14 February 2011

Exploding Brownies and Food Porn: A Cautionary Tale

I am a “Foodie.” I confess it. Or, perhaps more accurately, I am a foodie wannabe. I like to think it all started when I began watching the Food Network a few years ago, but in retrospect it probably began much earlier. When I was just a kid, my mother was always trying to get me to “learn how to cook” because her philosophy was pretty much that cooking and cleaning were what all wives did (or at least that’s what she did, so she assumed all others must as well), and how could I ever get a man if I didn’t know how to cook? To make matters worse, I am a fairly visual learner (either that or genetically descended from trained monkeys)--I could watch her and replicate most things without ever practicing or trying them, the result being that I avoided helping her at all costs--much to her annoyance. The only thing that infuriated her more than my not helping was my making something without having been “taught” and making it better than she did. Pie crust was a perfect example. I would take her recipe, but alter the technique she used, making the crust come out lighter and flakier than when she made it. She wasn’t usually maddest that my crust was better; mostly she was mad that I didn’t have to suffer through the trial and error process like she did. Of course, she also got mad when I outgrew her bra size in high school, because she thought it grossly unfair that I should be more endowed at 16 or 17 than she was when she got married. Nothing like being jealous of your own kid--not that we ever had issues, or anything.

My mother was not a fantastic cook. She was a serviceable enough home cook, though she tended to boil all the health and flavor out of canned vegetables until they were limp, pale, and odiferous and she regularly overcooked our assorted meat dishes. Because my father frequently worked the late shift, we only had “real” meals when he was home so I grew up on Hamburger Helper and hot dogs and macaroni (boxed, of course) because that’s all she knew, and by extension, all I knew. It wasn’t till years later I realized that meat could be flavorful or that vegetables did not have to be cooked until they looked, smelled, and tasted like zombie remains. When you have nothing else to compare to, you just go with what you’re given, even if it means sitting at the dinner table for hours after everyone else has left because you cannot force yourself to eat another bite of gag-inducing vegetables that even the dog would turn away from, and even if it means that your mother will eventually give up three hours later and put your plate in the fridge so that she can force you to eat the congealed remains the next day as punishment for trying to waste food. Not that that ever happened to me personally. Nor did I have a box under my bed pre-postmarked for China, in which I rebelliously planned to ship my leftovers the next time I was informed that I should eat up because there were starving children in China who would be grateful for my alleged “food.” Nope.

What my mother lacked in cooking skills, however, she made up for in baking skills, pie crust notwithstanding. The whole time I was growing up we were surrounded with cakes, meringue pies, chocolate chip cookies, cowboy cookies (an oatmeal and chocolate chip concoction to which I have yet to comprehend the cowboy connection...did the cowboys steal oats from their horses to create this particular confection? And if so, where did the chocolate chips come from? Or do I really even want to know, considering these particular brown chips would probably have been obtained out on the prairie?) and my lifelong favorite cookies, the ubiquitous Snickerdoodles. As if all these delectables were not enough, every single week my mother made a batch of homemade bread--always four loaves. She would set the mixing pan by the registers to make the dough rise faster, later forming it into loaves. I did like helping beat and knead the bread, and I regularly begged for her to sacrifice one of the loaves for cinnamon bread, which she occasionally did. Sometimes, when I was little, she would tear off a bit of dough from each loaf and help me make it into a mini-loaf just for me, which we would then bake in a pot pie tin. The only thing better than growing up with the smell of freshly baking bread every week was tearing into that mini-loaf while it was still too hot to really hold, slathering it in butter (though we always had “oleo”--“margarine” was too fancy a word, I guess), and eating it while the melting butter dribbled down my chin and all over my fingers. Her bread was so good that one year my brother paid her to make her to make an extra batch one week, which he then wrapped in foil and gave to his friends as Christmas presents. Sadly, however, her bread was the one thing for which she did not have a real recipe, and oddly one of the few things that never stuck with me enough to replicate. I guess in that one instance, at least, I should have paid more attention.

Crusty, yummy goodness

Her snickerdoodles, on the other hand, I do have the recipe for. In fact, for those of you on Facebook who follow my obsession with making the perfect snickerdoodle, it is her recipe that I use, although as with her pie crust, I have spent years tweaking baking times and other baking techniques until I have created what I vainly consider to be one of the best snickerdoodles in existence. In the past year, these snickerdoodles have visited 6 different states alone, and over the years have turned more than a few confirmed chocoholics into ‘doodle devotees. I have come to consider my cookie baking an abject failure if I don’t hear at least one good cookiegasm when someone samples my snickerdoodles for the very first time. They are that good. Mom had her bread, I have the doods.

