Monday, February 27, 2012

Dinner Party Disasters

LUCY BURDETTE: This topic came to mind after a dinner I made over the weekend. Luckily, it was only John and me, no guests. Sometimes I get a little bored with my rotation of meals, and so leaf through cookbooks or food blogs for something new. This particular recipe came from an app I'd downloaded onto my iPhone. The app gave a list of ingredients, then instructions, all nicely illustrated. So at the grocery store, I bought the ingredients for two new dishes. The linguine with spinach, garlic, pinenuts, and Key West pink shrimp was delightful. The next night, I tried the Thai stir-fry with chicken, carrots, broccoli and peanuts. Only at the last minute, I realized I'd misread the recipe and used rice VINEGAR instead of rice wine. Too late to turn back, so I added some sugar, hoping for a sweet and sour effect. It looked gorgeous and we choked it down, but that's about all I could say for it. And that got me thinking about dinner disasters in general.

The most astonishing dinner party disaster I've witnessed did not take place in my kitchen. This was some years ago at a dear friend's house and we had partaken of an extended happy hour before dinner was to be served. We moved into the kitchen to help out. She pulled the main dish out of the oven--chicken nestled into a creamy sauce--then bobbled the pan so it flipped over onto the floor in agonizing slow motion. Sauce and chicken splashed everywhere--her husband's face looked like a thundercloud. After a pause, she began to laugh: "You won't believe it, but I just washed the floor this afternoon!" Then she scraped the food back into the dish and served it to us. And without a word, we ate it. We still laugh about it.

How about you Reds, any dinner party disasters you're willing to share?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: It was a pumpkin pie. I brought it to a friend's house for Thanksgiving dinner. I don't know what I was thinking - maybe the pie plate I wanted to use wasn't the size specified in the recipe and I tried to tinker with the measurements. I looked beautiful but when they cut into it, it was like soup. So embarrassed. People were so polite, they actually tried to eat it.

HALLIE EPHRON: Lucy, your story reminds me of the time a duck I'd roasted slid off the platter on the way to the table. I confess I yanked it by it's little drumstick, threw it into the sink, wiped it down (carpet fibers), stuck it back on the platter, slapped a little a l'orange sauce on it, and brought it out. Isn't it Julia Child who said something like, "Remember, if you're alone in the kitchen, who is going to see you?"

Then there was the time Jan Brogan was complimenting my arroz con pollo -- how did I get the rice so crunchy? (My secret: it was undercooked.)

RHYS BOWEN: In my early days of marriage we entertained a lot and I'd try new recipes on a whim, (without trying them on my husband first). The turban of sole looked amazing and I was going to impress John's business clients. I lined a bundt pan with filets of sole, then filled it with a mixture of rice, shrimp, rich seafood sauce. It was supposed to turn out easily as a lovely firm ring. I went to turn it out and thwarp--it splatted onto the platter, a goopy disgusting looking pink mess. I did the only thing I could--made a quick sherry based sauce, added parsley and then poured it over individual servings, thus hiding them. John hoped I'd learn my lesson about not trying things out first, but I never have.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, you know the other famous Julia Child quote--when she dropped the Thanksgiving turkey! She laughed and scooped it up and said--no problem, I'll just take this into the kitchen and bring out the OTHER turkey!

My worst one (that I allow myself to remember) was also at Thanksgiving..I had so many side dishes, and I was so proud of myself for juggling the ovens and microwaves and everything was finished at the same time..EXCEPT the turkey!! What the HECK was taking it so long? I've cooked a million turkeys, and they always work, and WHY WHY WHY when I had special guests was this the ONE time that it seemed to take forever?

We all ate appetizers, FOREVER, and I kept the sides warm, but I was BAFFLED.
It was FINALLY done, and fine, but about an hour after I planned.
Later? I discovered I had not removed the giblet and yucky stuff package. Sigh. So silly. Lesson learned.

JAN BROGAN: Perhaps I am blocking memories. but I can only remember one incident, and it wasn't really a disaster because we had good friends over for dinner, and with good friends, there isn't a lot of embarrassment. But Sheila and Jay were coming for dinner, and for some reason Sheila inspired my decision to make scallops. Some sort of connection in my head between Sheila and scallops. Maybe because as couples we sailed a lot together and we had so many seafood dinners?


