Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Worst Meal of My Life

Every supper can’t be gourmet. Every dish can’t come out just right. And every so often, we find ourselves presented with a meal so revolting, so nauseating, so horrifically memorable that it stays with us for the rest of our lives—like a foul aftertaste that won’t rinse away. I still recall with dismay a neighbor’s damp tuna casserole I was too polite to turn down. I haven’t eaten tuna casserole since.

When faced with a truly ghastly dish like tuna casserole, I remember with an involuntary shudder a description of a meal so repulsive it scarred me as much as if I had eaten it myself. If you’ve read Yorkshire veterinarian James Herriot’s memoir All Things Bright and Beautiful, you will undoubtedly recall the moment when James—who had a “pathological loathing of fat”—was offered a tea-time snack by one of his favorite farmers:

…my toes curled into a tight ball as I found two huge slices of pure white fat lying on my plate…I knew beyond all doubt that there was no way I could eat what lay in front of me. Maybe I could have managed a tiny piece if it had been hot and fried crisp, but cold, boiled and clammy…never. And there was an enormous quantity; two slices about six inches by four and at least half an inch thick with the golden border of crumbs down one side. The thing was impossible.

Mrs. Horner sat down opposite me. She was wearing a flowered mob cap over her white hair and for a moment she reached out, bent her head to one side and turned the dish with the slab of bacon a little to the left to show it off better. Then she turned to me and smiled. It was a kind, proud smile.

…I took a deep breath, seized knife and fork and made a bold incision in one of the slices, but as I began to transport the greasy white segment to my mouth I began to shudder and my hand stayed frozen in space.

In spite of his roiling stomach, James ate every last lump of that bacon—and “never knowingly ate fat again.”

Adam was my Mrs. Horner, so to speak. I shared an apartment with Adam and our friends Mark and Felix during our senior year of college and after a few months of take-out pizza and mooching off of our friends’ dining hall cards, we figured it was about time we learned how to cook.

Felix was already an accomplished chef. I often awoke on Saturdays to find him in the kitchen in his pajamas making crepes. Mark and I had no cooking experience, so we stuck with variations on chicken. But Adam was adventurous. His shopping strategy was to buy whatever looked interesting—or was on sale—even if he didn’t know what it was.

“Hey LNE, should I get borscht?” he called me one afternoon. “I’m at the grocery store and there’s a big jar for 99 cents.”

“Um, sure Adam.” I said. If I had known what borscht was, I would have talked him out of it. For those of you who don’t know, borscht is a bright red Eastern European soup made primarily from pure, undiluted, dirt-flavored beetroot juice.

That evening, Adam set the table with a bowl for each of us. We watched with mounting apprehension as he poured borscht into our bowls straight from the jar. It streamed, pinkish-purple, into our green salad bowls and the color contrast turned the juice to a dull brown. As we stared down into the murky depths, Adam expounded with pride on our authentic Ashkenazi repast.

I discovered many years later that borscht can be quite nice with the addition of ingredients—like vegetables, sour cream, meat, salt, and pepper. It can be served cold or hot, and the hot-style Ukrainian and Russian borscht is a delicious hearty stew often served with thick brown bread. But Adam’s borscht had no such ingredients. It tasted like fresh, dark dirt. It was thin and watery and gritty all at the same time—and cold. And there was no bread.

But that wasn’t the worst meal of my life.

To make kitchen clean-up more fun, Adam encouraged spontaneous rapping. On any given weeknight, you’d enter our apartment to find four dorky Jews in a tiny kitchen, rhyming in fits and starts about chicken or girls or Hegel.

Adam's penchant for improv carried into his cooking; he claimed that recipes were for the unimaginative. One night after dinner he collected the chicken bones from our plates, bits of skin and meat clinging between the ribs. Rapping to the tune of “Big Stompin’ in My Air Force Ones,” Adam filled a pot with water and threw in the bones.

“Boilin’ some bones for some tasty stock,
This is one dinner you won’t want to hock.”