Little pillows of cinnamony heaven

My fascination with food didn’t stop with my mother. In high school I worked at a place called Hilligoss Bakery, which was arguably the best bakery in or around Indianapolis, IN. The only establishment even remotely in the same class was Long’s Bakery in downtown Indy. Mike Hilligoss wasn’t just an awe-inspiring baker; he was a great boss--especially for a first job. He taught me so much more than just how to stuff a cream-filled donut (which is weird and cool, by the way, especially when you blow them up and are forced to eat the evidence). At a time when many of my classmates were busy asking if you “want fries with that?” I was getting up at the butt-crack of dawn to go prepare donuts before we opened at 6:30 or 7:00 am. The boys did all the baking and the girls pimped out the goods for the display window with icing or sugar or fillings, transferring items from the heavy, cast-iron baking trays onto clean and shiny aluminum trays lined with crisp waxed paper. When the morning rush had slowed and things were cleaned up, I used to love watching Mike decorate all the cakes. It entranced me, particularly when he used an airbrush to color in landscapes, etc. One year for Father’s Day, he subdivided a sheet cake into four pieces and helped each of his teen employees decorate one for their dads. I felt like such an artist as I airbrushed stripes over his screen template to make the cake look like a man’s shirt. After we had selected a plastic collar and tie for the cake, Mike showed us how to pipe the trim on the bottom to disguise the cake board, and then we wrote “Dad” on the shirt pocket. It was a blast, and my very first foray into cake decorating. I really hated leaving that job when I went to college.

Best bakery on Earth

Leaving the bakery didn’t really matter, though, because as fate would have it I ended up working my way through college at several food establishments. Because my folks did not have enough money to pay my tuition, I had to rely on scholarships and loans for tuition and books while I worked to cover room and board. After freshman year, I worked in one of the residence hall cafeterias, first on the line (oh, so much fun--NOT), then later running the bakery section at night when the full-time staff had gone home. I also spent an unpleasant semester doing all-day stints in the dishroom. On the plus side, it was the only place we were allowed to wear shorts to work because of the extreme heat. On the downside, the supervisor was a weird little bow-legged Popeye/monkey man who would chew his cud, leer at the girls, and wander up and down the conveyor belt pinching food--and not just uneaten fruit or rolls. He would come back with pudding or potatoes or heaven knows what dribbling down his chin. The man could seriously have starred in a Friday the 13th film. Let’s call it “Revenge of the Cafeteria Killer.” In between semesters at the cafeteria, I spent a couple summers working in Italian restaurants, most notably as a prep cook in an Olive Garden in Indianapolis, where I made endless pans of lasagna, stirred vats of minestrone soup, snitched strawberries while making zabaglione (not to mention the odd breadstick), and learned how to de-vein a shrimp as well as what said vein actually was (insert appropriate potty humor here), guaranteeing that I would eternally despise seafood even more than I already did.

Is that breadstick giving me the finger?

While I didn’t work in any food establishments during grad school, I did work off my occasional restless energy by making cookies or muffins which I would then foist off on my officemates. Needless to say, I was very popular on those days. After school, my mother’s sexist prediction came true in that most of my interest in food then consisted both of getting it prepared for my family in some sort of timely fashion and in finding things that my incredibly picky eaters would willingly consume. Experimentation and adventurous cooking became a thing of the past.

However, a few years ago I began watching the Food Network on television and before I knew it, I was hooked. I started out with Challenge, during which I would watch rock star cake and sugar artists make astounding and often gravity-defying concoctions of cake, sugar, gum paste and fondant. I watched every week as Keegan Gerhard introduced and narrated the proceedings, looking not unlike Beaker from the Muppet Show, while waiting to see which competitors would rise to the challenge and which would fail miserably, only to be further crushed in judging by the withering words and baleful glances of the formidable, iron-drawered Kerry Vincent (“Hall of Fame Sugar Artist and Wedding Cake Designer”). I found the random “Make a Burger” or food photography sorts of challenges far too dull, so I ignored most of them. Instead, I wanted to see pastry chefs create art out of sugar just like I did while watching my boss decorate cakes during my bakery days, as well as to experience the collective gasp as someone’s cake or showpiece wobbled precariously on its way to the “judging table.” What’s baking without a little danger?

The headband is the source of all evil.