The scallops were delicious - But the reason I'd thought of scallops was because Sheila was allergic to them. Being extremely resourceful. Sheila got up from the table, rustled through my refrigerator and found the chicken I'd made from the night before and sat down with a full plate. That's what you call a GOOD FRIEND.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Oh, Jan, that is a good friend. Dinner disasters... usually, I stick with the tried and true (and not too challenging) exactly in order not to screw the meal up. There was the Christmas dinner (fortunately just family) when Ross and I decided to serve Bison as the main course. Don't ask me what we we thinking. We had been on an "exotic meat" kick since our safari in Africa that summer. We bought a lovely cut from a local organic rancher and, since we'd never tackled it before, followed the directions to a T. It seemed to call for a lot of liquid, and it had to be cooked in a covered dish for hours... well, when the time came for the grand unveiling of the centerpiece of our Christmas Feast, we had--pot roast. Falling apart, gravy-laden pot roast. It was delicious, thank heavens, but it definitely lacked that visual ooomph one wants for a fancy meal.

My other story dates back, back, back to the dawn of my culinary experiments, when I moved into an off-campus apartment in Ithaca. I had invited a bunch of friends over for dinner, and had to come up with something other than hot dogs (which was all I knew how to cook at the time.) My mother, the font of all cooking wisdom, suggested Spaghetti Bolognese with salad and store-bought Italian bread. Perfect! I browned several pounds of ground beef, drained it, threw it into canned sauce, and with the addition of a cheap jug wine, had a jolly and well-received party.

Afterwards, I started to clean up. The sink started filling with water. And filling. And filling.

That three pounds of fatty ground beef? Drained straight into the sink. The congealed fat set like concrete. Had to call a plumber to open the pipe again.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I love the Julia Child's story--it's one of my favorites. Unfortunately, on most days, anything that falls on the kitchen floor in my house is covered in dog hair. I solemnly promise that if any of you ever come to dinner at my house, I won't bring out the OTHER turkey:-)

And, Julia, maybe your mother should have reminded you why our mothers and grandmothers kept grease cans by the side of the stove...

My mother always told me not to try new things on guests, so of course I've always done exactly the opposite. My argument being, "When else would I try them?" I can't remember any major disasters, but that may just be because it's been so long since I've given a dinner party....

And now I'm going to go sweep and mop my kitchen floor.

LUCY: Tell us your disasters Reds! Best story wins an autographed copy of AN APPETITE FOR MURDER--Hayley never has dinner party trauma....


  1. Two of my favorite Julia Child quotations:
    When she dropped something in the kitchen on her show, she said, "And that's why your guests are in the living room having a cocktail."
    The other if from "My Life in France, "Writing is hard work."
    She was-and is-a treasure.

  2. I was at a friend's house for a potluck and I'd made dessert, a strawberry bavarois. It was sticking to my bear-shaped mold so I dunked the mold in a pan of hot water to loosen. When I turned the dessert out, it was runny; the bear's eyes and paws were melted, making it very uncute. And it turned out to be inedible because I only put a tbsp of sugar in it. I'd basically fed my friends a mush of yogurt, gelatin, milk, and berries. Gross.

  3. Oddly enough, I just finished reading "My Life in France", and totally agree with that assessment, Patricia. She was also a hoot and a half. What an amazing life she had, eh?

    Many disasters in the kitchen, of course, who hasn't had them? But the one that sticks out, still, 30 years later, is from just before we got married. My husband is a hunter, and his roommate before me was, as well. Their freezer was always full of odd stuff, including chukkars and pheasants.

    This time I decided to prepare dinner for the three of us, and I took some chopped meat out to thaw for stew. Well. The kitchen started smelling ranker and ranker, and I was mystified. Steve came home, and he also couldn't figure it out. Until we sat down to eat. THEN he realized I'd thawed out the mountain goat meat he'd shot in Alaska the summer before.

    If you've ever smelled male goat, yes, that's exactly how it smelled. And tasted. Ugh.

  4. I entertain a lot and experiment a lot, so disasters are inevitable. But the one I remember most was at a good friend's house. Her husband asked her to cook a special meal for a professional colleague he was "courting." I remember none of the menu except the English peas, which she dumped all over the floor as she started to serve them. She and I got down on our knees, but the more we chased peas the harder we laughed. Men were not amused. I think cocktail hour had something to do with that too!

