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The Four Worst Meals of My Life

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Here's a food essay I pulled from our site. In times like these, a little laughter goes a long way.

Four meals I'll never forget, for all the wrong reasons. I'd rather skip a thousand desserts than live through these again.

1. Dagger Soup. My mother was a brilliant woman, but not a great cook. No problem, when dinner was hamburgers, broiled chicken or a simple stir fry. But now and then she'd attempt a recipe, and we suffered the consequences. She found some formula for celery soup in a magazine and spent the whole day preparing it. This wasn't a slow-cooked stew, but a quick-blended soup, requiring celery stalks be pureed and quickly boiled with curry and other spices. Unfortunately, she never knew to remove the veins/ribs of the celery before blending, and unless you cook them long and slow, those veins don't get tender. Imagine a thick, green aromatic soup dense with thousands of celery veins, hard as nails and only 1/16th of an inch long. Every spoonful stuck a dozen spikes into our tongues. They tore at our throats as we swallowed. There was no way to chew it into submission. It was like drinking porcupines, like a broth made from cactus spines. I called it "Dagger Soup" and refused to eat another spoonful. "You'll eat that soup I slaved all day to make, or you'll lose your allowance!" No problem. "You'll be grounded for a week!" My pleasure. "Two weeks!" It became clear that no threat was worse than the reality of that soup. Finally: "I tell you it's delicious!" but after a single spoonful--she broke out laughing. We poured it down the toilet and went out for pizza.

2. The Meal Without Flavor. One dish my mother prepared well was a stir fry of shrimp and broccoli, rich with butter. We all liked it. Nothing seemed amiss when we sat down to Sunday's meal, but when we took a bite--nothing. No flavor at all. Two bites, three--still no flavor. I don't mean the food was bland, or that it needed salt. I mean it had no flavor of any kind: taste buds simply wouldn't register it. You got texture, you could tell shrimp from broccoli, but it was as if an invisible hand was pinching your nose shut. Three solid minutes of silence later, I ventured, "Does this taste funny?" My sister nods, my father (ever politic) commanded, "Your mother does this dish, so no complaints, you eat it!" We ate, but even he started making faces. The orange soda had its familiar twang of saccharine, but the meal had nothing. Finally my mother couldn't stand it any longer, throwing down her fork and turning furious eyes on the stir fry. We eventually found the culprit. She'd mistaken the corn starch for baking powder! All flavor is based on the play of acid and base, and baking powder left the whole dish completely neutral. That dinner became the legendary Meal Without Flavor.

3. Chicken Tetrachloride. College dorms are famous for bad food. That's why everyone at the University of Connecticut wanted to live in a large dorm, where the cafeteria boasted half a dozen choices at each meal, as well as a salad bar. Even so, some days were bad. Chicken tetrazini was the worst night. When it came, you knew one choice was already inedible, so it lowered your chances. One Monday night in my sophomore year I joined my friends for dinner. We stood on line, bypassing the salad bar (it looked limp, brown and suspiciously like last week's), and skipped the chicken. The other choice was the tofu lasagna. Goodyear never made a rubber so effective as that "tofu lasagna." We couldn't eat that. Back to the salad bar--nothing. Well, they keep cereal under the salad bar when it's not breakfast time, but the cabinet was locked. We formed a human screen to conceal my friend Tom as he tried to pick the lock, but we were caught. They sat us down and served us all a lecture about respecting school property and that horrible chicken tetrazini. Instead, we found the one thing on the salad bar that didn't look too bad, the cucumbers. We sat there and ate cucumbers and drank Pepsi while the chicken tetrazini cooled into a landscape on our plates. One of us joked "Chicken Tetrachloride" and it stuck.

4. The End of Ambiance. When I was fifteen I had a couple of close friends who invited me down to Thanksgiving dinner with their very respectable Quaker relatives in south NJ, one of the grand families of Moorestown, with a line back to the Mayflower and a reverence for propriety. It was ruled over by their matriarch, a 90-year old dour thing, half deaf, used to bathing in ice water each morning at dawn, spending twelve hours a day at her stove and needle, and you'd darn well better appreciate it. Dinner was long and not without humor, but a sense of decorum floated over the table, as of a tradition generations long. Then the cat started puking up hairballs. Loud, wet sounds, throat-smacking, moist, evocative. Grandmother couldn't hear it, so we pretended not to. A hairball hit the floor with a splash, and my friend's father broke the table's symmetry long enough to put the cat out. Then the cat climbed back into the room through the ancient heating ducts, stuck its head out above the grate, and started coughing up hairballs again. Father went over and tried to pull the cat out of the vent by its head, but it wouldn't budge. It remained there throughout dinner, a living doorstop, stopping conversation every few moments to vomit up another odious mass. Grandmother couldn't hear or see it, and kept digging into her food almost in time to the cat's upchucks. We almost died trying not to laugh--couldn't eat a thing, kept having to run to the restroom to let out gales of laughter. That's the worst ambiance I've ever endured during a meal.

