In the wake of a cooking disaster, a good friend and a family recipe are critical.
I was lying on the floor, hands outstretched under the couch, while black smoke billowed in the air around me. It was becoming difficult to breathe. Alarms were going off. My neighbors were shouting in the hallway.
“Everyone get out of the building!” someone yelled. “Now!”
The kitchen was on fire.
It all started because of a really good sandwich. During a day trip to the Rockaways the weekend before, I’d had a delicious po’boy—briny oysters that were perfectly crispy, covered in a tangy kimchi slaw and a spicy remoulade, all tucked into a toasted, buttery roll. A perfect summer sandwich, reminiscent of all those weeks I’d spent at the beach as a kid, reading trashy mystery novels and lazing about in the sun. One sandwich wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I was going to re‑create it.
The next weekend I stocked up on the necessary ingredients: oysters and the makings for a nice craggy crust; canola oil; lettuce; rolls. A cursory recipe search online suggested I might also want a candy thermometer for gauging the oil temperature, but I didn’t bother with that. Instead I had the blithe confidence of someone who had never set her kitchen on fire before.
I had never made po’boys before, either, and in fact I had never actually deep-fried anything, but I wasn’t worried. Deep-frying was just like sautéing, but with a different type of oil. Right?
My boyfriend Rob was out of town, and I had invited my friend Amanda to come over for lunch. She arrived and we gossiped idly as I battered oysters and shredded lettuce. At some point, I dumped a tub of oil in a pot to heat it up. When I checked it a few minutes later, nothing seemed to be happening in there—so I put the top on the pot. To speed up the process, I thought. (The fact that I didn't know what "the process" was supposed to look like did not occur to me.)
Amanda and I continued to chat. By this point she was lying supine on the couch discussing her love life. Time passed, though how much I'm not sure. Five minutes? Fifteen? Amanda is a very good conversationalist. “These are going to be delicious,” I bragged, casually lifting the top off the pot as I geared up to fry my oysters.
A few seconds later, the oil exploded into flames.
I screamed. I turned off the stove and jumped back. I screamed again.
I stood there frozen in panic, while Amanda, who is great in a crisis situation, sprang into action. She found the extinguisher and opened it onto the blaze. The fire died down and for a moment we felt optimistic. Then it returned; huge, bursting flames leapt from the pan, nearly hitting the ceiling and filling the room with a thick cloud of smoke.
“This is the part where we call 911,” she said, already dialing.
“I don’t want to call the fire department,” I said. “My neighbors are going to hate me!”
Amanda ran into the hallway and started knocking on the neighbors’ doors, telling them to get the hell out of the building. Soon everyone was running down the stairs. I could hear sirens in the distance. She popped her head back in. “Let’s go!”
“You go ahead. I have to get the cat!” I screamed over the wail of the smoke alarm.
“Oh my God, we do not have time for that!”
“Go! I’ll be right there!”
I adopted Dizzy when she was just six months old, a tiny wildcat traumatized by early abuse and abandonment. She is not one of those sweet, docile cats you see in the Fancy Feast commercials. She’s a streetfighter. She once gave me a black eye. But do bad cats not deserve love, too? She did not escape life in the back alleys of Brooklyn just to die at the hands of an amateur with a po’boy experiment. I was going in.
I covered my mouth with my shirt and got down on my hands and knees to look for her. When I found her under the couch, she darted away. I chased her around the apartment as the air around us grew thick and black. Was this how it would all end for us? Rob will kill me if I die for this cat, I thought, growing increasingly panicked. Time started moving in slow motion, and I wondered if I was experiencing some interesting side effects of asphyxiation. I imagined Rob and my family, devastated by my needless death. What would they say at my funeral? I wondered. And, speaking of which, who would show up? As the smoke started to fill my lungs, I realized I was getting carried away. There was still some time. I was going to save my cat.
I found her under the bed. We locked eyes; she growled. “I’m not dying in here with you, you monster!” I screamed as I grabbed her paw firmly and yanked her to my chest. She writhed, bit, and scratched, bloodying my arms and my stomach with deep gashes. Then she let out a piercing, ghoulish cry, the sound you might hear from a hyena being burned at the stake. I clutched her to my T‑shirt and sprinted out of the apartment and down the stairs. As I put the cat in the doorman’s bathroom, firemen began storming through the building—dozens of them, it seemed. Outside, my shirt torn wide open, soot on my face, and bloody cat scratches running down my exposed stomach, I met my neighbors for the first time. As I cried sooty, maniacal tears, I heard someone call my name. I looked up. It was a girl from college who had called me a slut not once but twice. She didn’t even live in New York.
“Oh my God, Lucy, what happened to your shirt?”
It didn’t take long for the firemen to put out the flame—thankfully, it had never left the pot—and then, after they had roundly mocked my cooking skills, they sent me upstairs to recover, or at least to hide out in shame. The kitchen was coated in a thick layer of soot and ash; so were the twenty beautiful oysters, all wasted. I took a picture and texted it to my best friend Tram: “Oops??”