  5. Wonderful stories! I'm like Debs. I couldn't feed you anything that dropped on my kitchen floor because of the dog hair. So you're all safe there. :-)

    Once I took a delicious savory side dish (that I'd never made before but have many times since) to a potluck dinner at a friend's house. It was oranges with kalamata olives and onions and lots of spices. The dish didn't come out with the meats and side dishes, so I thought my friend had tasted it and decided against it.

    Suddenly, here it came with the desserts. I tried to stop people from taking it, but it looked so lovely that they dumped it on their plates next to cake. Not a good combination! It's fabulous with meats, though, as intended. Fortunately, we're all good friends, so it was just something to laugh about.

  6. Chasing Peas! What a wonderful title...

    GOAT MEAT! Not so much...

    Terrific stories..makes me feel much better..

  7. Actually, I just thought of another one. My husband, Ben, didn't know how to cook when we married but always wanted to learn. Since I'd been cooking daily family meals since I had to stand on a chair to do it, I was thrilled to teach him--he's a good cook now and does most of the cooking for the two of us. But early on, he had some fun fiascoes.

    From the beginning he always wanted to do exotic foods, so one of his early attempts by himself was the Indian dish Fenugreek Chicken. We went out to the Indian market and bought dried fenugreek, a bag the size of a 5-pound bag of flour because all their spices come in huge bags.

    As he was cooking, the smell grew intense, and I kept asking, "What's wrong?" He'd say, "Nothing." When we sat down to eat, I thought he had a lot of fenugreek leaves on my chicken breast. took one bite and almost retched. Turned out the recipe called for 1/2 cup fresh fenugreek, and he thought you had to use more if it was dried, so he'd put half that big bag of fenugreek on the chicken. Even the dog wouldn't touch it.

    Have to say, Hank, whatever you said to the web people made a difference. The Captchas have been much more legible and not one in an alien alphabet! Thanks. xoxo

  8. Here it is, Jan.

    Orange Kalamata Moroccan Style Salad


    1/4 teaspoon cayenne
    1 teaspoon paprika
    1/2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
    1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
    1 tablespoon lemon juice
    1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, or balsamic vinegar
    salt and pepper, to taste
    3 large oranges, or 2 large oranges and 2 tangerines, segmented
    1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
    18 kalamata olives, pitted and halved

    1. Whisk all ingredients together except oranges, parsley, and olives.
    2. Season dressing, to taste. Add the remaining ingredients.
    3. Refrigerate and enjoy.

    Buen provecho!
    Makes: 4 Servings

  9. Hank, I thought it was venison. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect goat meat!

    Still trying to recover.

  10. For my first dinner to entertain my new in-laws, I made a German chocolate cake. I was running late (no surprise there) and spread the coconut-pecan icing while it was still a bit warm. I had read in one of those "helpful advice" columns that you could hold cake layers in place by inserting strands of uncooked spaghetti and then pulling them out after the icing set. Seemed, like a brilliant idea, so I did it, using quite a few spaghetti pieces to be sure. When it was time to serve the dessert, I tried to pull out the spaghetti strands, only to find that they had absorbed moisture from the cake and broke off at the level of the top layer. I then had to serve the cake, explaining (1) that the long icky-looking white things were spaghetti, and (2) why there was spaghetti in the cake.

  11. Virginia, love that spaghetti story! Ick, ick to the bavarois and the mountain goat!

    Judy your story reminds me of the time I had to make dinner for my father and one of his visiting customers. I made fish (which I rarely make and can't imagine why I chose this) and proudly announced to the men that it had a reduced price tag on it. Needless to say, nobody ate much after hearing that....

  12. I just have to add in here that the reason my mother didn't tell me NOT to pour three cups of liquid lard down the drain is because she assumed NO one could be THAT ignorant of basic food mechanics.

    She must have forgotten the time when I was in high school and she asked me to "not let the potatoes boil over" while she and dad were out. I took this to mean "keep whole peeled potatoes in simmering warm water for an hour." Needless to day, we had roast and peas and raw, rock-hard potatoes that night for dinner.

  13. Loving these wonderful stories... and they remind me of the first meal I made for the parents of my soon-to-be husband.