Peter
wells@emusic.com

A Burke & Wells Essay

Link: http://www.burkeandwells.com

  1. vegetarian, allergic-to-everything sister brought sweet potato soup bought from a health food store for thanksgiving dinner. my portion consisted of one greyish, puckering sweet potato chunk seemingly nailed to the bottom of the bowl, which was filled with flavorless watery broth. A lily pad of some sort of vegetable leaf floated on top.

    I did my best Tiny Tim (Dickens, not tulips) imitation, bravely intoning "God bless us, every one" as I "dug in".

    I believe there may also have been a tofu turkey, but I've kind of blacked it out.

    Nurture-not-nature,

    Ciao

    14 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      I love tofu, but the tofu turkey I bought one Thanksgiving is probably on my list, too: Imagine, if you will, tofu formed in what seemed to be a Wilton-type turkey cake mold, and utterly flavorless. Another company has come up with something called a "Tofurkey" which, in concept, is even more disgusting, because it actually tries to mimic the bird (there are "drumsticks"!!) With so many delicious vegetable dishes to choose from, why would anyone inflict these atrocities on holiday guests?

      1. re: Janet
        f
        Frank Language

        Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the supermarket...there's Tofurkey jerky! Although I've never had the dubious pleasure of eating it - and probably never will - it takes Tofurkey to a whole new level!

        A friend told me of how he'd bought some with the idea of putting it on bagels (?!), but he couldn't eat it at all. Just a friendly warning to y'all...

        1. re: Frank Language

          My curiousity almost led me to buy it, but it was also ridiculously expensive. There's a whole Tofurkey line of products loose in the freezer case, made by (I kid you not) a company called Now & Zen.

          1. re: Frank Language

            Hmm... If you stuffed a soy duck-product with a soy chicken-product, and stuffed that into a soy turkey-product...

            1. re: Frank Language

              Don't knock it till you try it, people! Yes, it is a jaw-breaking struggle to eat, but I haven't eaten real jerky in so long (or meat, for that matter) that I have no idea any more how it compares to real jerky!

              I am highly amused by all your horror stories and I have to say I have been INCREDIBLY lucky!

              I think my worst meal ever was actually a recent airline meal (I realize they're mostly bad, anyway). This was a skewer of "grilled" vegetables and tofu on a bed of unseasoned but curiously yellow rice. The tofu was like rubber and brown around the edges, the mushrooms were -- seriously -- black, shriveled, hard nubs. The red peppers were soggy. Lucky for me, they actually give vegetarians real dessert now -- Oreos -- rather than the usual canned pear half. Those Oreos made a tasty meal on that flight. :-)

              1. re: Frank Language

                Actually, there's a asian veggie jerky. It's sort of sweet and sort of salty and quite chewy. I didn't love it while I ate the first piece, but I found myself continuing to go back to the bag to grab more. Very addictive, actually.

                You can get it onlien from www.vegecyber.com

                http://www.vegecyber.com/nutrition/10...

                - VF

                1. re: VF

                  There's also a veggie jerky which they sell in health food stores (at about $1. for a little bag, <1/2 the price of the jerky Tofurkey makes!). It's moist, chewy, and comes in several flavors. Last year I'd developed a "habit" for the beef-like one and therefore ordered a 5# bag via Internet from the manufacturer, which brought the unit price down remarkably. Having opened the bag on election night, and eating it compulsively as the results were reported and corrected, I will forever associate veggie jerky with the theft of Florida. The last four or so pounds sat in the cabinet for months.

              2. re: Janet

                That reminds me of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons from long ago. Yuppie woman is proudly bearing a serving platter with a suckling pig on it, toward a table where a skeptical-looking man sits. He's saying "Tofu in yet another guise?"

                1. re: zora

                  dont those cartoons rock
                  wow
                  im new at this chowhound thing
                  i seriously havent stopped to think about the four worst meals of my life
                  i'm gonna ponder this for a couple days
                  one happend when i was eight
                  a strange small town diner
                  in eaton rapids michigan
                  one chicken leg was bleeding and the other was ice cold
                  too bad my grandma had fond memories of the place's peanut butter pie
                  but when you're eight all you want is chicken legs and there is simply no dissuading you.

              3. re: Jim Leff

                What a flood of memories this brings back!