Over the next few days, I attempted to make the apartment look presentable again. I wiped away the ash that had taken residence on every surface. I scrubbed the walls ineffectually until they became a splotchy gray. Eventually, I overcame my humiliation enough to start venturing out of the house. My doorman offered some kind words and told me not to get discouraged about my cooking. I shook my head. I would not be touching a pan anytime soon.
In the past, I had been fearless in the kitchen. I wasn’t the most skilled chef, but I was always up for a challenge. It had never occurred to me that cooking could be dangerous. Now, the menacing possibilities were all I could see. But talking to my grandmother a few weeks later, I started to feel silly. This was a woman who had been deep-frying food for about seventy-five years. A few weeks before, she had made fried chicken for a friend in her retirement community. As we spoke, she launched into a mini-history of all the people in my family who were deft with a vat of hot oil; even my great-great uncle, apparently, knew how to fry a damn shad roe.
This would not do. I do have a little pride. I decided to fix the situation. And so, I called Tram.
* * *
Tram and I had been cooking together since we were teenagers, and I trusted her with everything in the kitchen. I always consulted her when I was figuring out a dinner party menu. When I was stuck on a recipe, or when I couldn’t get a dish quite right, I called her to pick her brain. I sometimes questioned my own culinary skills, but I never doubted hers.
Tram lived in Chicago, and I had been planning a trip to visit her. My trip seemed like a good opportunity for a little fried chicken project. Deep-frying seems less scary when you do it with another person—especially if that friend is a trusted confidante who, as she herself would tell you, has tyrannical tendencies when it comes to cooking. I had a secret plan. Usually when Tram and I make dinner together, my role is somewhat decorative. This is because, at least in her own kitchen, Tram likes to run the show. She’ll sometimes give me an obviously fake task to make me feel included, but for the most part she does all the work. I love this routine. I enjoy cooking, but I am equally content to sit at the counter with a glass of wine, peeling potatoes and gossiping.
I figured things would shake out like that this time, too: I would watch Tram fry the chicken, I would see that it was not scary, and then, one day, when I was good and ready, I would attempt to make it on my own. Thus I would “confront my fears” without having to do anything difficult. We planned a dinner party for the Saturday night of my visit and invited a couple of friends to join us. Meanwhile, I acquired my great-grandmother's recipe, allegedly fail-proof, for the occasion.
Newly acquired candy thermometer in my suitcase, I touched down at O’Hare on a brisk fall morning. But as soon as I arrived at Tram’s doorstep, I could tell something was wrong. She was moving very slowly, and if I walked out of her peripheral vision, she’d turn her whole body— not just her neck—to see me. Upon inquiry I discovered that she'd been having some trouble with her neck and back, and that at the moment she was in excruciating pain. She couldn’t rotate her head; in fact, she could barely move her upper body at all.
“We have to cancel the party,” I said. “You should be in bed, resting!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tram said. “You came all this way to fry some chicken. And we have guests on the way.”
We decided to proceed but determined that I be responsible for the cooking the chicken and pretty much everything else. Tram would load herself up with painkillers and assist with some sides if she was feeling up to it.
"Sounds great," I said, plastering a huge fake smile on my face and breaking into a cold sweat as we solidified the plan.
I was terrified. It’s one thing to start a small fire in your own home, and it is another, much worse, thing to start a fire in someone else’s home. But to start a fire in Tram’s home would be a crime. She has impeccable taste, and, what’s more, she had recently remodeled her kitchen. It had always been nice, but now it was state‑of‑the-art. State‑of‑the-art, and white. Gleaming white. I could literally see my reflection in her pristine cabinet walls. Oh my God, I thought. Whose dumbass idea was it to make fried chicken here?
I waited until our friends showed up to start cooking, because I knew the chicken would be at its best hot out of the pan. Also I was procrastinating. I really, really did not want to fry this chicken. I had visions of Tram’s kitchen charred and melting—all that remodel money down the drain!—while I was carted to jail in a paddy wagon full of failed fry cooks. Tram would never speak to me again after I burned down her house.
When the guests arrived, I lost no time in having a complete meltdown. “This is a disaster!” I wailed. "I have no idea what I'm doing!"
My friends stepped in with calming assurance. They reminded me that frying was not actually so complicated if you know what to do. They were right, I realized. This was not rocket science. Since the fire, I had studied my mistakes. I had gotten a family recipe and tweaked it to make it as simple as possible. The thing about cooking is you rarely make the same mistake twice. Sure, something could go wrong, but at least this time it would probably not involve the fire department.
That night, bolstered by the confidence of good friends, I made some delicious fried chicken. It turns out it's not very hard as long as you don't turn the oil into a flaming ball of fire. In a taxi on the way back to the airport the next day, I started thinking about my po'boys again. Maybe it was time to try them again. It no longer seemed terrifying at all.
Excerpted from the book PEN & PALATE by Lucy Madison and Tram Nguyen. Copyright © 2016 by Lucy Madison and Tram Nguyen. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.