing? After many years of cooking, I can generally tell just from reading a recipe whether it sounds right to me. My curiosity about bad recipes was piqued when someone sent me a food section from an old newspaper. The author opens the article, titled “IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THE RECIPE” by relating the story of a lady whose hobby is trying recipes until she finds the perfect one. In her quest for the perfect crab cake, this cook tried many different versions including several provided by notable cookbook authors. “They were soggy little balls of yuck,” she reported. “Even my husband wouldn’t touch them, which is really amazing. They were too disgusting.”
It may surprise you to learn that most cookbook publishers have no test kitchens. Most newspapers don’t either, and consequently, they can’t test every recipe they print from a cookbook. Most recipes are printed as they appear in cookbooks or from wire services. And while cookbook publishers claim to care about accuracy in recipes, most are unwilling to spend the money to make sure the recipes actually work. In a standard publishing contract, the responsibility of recipe testing is left up to the writers.
Added to the mistakes that may be made somewhere between the writing of the cookbook and its publication, there is another important element to all of this. It translates to the difference between the kitchen of the cookbook author and the kitchen of the person who purchased the cookbook.
One writer noted, “… the curious truth about recipes is that they often produce dramatically different results in different hands in different kitchens…recipes are only partly science; following a recipe is not like solving a quadratic equation. There is play involved, wiggle room, variance, uncertainty, and the person in charge has to know how to adjust.”
I’ll always remember my neighbor Lynn, in Florida, who managed to burn every batch of chocolate chip cookies. It was a recipe I had given to her.
“Lynn!” I said “That’s the recipe on the bag of Nestle Toll House morsels—it’s foolproof!” So I went next door to investigate and discovered that she was tightly squeezing two cookie sheets side by side on her single baking rack. The air couldn’t circulate and the cookies burned. (Sandy’s Cooknote: FYI, I no longer make the chocolate chip cookie recipe that is on the bag of Nestle chocolate chips–for about a year, now, I have been making a different recipe that I found in a magazine*)
Over the years, my own cooking/baking techniques have improved (I think) with age. I am also the owner of an old (1940s vintage) Wedgewood stove that requires a little pampering on occasion. I seldom try to bake more than one tray of cookies at a time because the oven isn’t big enough and a second rack would either be too close to the bottom or too near the top. I often make up cookie dough and then just bake one or two dozen for us to eat, \refrigerating the remaining cookie dough for another day. I indulge myself with an ample supply of parchment paper to line the cookie sheets. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it, when my sons were growing up. We also ate a lot of spaghetti when my sons were children and to this day, my son Kelly doesn’t particular care to eat spaghetti no matter how good it may be. (They DID all like spaghetti with Cincinnati chili, though. (it’s a Cincinnati thing, spaghetti with chili).
Bottom line, maybe it’s not bad food but actually bad cook. But, I still don’t eat rabbit—no matter how it’s cooked. There was a family story that circulated for years, that the family was at my mother’s friend Vera’s for a Sunday meal and there was – what I thought was – fried chicken. Which I ate. Later my brothers guffawed, telling me I had eaten RABBIT. RABBIT, which I loathed. Well, that was a lesson well learned. It wasn’t the rabbit, it was the way the rabbit was cooked . and it wasn’t until we had moved to California that I discovered rice pilaf or wedges of cabbage gently cooked in a crockpot with the liquid from a corned beef roast. As for my mother’s library paste rice – I never learned to like it – but my brother Bill does. Well, it just goes to show you – Bill will eat anything.
Do you have a particular aversion to a certain food or the way it’s cooked?
I can’t sign off here without providing a copy of the chocolate chip cookie recipe that I have been using, extensively, for about a year now:
CHEWY CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
You will need:
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
(sift these ingredients onto a sheet of wax paper; set aside.
You will now need:
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups packed, dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs at room temp
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups (or more) semisweet chocolate chips
Beat the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar in a bowl with a mixer on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy. (takes about 4 minutes). Beat in the eggs one at a time and beat until combined. Reduce the mixer speed to low and begin adding the flour mixture until combined. Add the vanilla extract. Stir in the chocolate chips (I always add a lot more–we all like a lot of chocolate chips in the dough) Cover the cookie dough with plastic wrap and chill at least an hour or overnight. Preheat oven to 350 degrees* line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Drop heaping tablespoons** of cookie dough onto the prepared baking sheets about 2″ apart and bake until cookies are golden around the edges but still soft in the middle. Remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes on the baking sheets, then transfer to baking racks to finish cooling.
*The original recipe calls for preheating the oven to 375 degrees. This doesn’t work well with my oven (which is a 1940s Wedgewood) so I bake the cookies at 350 degrees. You have to really watch the cookies so they don’t overbake (this is the voice of experience speaking–I have burnt a lot of cookies by going off to do something else–and heaven forbid that the phone rings )
** I don’t bake the cookies at “heaping tablespoons” of dough -recently, I bought new cookie dough scoops (from Amazon.com) that I find are just the right size –probably less than a tablespoon of dough, definitely not heaping. Sometimes I add finely chopped pecans to some of the cookie dough; recently I added green M&Ms to the cookie batter for St. Patrick’s day – yes, I picked them out of a large bag of M&Ms. – sls