The bones floated grotesquely in the boiling water, bits of tattered gristle and fat swirling in their wake as they made their rounds in the churning water, bobbing, spinning, dunking in the current.

“Adding some kale,
’cuz it was on sale” he beat-boxed.

He tossed in whole leaves of kale, which spread over the water’s surface like the wings of a drowned bat. He dumped in rough-hewn chunks of onion, a palmful of salt, thick slabs of carrot and half a head of cabbage.

“This stock’s gonna simmer,
For tomorrow night’s dinna’.” He rapped, stirring blissfully.

Most people consider stock the basis for a soup. But to Adam, it was a complete meal. With glee, he checked on his simmering stock throughout the night and the next morning and afternoon, updating us on the progress of our impending supper.

I thought I could escape. I had an evening sculpture class and I planned to grab dinner at the dining hall during a break. But when I told Adam that I would be leaving for class soon, he insisted that I fill up on a good meal first.

“It’s ready just in time.” He exclaimed, and set a lone place at the head of the table with the biggest bowl we had—a giant mixing bowl—and filled it to the brim with stock. He sat down across from me with his economics book to keep me company—and hostage.

I stared into my mixing bowl with horror that I hoped didn’t show on my face. Adam had fished out the chicken breast carcasses, but the smaller rib bones had softened and detached and now swirled on the oily surface, butting up against my spoon. Bits of gristle and congealed chicken fat bobbed among the shreds of soggy kale in the broth beaded with grease. The carrot had all but disintegrated into sodden chunks, imbuing the mess with a delicate orange hue. It smelled like rotten cabbage.

Under Adam’s benevolent gaze, I lifted the spoon and held my breath, using every one of my facial muscles to keep my lips from twisting into a grimace of agony as I took the first bite. My throat closed with that rush of heat that starts behind the tongue signaling the first faint tug of nausea. I forced myself to swallow and scooped up another spoonful.

The broth was the easy part. I tipped the spoon straight down my throat so the oily water touched as little of my tongue as possible as it made its descent. But the leaves of kale and chunks of onion were too big. There was no way around it—I had to chew. The sharp, bitter onion had a grainy crunch and the greasy strips of kale stuck in my throat.

I ate the entire bowlful.

When all that remained were the bits of chicken bone and gristle, Adam saw me to the door. Full and queasy, I thanked him very much for dinner. He smiled, like Mrs. Horner, a kind, proud smile.

After six hours of sculpting scrawny naked men with yellow toenails—which did nothing to settle my stomach—I came home to find my three roommates clearing the table of Chinese take-out cartons and fortune cookie wrappers.

“Hey!” I cried, “What happened to the soup?” Mark and Felix exchanged a look and hurried to the kitchen. Adam handed me a fortune cookie and laughed sheepishly.

“It was disgusting.” He said, and put his arm around my shoulders, “I can’t believe you ate the whole bowl.”

It took me a few years to get over my fear of stock. I’ve considered making it a few times, but have been thwarted by the memory of what can go wrong. I finally mustered the courage last fall and attempted to make stock with the Thanksgiving turkey carcass, and ended up with a pot full of solidified fat. But at least I didn’t feed it to anyone.

I will admit, however, that there have been times when I have made disastrous meals, and my loved ones have eaten them anyway. That’s just what you do when a beloved friend—whether a little old farmer, a gentle roomie, or a newlywed new to cooking—cooks something special just for you.

Adam’s Stock

Serves 4

30 cups water, divided
4 chicken breast carcasses
1 bunch of kale, un-chopped
1 onion, quartered
1 carrot, sliced
½ head cabbage
¼ cup salt

Bring 6 cups of water to boil
Add next 6 ingredients (through salt)
Boil for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to low simmer

Allow to simmer for at least 24 hours, adding water as necessary


  1. "like drowned bat wings" is brilliant. and absolutely horrific. there is such a thing as being too nice and too polite.

  2. I think I might throw up. Great story!

  3. Lol that might actually have been good if he had followed a few basic steps to stock-making: STRAIN the broth from all debris first, then chill in the fridge till the fat solidifies and REMOVE IT before reheating and consuming.