                Restaurant meals can be hit-or-miss. It takes involuntarily attended meals prepared by relatives to consistently hit the greatest lows.

                Or ex-relatives, in my case.

                There was the corn-on-the-cob which, as no vegetables were ever trimmed of questionable spots, was served to me with a worm looking out of its hole. One of the rare times I was unable to ignore what I was served and continue picking at the rest of the meal.

                The 59 cent a pound chuck steak which only had about 20% meat on it. So, in other words, 80% of the diners receive only a chunk of fat, gristle, and bone, with no meat on it.

                Turkey so overcooked, the legs became large slabs of jaw-destroying "turkey jerkey". Which I was served because they knew I like dark meat. (Hey, Ma, got a band saw?)

                Cream cheese mixed with dry Italian dressing mix and red food color only until it looked like spoiled and contaminated cream cheese, then stuffed into rounds of hollowed-out Italian bread.

                Jello salad served with globs of imitation store-brand Miracle whip which had sat opened on the shelf for an indefinite period of time.

                Instant pudding gently stirred until it thickened into a mass of stringy lumps.

                Leftover baked beans with mashed hot dogs and chili mix. Chili anyone?

                Canned mushrooms in unseasoned tomato sauce, served only to me, because I was the family "gourmet".

                Imitation velveeta with grape jelly smeared in it. Bacon ends and pieces-3/4" thick strips-cooked only until hot.

                Chicken cacciatore, chicken backs and necks stewed in unseasoned tomato sauce with potatoes, cooked until the chicken parts break down into a layer of chicken fat, and little vertebrae that get stuck in your teeth. The most memorable was the one that got away-a crockpot of this, intended to be eaten days hence. Unrefrigerated. Which thankfully disappeared without a trace, probably because tentacles were growing out of it.

                Whole cooked turkeys sometimes not refrigerated, left out for people to pick at for days. Regular epidemics of "stomach flu".

                1. re: ironmom

                  Wow! Are you related to Ruth Reichl?

                  1. re: ironmom
                    f
                    Frank Language

                    ironmom writes: "Leftover baked beans with mashed hot dogs and chili mix. Chili anyone?"

                    Hey, chili is the original jailhouse food; it was developed in the kitchen laboratories of prisons as a way of serving spoiled meat to the prisoners - hence the spices. (I say "kitchen laboratories" sarcastically, but even then, they were industrial kitchens.)

                  2. re: Jim Leff

                    that reminds me of one of my worst meals, which was also vegetarian...

                    years ago, these friends of my parents were all agog after learning I had recently become a vegetarian (I no longer am) and decided to have us over for a vegetarian meal. The first course consisted of what I can only describe as small, black twigs in some kind of sauce that tasted like dirt. The other dish was mush with no flavor whatsoever (not even dirt) which I now think may have been some kind of lentil.

                    I felt terrible not eating it -- these people were extremely nice (their daughter was friends with my younger sister, I baby-sat for their kids, they let us copy all of their computer software), and they had clearly gone to so much trouble, but it was all I could do not to create a distraction and toss the whole thing out the window. I still shudder at the thought of it.

                  3. After my parents married in 1967, one of my mother's first acquisitions was a set of those spiral-bound Campbell's soup cookbooks. She proceeded to torture me and my brother all the way through the 1970s with an unending procession of casseroles and pot pies that make me queasy just to think about them...it's a wonder that I eat anything now.

                    Anyway, Mom's crowning achievement was the tuna casserole, which incorporated the requisite can of Chicken of the Sea, several cans of vegetables (LeSeur peas, Del Monte cream corn, etc.), several cans of Campbell's cream of ____ soup, a can of mushrooms, an onion, celery, and a topping of bread crumbs and "Parmesan" cheese from the green cylinder. On one particular occasion, she used especially stale bread crumbs, so the casserole smelled and (probably) tasted like dirty sweat socks. My brother threw up at the table, started crying, and had to go to bed. For my part, I had been discreetly spitting the vile stuff into a succession of napkins and kicking them under the table.

                    We started eating lots of grilled chicken after that.

                    1. j
                      Janet A. Zimmerman

                      Great essay. (Thanks for making me laugh.) It reminded me of my senior year of college and the dinners my roommate used to make.

                      The deal when I moved in was this: we’d share the grocery bill and take turns cooking dinner. Great, I thought. I assumed that this would involve planning menus and shopping together. Wrong. What it meant was that every third weekend or so, she would go home to her parents, stock up on the groceries of her choice, return to campus and present me with my half of the bill. Technically I suppose I was free to do the same, but lacking a car, I was limited to picking up a few light items at a nearby deli.

