It’s not as though I’ve never botched up something in the kitchen. Heaven knows, I am the person who set the kitchen oven on fire when we lived in Florida (I was not very familiar with electric stoves) and I had a strange misguided notion that I would be able to dry out the graham-cracker houses I had constructed with melted sugar. Yikes! Well, it wasn’t a very big fire and my then-husband had the wherewithal to pour baking soda on the flames. At least I think that is what he did – by then I was out in the back yard prepared to jump into the pool to escape the flames.
When did I start cooking and baking? Around the age of 10, I think, when I broke my mother’s yellow mixing bowl while making muffins and wanted to hold the bowl just the way I’d seen my mother and grandmother do. Well, needless to say I dropped the bowl and broke it, and ran upstairs crying. I don’t remember what happened after that. Presumably, I started another batch of muffins, but maybe not. I only remember the incident, not the aftermath. What I also do remember is that it took me about a year to save up enough money to replace the yellow bowl. You couldn’t buy just the yellow bowl – you had to buy the entire Pyrex set, which was about $2.98 plus tax in the 1950s. It might as well have been a million dollars as far as I was concerned, at the age of ten. The set of bowls was on display at Pete’s Camp Washington 5 & 10 and eventually I did buy it. I think my younger sister now has some of the bowls from that replacement set. I can’t even look at a yellow Pyrex bowl without thinking about this incident. Acquiring money in my younger years was always a challenge.
If Grandma gave me a nickel to take the bus home because it was dark—and I walked home instead—I had a nickel. (A long way from $2.98 plus tax). You could run errands for the neighbors who might or might not give you a nickel for your efforts. Or they might reward you with a cookie. Pop bottles were searched for diligently, because they were each worth 2 cents, redeemable at any grocery store. All the kids searched for pop bottles though, so finding one was always a challenge.
I sold greeting cards for my mother, for a nickel or dime each—I am guessing that she paid me for my efforts although I don’t remember receiving the money. She would give me bus fare to go to Cardinal Craftsman to pick up her card order and bring it back. It was somewhere on 8th and State in Cincinnati, and required my changing buses under the Western Hills Viaduct. I was probably no more than eight years old when my mother began sending me on these errands. But I digress!
My intention was to write about culinary mishaps! I should mention that around this age, between eight and ten, I began experimenting in my mother’s kitchen. Some of the recipes didn’t always turn out just right. I remember a battle between myself and my childhood girlfriend Carol Sue, when she wanted to make frosting one way and I was adamant about making it another way. Hers turned out green and runny and we fed it to my two younger brothers, who sat outside the back door just waiting in expectation for such opportunities!
I also remember ruining all of my mother’s kitchen dish towels, when I decided to make grape jelly. Uncle Cal brought us the concord grapes from their back yard, and I decreed that I knew how to make jelly from those grapes (I think this was an assignment in cooking class). Did I make grape jelly? More importantly, did we EAT it? I guess I’ll never know. I’m inclined to think we ate it – food was never wasted in my mother’s kitchen. We often ate a lot of borderline bad food—but no one ever died from it.
The episode with a can of salmon is remembered by three of my brothers; I was about 12 at the time. My parents were going somewhere for dinner and I was to make supper for myself and three brothers (Scott wasn’t born until I was 17). I knew how to make salmon patties, macaroni and cheese, spinach (from a can) and cottage cheese.
When mom and dad came downstairs dressed in their going-out-somewhere finery, one of my brothers implored, “Do we really have to EAT this?” as I was busy cooking the salmon patties.
“Yes!” said my father (he knew he wasn’t eating any of it). “Every bite!!”
And so my parents left and I prepared my first dinner (we called it supper) and put it on the table. My brothers ate the meal and then, standing up (they had planned this part beforehand) they clutched their stomachs and fell to the floor. I think I may have kicked one of them and I surely burst into tears. They all remember this story and love to tell it. (Salmon patties was, back then, one of my comfort foods and it remains so even to this day—despite the incident related above).
I don’t remember any other major culinary catastrophes of my childhood—I did begin collecting recipe booklets, offered free on the backs of cans of food and boxes. You could get almost anything free, just for writing and requesting it. I’d buy ten penny postcards and send away for these recipe booklets and pamphlets and got myself into a heap of trouble sending for free stamps—with approvals. I had no idea what approvals were, but I understood “free” and sent away for free stamps, putting them all in a big box. Then letters began to arrive demanding payment of the “approvals” and since I didn’t have any money and wouldn’t have even known which stamps belonged to which company, I tearfully confessed to my mother, who wrote to the stamp companies and told them their customer was ten years old and didn’t know any better. After that, I loathed the stamps (many of them quite beautiful) and gave them all to my cousin Margie when she was visiting us one summer. Out of sight, out of mind.
I thought myself quite an accomplished cook/baker by the time I married at the age of eighteen. My brother and his girlfriend came for dinner one Sunday and I made a pot roast, which my then-husband later claimed it was as tough as shoe leather. My brother, being used to my cooking I imagine, claimed it was delicious and chewed away.