    I made chicken Vallee D'auge -- which is chicken with apples and cream. When I Tah-Dahed -- put the platter down in the middle and flambe'ed it with apple brandy, no problem. hand came down on handle of the spoon that was in the sugar bowl (which for some reason was on the table) which flipped up, catapulting sugar all over the the (still burning) chicken vallee d'auge. We sang a few verses of Miss O'Leary's Cow.

  14. I love the food disaster stories. I'm stuck waiting at a doctor's office and you've brightened my otherwise dreary wait. My favorite Julia moment was when she did some tv program for children and reached into the oven without mits. Someone offstage must have cued her--you could hear her under-the-breath grumbles as she hunted for oven mits and demonstrated with a smile the safe way to take a pot out of an oven (if you don't happen to have asbestos hands from years of cooking...)

  15. My disaster was a little different. It was a hot summer in Pennsylvania, and we were having company for dinner. so I made an Indian Shrimp Salad with spices, and lots of fresh crisp salad vegetables. I loved it. but when the company arrived, they were Jews who kept Kosher, so no shrimp. Oh red face. As I recall, we mad do with bread and cheeses, and many apologies. But I learned to check into any dietary restrictions when I cooked for others!

  16. Linda,
    Thank you, I have cut and pasted!!

    I'm going to try the spaghetti trick. Maybe not on a German Chocolate cake though.

  17. Years ago when I was a young, single reporter I decided to give a dinner party in my apartment for some friends. The apartment had a red shag rug in one room and a full wall sized cinderblock and plank bookcase and stereo hutch. My menu for the evening was “Burgundy Burgers,” made from a recipe ripped out of a magazine lying around some waiting room. Instead of modestly flavored pads of beef on buns, we wound up with purple bombs of raw meat that were among the world’s first attempts at “blackened food.” The night was not a total loss; however, we feasted on the two jugs of hearty (and cheap) red burgundy and several bags of chips.
    John J. Gilmore/Author of Cocaineros Duel

  18. I don't have any disasters to relate, but that's only because I don't cook or entertain much. In fact, here's an admission: I had a housewarming party awhile back, but the only reason I threw it was because a friend said he'd prepare paella as the main dish. :-)

  19. No dinner party disasters to relate, at least none that I know of!! Maybe that's why I don't have too many to share...maybe I don't know how bad my cooking is!

    One dinner party that I remember with embarrassment took place while I was in college. My very good friend and I were us for Editors-in-Chief of the college newspaper, and we went to the professor's house for dinner. We brought the wine...2 JUGS of it, because, as we told them with glee, "It was only $5.99 ea, so we bought one for now, and one for you later." Took us a while to realize why the professor's wife insisted we take it home with us. She was very gracious, telling us to keep it, because "managing on a college budget is hard". I still cringe thinking about it.

  20. Oh, Lora! How sweet! And you know the professor and his wife thought that was so cute of you two.

    What fun this has been! As usual with Jungle Reds. I won't be commenting the rest of the week since I'll be wearing my poet hat and running myself ragged at the AWP (Associated Writers & Writing Programs) national conference in Chicago. I will miss you all so much, so try not to have any good posts while I'm gone. Don't you have a few weak, boring ones sequestered somewhere that you could pull out so I won't miss all the great stuff you always have? ;-)

    Oh, almost forgot. Rhys will be featured on my blog on Thursday.

    be sure to come by and check out the great interview she did!

  21. Linda,
    Thank you for sharing the recipe. It sounds exactly like something I would love. I look forward to trying it. I will be looking for you at your blog,by the way!

    No dinner party disasters (my place is kind of small so I rarely have more than a couple of people here) but plenty of disasters when I am all by myself! A few weeks ago I had one of those episodes where ALL the pieces of chicken fell on the floor. I,um, said some Bad Words and then laughed and told myself that it wasn't likely that I'd die if I immediately rinsed everything off. So I got the four extra meals out of it that I'd planned to have. (As you can see, I'm still here!)

    When I experiment and things do not turn out well, I have no choice but to eat my mistakes...and this is an easy way to NOT make the same mistake twice!

    A friend and I often exchange recipes. Neither of us measures out herbs and spices. Another friend gets very nervous when we are unable to give her exact amounts to use in our recipes that she wants to try! "Use your own judgment"or "season it to taste" are phrases that practically cause her to have panic attacks!

  22. I'm reading Body Line by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles; then to The Maltese Falcon, the BIG READ for spring in Springfield, Mo, with many coordinated mystery lovers' events taking place over a month.