Soon after discovering Challenge, I began watching Iron Chef, intrigued by the encyclopedic knowledge (and quirky humor) of Alton Brown. It wasn’t long before I was watching all sorts of prime-time Food Network shows like Ace of Cakes (who can resist Duff Goldman’s maniacal giggle?), Next Food Network Star, Dinner Impossible, and Next Iron Chef. I even began perusing other networks, eventually becoming addicted to Top Chef on Bravo as well. I enjoy watching the competitive aspects of cooking, as well as picking up the odd tip here or there. And my would-be Foodie obsession has advantages--now when I go into restaurants a little more upscale than McDonald’s or Steak and Shake, I actually have a clue what the servers are describing when they use words like “remoulade,” “reduction,” “carpaccio,” “beurre blanc,” or “aioli.” Suddenly I feel more sophisticated, or at least more sophisticated than I was back in the days when I thought that being treated to a White Castle was the epitome of haute cuisine.

Teaching geeks to cook since 1999.

My fascination with all of these food shows has led to several drawbacks, however. While there is nothing wrong with being inspired to venture out into new avenues of cooking or baking, doing so often leads one to the seedier, darker undercurrent of food exploration--I’m talking food porn here, people. It’s becoming more and more prevalent all the time. You know you do it. Admit it. We’ve all posted the photos on Facebook of our various food creations, which only leads others astray by subjecting them to electronic drooling that sooner or later will short out their laptops. Or else these photos make them lust after “just a taste” or coin phrases like “berrygasm” and “food orgy.” Why, I myself used the term “citrusgasm” just last week after a friend sent me a box of the juiciest, most delectable oranges I have ever had the fortune to taste. Nor have I been above pimping out my cookies online. It seems that more and more, discussions of sex have been replaced online by sexualized discussions of food. It’s madness! Today is Valentine’s Day, the commercialized day of “love,” and yet I have seen more talk online of what everyone is having for dinner than of the gifts they’ve received or the love they intend to make. Get your minds back in the gutters, people! Food porn is tearing once-loving families apart!! Seriously, though, one sometimes has to wonder if we are really just sharing our joy of cooking and baking because we love doing so or whether we are using food as a substitute fulfillment for whatever it is we are lacking in our lives. And now, thanks to Food Network and Bravo, I get to do BOTH. Yay! Win-win for me!!

Food Porn

This is what I meant by "food porn," right??

Food porn isn’t my only concern, however. I said this was a cautionary tale, and with good reason. Becoming overly invested in food television has not only created a rise in food porn, it is potentially physically dangerous as well. One night, I chose to make some brownies for my family’s evening dessert. I followed the instructions, prepared the batter, put it in a well-greased glass baking dish, and then set it to bake. In the meantime, I began dinner, running back and forth between the kitchen and living room so that I could continue watching whichever Food Network show was on that evening. As a result, my attentions were clearly divided. I completed the dinner (probably something boring like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for my daughter--she’ll only eat macaroni from the "Blue Box"), served it, put the pan in the sink, pulled out the finished brownies, set them on the stove to cool, and went back to my show. While we were all in the living room shamefully eating in front of the television like the electronic generation we are, we heard a loud explosion not unlike a gunshot coming from the kitchen. After looking at each other in shock, I set down my plate and ran to see what had happened. As I rounded the doorway, I saw a kitchen redecorated in chocolate, Jackson Pollock-style. It seems that in my hurry to get back to my food show, I left the stove burner on so that when I set the glass brownie pan on it to cool I super-heated it rather than cooling it. There were bits of brownie hanging from the ceiling, the walls, the cabinets and strewn all over the stove. The glass baking dish was in pieces, some of which had fried brownie soldered to the sides. There were shards of razor-sharp and needle-thin glass everywhere, studding dishtowels and the floor as though a porcupine had exploded right along with the brownie dish. I looked down to discover that a piece of brownie-encrusted glass had melded with the flooring (and which took considerable effort to pry loose from the vinyl), creating a long brown scar seared into the floor. Cleanup took hours. I am still beyond grateful that my family’s incredibly poor habits kept us in the living room when the explosion took place, because I shudder to think what would have happened to us, particularly to my young daughter or our dog had we been in the kitchen when the shards of glass went flying everywhere. We could have shot our eyes out. On the other hand, can’t you just see the guys on Mythbusters videotaping exploding brownie pans for posterity? Really, I was just ahead of my time...

Blowing crap up since 1998.

So Foodies, beware--the Food Network may lure you in with promises of tasteful food preparations and exciting competitions, but it conveniently avoids any recognition of its contribution to food pornography on Facebook. And no matter how many years you have dabbled in foodie pursuits, nothing can prepare you for the siren call of Challenge on the Food Network, nor the resultant explosions which come from heeding that call.

Iz tryin to get the fud netwurk.

Happy Valentine's Day, fellow foodies.


  1. I can't believe you actually posted the breadstick finger... *shakes head*

  2. Hey--at least it's not a traveling outhouse...