                      I also assumed that this meant that she was at least a tolerable cook. Wrong again. She was, quite possibly, the world’s worst cook. Don’t think I make the statement lightly. But she was in a class by herself. Because, unlike most poor or indifferent cooks, she liked to cook, and she mistakenly thought she could cook. Her enthusiasm for the kitchen knew no bounds, when it really should have.

                      One meal that jumps to mind is something she whipped up using Rice-a-Roni and lentils. I think she’d had a Middle Eastern style pilaf, or maybe couscous, that she figured she could duplicate at home. She started with the Rice-a-Roni, but threw out the seasoning packet. Skipping the sauté, she boiled the contents together with some lentils until the lentils were crunchy and the pasta and rice were mushy; in addition, the mixture had the unmistakable flatness that comes from cooking with unsalted water. Then she threw in some raisins (which I loathe, incidentally, even in edible food) and nuts, and something else. I have no idea what it was, but it tasted soapy and dusty at the same time. I tried salt and pepper. Still bad. More salt. Ketchup, a step to which I rarely resort. Nothing could save it, but at least the ketchup mostly drowned out the dust flavor.

                      So, during the year, I became an expert at salvaging her meals through subterfuge. Such was the case with the spaghetti sauce. She decided, one Saturday morning, to make spaghetti for dinner that night. I stayed in my room pretending to study while she opened cans and clanged pans and chopped. Finally she returned to her room, and I crept out to inspect the damage. What I found was a stockpot filled with faintly pink cloudy water, with a bay leaf floating over the surface. Given a stir, it revealed some half-cooked onion chunks, a few hapless canned tomatoes, and a fair amount of ground beef (cooked, thankfully). It wasn’t simmering; the burner was off. It was clear she thought she had a finished sauce. I sprang into action. Turning the burner on high, I tried to reduce the liquid as I added garlic, herbs, salt. When I heard her stirring I quickly turned off the stove and sprinted back into my room. She left and I came back out. I found some more tomatoes and a can of tomato paste and added both, boiling the sauce like mad. It started to thicken just as I heard her coming back out. Off went the stove, and back I went into my room. It went on like this for several more rounds before what was in the pot finally tasted and smelled like something you’d want to serve on pasta. When we sat down to dinner that night, she took her first bite and looked puzzled. “Did you do something to the sauce?” she asked. “Oh,” I said, “just added a little garlic.”

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman

                        these bring back memories of an old boyfriend's crockpot meal, cooked all day - a pack of ground beef and some mixed frozen or canned vegetables. I dont remember if he added any salt - I never got past the layer of grease. He must have had a cast iron stomach.

                      2. My grandmother was a wonderful cook. She worked as a dessert chef for 20 years at the VA hospital in West LA, retired and took over the cafeteria at a Warner-Lambert plant across the street from the Great Western Fair Grounds just off at Atlantic from the 5 Freeway. But one of the things she liked was buttermilk. She kept some in our fridge for the weekends when she would come over to cook and be with us. This led inevitably to my evil older brother pouring me a big glass of buttermilk, instead of regular. He laughed so hard he cried as I snorted it out my nose and spewed it from my mouth with the shock of the large gulp I,(partially), swallowed. From that point on I very carefully tilted my glass to test the viscosity of the milk in my glass before every meal. I did eventually get my brother back due to my grandmother having a thing for cod liver oil. But that was simply revenge in the best biblical tradition of a (taste) bud for a bud.

                        1. c
                          Carolyn Tillie

                          My lawyer (a dear friend) became a Mason and encouraged my boyfriend and several other friends to join for business reasons. Occasionally, there are events where wives and girlfriends may attend after the Lodge has ended for dinner.

                          Now there is an on-going joke that such dinners usually consist of rubber chicken. My boyfriend is very good about not staying long at these and subjecting us to the rubber chickens.

                          But one fateful night, that which was served for dinner was chicken-fried steak. I never knew that grey food existed before. Not just the gravy, mind you! Grey meat, grey potatoes, and grey gravy made for a grey plate. I was astonished as I cut into the somewhat gelatinized mass on my plate. Silly me! I foolishly thought that there might be pink meat hiding underneath the grey ooze. Nay, dear friends. All was grey - as was my ashen face at the spectacle.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Carolyn Tillie

                            You write very well,I enjoy your style.

                            1. re: howard
                              c
                              Carolyn Tillie

                              Thank You! You don't know what that means to me -- being an aspiring writer and all that...

                              I've printed out your compliment to post above my computer.

                              You are gem.

                              1. re: Carolyn Tillie

                                See Not About Food posting.