I’m sure there were many other culinary disasters along the way – one time it wasn’t so much a culinary disaster as it was kitchen-related. My friend Connie and I decided to have our children—her three and my four—make ornaments out of baking soda or flour, or whatever it was that you used to make these things. We may not have followed the directions carefully (not unusual with seven children underfoot) and we both had ornament dough in our hair, under our fingernails, all over the table and the floor – not to mention all seven children.
Another time I thought it would be “FUN” to have the two daughters of two of my close friends come and make cookies with me. I hadn’t counted on rivalry between the two girls who bickered constantly and fought over whose turn it was to use the electric mixer. I was raising all boys, what did I know about girls? We only attempted that project once. One of those girls is my goddaughter and now the mother of two little boys; I’ll have to ask her if her boys bicker for attention—and remind her of the time she and Jennifer bickered constantly when I invited them over to make cookies. I should mention that I have a history of burning the last batch of cookies—this goes back many years; when you put the last cookie sheet into the oven and start cleaning up the kitchen, it’s easy enough to get distracted. Nowadays I try to remember to turn two (yes, two) timers on every time I put cookies into the oven.
I’ve mentioned my setting the kitchen ablaze when I started a fire in the oven when we lived in Florida—I should mention that I had a tough time mixing and baking almost anything in Florida. The sugar was different from what I was used to using—in California we got cane sugar from Hawaii. In Florida, the sugar was made from beets. I thought it was grainy and hard to get it incorporated with the butter. That was many years ago and might not be an issue today but I was so put out with beet sugar that I had a girlfriend bring me some bags of C&H cane sugar when she and her husband came to visit us.
More recently, I thought it would be easy to make two different kinds of oatmeal cookies at the same time, since I had most of the same ingredients out of the pantry and on the kitchen counter. My reasoning was—I’ve made the one kind of cookie, oatmeal raisin, for over thirty years. The other cookie came from an All You magazine and makes thin and crisp cookies, which I love to dip in melted chocolate, like a Florentine. Well, the oatmeal/raisin/walnut cookies turned out just fine. The thin and crisp cookies, however, were a disaster – they didn’t spread at all and were not the least bit thin and crisp. I thought I could “fix” the recipe so I added more ingredients – first more apple butter, then more melted butter. Nothing worked. Then I sat down one day to read the recipe again, line by line, comparing the original page from the magazine with what I had written on a tablet so I could read it better. I had the granulated sugar and brown sugar amounts completely wrong. (I could blame it on my eyesight—I know I need new glasses—but I think the problem was getting cocky in my old age, thinking I KNEW the recipe) – but at some point in time, I had copied the recipe and doubled all the ingredients—the original recipe only makes 3 dozen cookies—and I wanted to be able to make more..but I had the amounts of sugar completely wrong. To prove to myself that I did know how to make these cookies, I carefully copied the recipe again and then made the cookies. They turned out perfectly thin and crisp and a perfect size to dip halfway into melted chocolate. My friend Iona’s son Michael liked the “wrong” oatmeal cookies and happily ate them—the rest I gave to the birds which aren’t especially picky how cookies are made.
I suddenly remembered the first time I made peanut butter cookies—when I was a child. My mother was in the hospital one winter and I made these plate-sized peanut butter cookies for my father to take to her at the hospital. I never asked if anyone had eaten them. My two younger brothers happily ate the rest of the cookies. They were never especially choosy about cookies—our motto was quantity, not quality. And now I remember that my older brother. Jim, was working part-time for a few years at Durkee Foods, which had a warehouse in nearby Camp Washington. Jim brought home foods that had expired dates. There were a lot of canned biscuits which were fairly new to the marked about that time—they often exploded in the refrigerator or when you started to open one of the cans. We made a lot of doughnuts out of the canned biscuits. Jim also brought home boxes of Nestle’s cookie mix; I think all you had to add was water or maybe an egg. I had a good time experimenting with those. If something turned out reasonably well, I presented it to my parents. If not, I fed it to my two younger brothers.
I should mention, the only cookbook to which I had access was an old Ida Bailey Allen Service Cookbook (I have written about Ida Bailey Allen before) – I’d go through the cookbook looking for recipes that contained ingredients in my mother’s pantry. Mom didn’t care what I cooked – as long as I cleaned up after myself – and she never went shopping for ingredients. It was what was in the pantry or nothing. Many years later, I inherited that cookbook of my mother’s and then embarked on a search for a better copy, which I did find, and other cookbooks written by Ida Bailey Allen. That, and the free cookbooklets I sent away for were my culinary library. That, and watching my mother and sometimes my grandmother as they cooked, baked, mixed, stirred and created food for all of us to eat.
If mom or grandma had any culinary disasters, I never knew about them.
Sandra Lee Smith
Updated July 3, 2019