Opposite of Fresh Air
I discovered Ina Garten on a Delta Song flight to Florida. She wasn’t actually on the airplane, but Food Network was one of the pre-set channels on the then-novel seat-back televisions. She crafted a well-composed meal of some kind of meat I would never eat, concluding with airy meringues. She made the dessert look so easy – just a handful of ingredients, a few steps to obtain perfection. This thing that I always thought was the province of professionals in specialized kitchens was something I could do. And all of the necessary elements were already in my cabinets.
For that next week, I thought of Ina while playing golf with my grandfather and sitting Red Sox spring training games. I couldn’t wait to get home and whisk egg whites. Upon returning, I TiVoed old episodes of Barefoot Contessa and it was a master class in cooking, baking, good taste and manners.
Ina wears a uniform – same shirt, same pants, same jewelry. Every day, as far as I can tell. For a special occasion she may accessorize with a scarf. But that is about it. Her hair is always the same (she must get it cut weekly), her make up is always indistinguishable. I love it.
She measures everything. Other cooks may swirl a pinch of salt into a stew. Not Ina. Out comes the teaspoon. Every time.
Her tips for planning a dinner party – complete with detailed schedules and labeled serving dishes – are foolproof. She was sharing the tools to craft a very intentional, beautiful, delicious life. I wanted that.
I became preoccupied with black and white kitchens and finding a bunch of gay men to invite over for brunch and bridge. I tried to grow herbs on my countertop. I started acquiring “good” olive oils and mayonnaise. I was enamored of her top-heavy hydrangeas, lilting in the Long Island breeze, and took up gardening.
I bought the same kind of glass jars to store flour and sugar, so old-timey and functional, sitting on my counter so that I might toss together biscuits or scones at any moment. I would reach in and, just like Ina, fluff the flour, take a scoop and level it with the flat edge of a knife. Inevitably during this process, the edge of the cup, the blade or even my watch, would clink against rim of the canister.
Did I nick the glass?
Bartenders have to trash a whole bin of ice if they break a glass. That seemed like a prudent rule.
So I would run my finger over the lip of the container as many times as it took to convince myself that I felt an imperfection. Then I would dump the contents and start over.
After the third time, I began re-watching all of Ina’s episodes to see whether she had ever made contact between the scoop and the vessel. I really needed to know her reaction, so I could mold my own. Even when watching in slow motion, I could never tell.
Eventually I gave up and started leaving my flour and sugar in the original packaging, which can be tricky too, since I sometimes give myself a paper cut on the edges. But suspending my activities briefly to apply a band aid is much more efficient than throwing away pounds of flour and washing down storage containers every time I bake.
Not as tasteful, but more practical.
For one Valentine’s Day, I demanded that my husband thumb through all of Ina’s cookbooks so I could prepare him a romantic dinner. How thoughtful of me.
He picked some sort of chicken stew with Pernod – an anise-flavored liquor. But, after visiting three different package stores, I couldn’t find it. So I instead picked up the substitute suggested by the internet.
It started off well. Chicken, tomatoes, olives.
Right after I added the licorice impostor, the smoke detectors started screeching.
I stood fanning the one at the bottom of the stairs, while my husband yelled from the back door.
“I think it’s this one!”
Then it stopped.
When I came around the corner, I saw the plug-in carbon monoxide detector in his hand.
“See? It’s just this one,” he said, thrilled to have solved the problem.
“But that’s even worse! That’s the one that protects us from odorless, colorless poisonous gas! Plug it back in, now. Now!” I ordered.
“Warning! Warning!” the vaguely English sounding voice said urgently. “Evacuate to fresh air.”
I had two other carbon monoxide detectors on the same floor. They were silent, but this particular one was insistent.
“What do we do?” I asked my husband.
“I don’t know, but we can’t just ignore it, right? It means there’s a problem.”
“Maybe the stove is leaking gases. Should I turn that off and see if it makes a difference?”
“Yes,” he agreed, “try that.”
“Open the doors?”
Also, no change.
“Maybe I’ll just call the fire department directly, I know a couple guys there. I’ll see if they can send someone here to check it out,” my husband suggested.
“Okay, is that a thing?” I asked. “You can call them without it being a true emergency?”
“Sure,” he assured me, “I’m not going to dial 9-1-1. I’ll just text my buddy.”
Three minutes later there were six fire engines at the curb, lights flashing and sirens wailing, with a dozen large men in full gear tromping around carrying an array of portable, bleeping detectors.
I opened the front door to let them in and a rush of crisp, clean air greeted me. After the last of the firefighters entered, I turned to follow them and that is when it hit me – the horrific smell of that stew. It was like a wall of stink.
I still gag when I think about it.
“We are not getting any worrisome readings,” the team leader explained. “These things are mass produced,” he said, tapping on the carbon monoxide detector in his hand. “They are subject to error. Sometimes they go on the fritz. Just get a new one,” he advised. His voice sounded a tad nasally, on account of the mouth breathing.
“Plus, I see you have one over here,” he pointed to the foyer. “And one at the top of the stairs. You’re good.”
They were polite, trying to act like the stew was not nauseating. Once they got back to the station, I imagined the firefighters totally dishing. “Dude, there was no smoke, no fire, but this bitch was going to make the guy eat some rancid chicken. It was soooo bad, it set off the CO detector! That poor bastard!” I can hear them clucking right now over their communal, and delicious, pasta dinner.
All I could do that day was thank them for making sure we wouldn’t die in our sleep. And then I had to double the number of carbon monoxide detectors on each floor. Different brands, different styles. Diversification. I could not take the risk that those items intended to protect us were subject to the same manufacturing errors as a bum zipper on a winter coat or the torn seam on a sneaker.
And now I had a new rule: absolutely no substitutions. Ever. Under any circumstances. It wasn’t like the terrible smell from the fake Pernod conjured the manufacturing defect. But I couldn’t take that chance again. Part of me still thinks it was trying to warn us about that meal.
Or the dangers of half-hearted romanticism to a marriage.