The Day My Cooking Ambitions Got the Best of Me

At 16, I tasted triumph and humiliation at my grandmother’s table.

A person on a pile of dirty dishes holding out a cloche

Simone Massoni

The year was 1988 when Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for best foreign film. It’s set in the 19th century in a Nordic coastal village, and the titular character is a French refugee who wins the lottery and spends the entirety of the kitty on a single grand dinner for a group of aging Lutheran ascetics who eschew corporeal indulgences and live on a mostly unvarying menu of øllebrød, a sourdough rye bread porridge. The win was quite a feat considering that the film is 30% plot and 70% depictions of chores: fetching water from the well; buying fish at the docks; turning mushrooms; plucking quail; cooking stocks, sauces, and, of course, porridge. Sixteen-year-old me, trapped in suburbia with my sexagenarian grandmother, loved every scene.

The film inspired me to blow my Christmas money on a luncheon for my friends. After convincing Grandma to lend me the use of her dining room and good china for the day, I rooted through library cookbooks and food magazines and, channeling Babette, decided on a menu of Waldorf salad, stuffed phyllo purses, and an elaborate dacquoise for dessert.

Looking back, I’d have cautioned my younger self against choosing a menu that featured so many unfamiliar dishes. Had it not been so miserable to live under the thumb of my grandmother, whose PTSD presented itself as quotidian meanness and occasional breaks from reality where she’d pull me out of bed at 2 a.m. to clean the kitchen, I would have chosen a menu that utilized the skills she taught me, something like a whole fried fish accompanied by nuoc cham and fresh herbs from the garden, with a simple platter of sliced mangoes to end the meal. But that would have been Grandma’s menu, and I wanted mine to travel as far away from her as possible.

The dacquoise recipe seemed the most alien, and I studied it with the kind of gusto that my classmates were devoting to their SATs. On the eve of the luncheon, the egg whites and sugar whipped into foamy peaks exactly as the recipe said they would. Combined with ground almonds, the whole thing baked into lovely golden meringues. With the most difficult component out of the way, I went to bed already anticipating my triumph with the rest of the menu.

The next morning, however, everything fell apart. The bottoms of my phyllo purses were scorched and soldered onto the baking sheet. The apple slices for the salad were discoloring. And in the Frigidaire, the dacquoise, the crowning glory of my feast, was a platter of crumbling meringue and sagging cream weeping chunks of strawberries.

Looking back, I’d have cautioned myyounger self against choosing a menu thatfeatured so many unfamiliar dishes.

When the doorbell rang the arrival of my guests, I was still standing in front of the open refrigerator door, unable to pull my gaze away from the meringue as it made the slow descent off its perch of Chantilly cream. Grandma edged herself into the mouth of the fridge next to me. She looked from the liquifying dacquoise to me, and, with undisguised glee, she pronounced, “It looks like dog s#*t.”

Stung by her words, I reminded her of our agreement: She’d let me have the use of the kitchen and dining room, and she wouldn’t interfere. I ushered her out of the kitchen, scraped off the worst of the burnt phyllo, put the dissolving pastry out of my mind, and admitted my friends into the dining room.

My friends gushed over the handwritten name cards and menus at each seat. They devoured the first and second courses and made no mention of charred bits or oxidized fruit. They clapped when I presented my lopsided dacquoise, with its melted center. The confection looked like a ruin, but the meringue soaked in macerated berries and cream, scented with vanilla extract and amaretto, was delicious. They were having themselves a grand time, and eventually I was, too.

When the last guest left, Grandma, her hands clasped behind her, entered the dining room and surveyed the detritus of our feast. The same dining room had been venue for her legendary banquets, featuring cold and jellied meats spiced with cinnamon, black pepper, and annatto, arranged in the image of a phoenix and surrounded by flora fashioned of scallions, carrots, cucumber, and shiitake; crab presented two ways — the plump claws made plumper with a coating of shrimp paste and fried until coral pink; the lump meat folded into a soup of white asparagus; aromatic snails ingeniously stuffed with a ginger-snail-pork forcemeat that released from their shells if you tugged at the young ginger leaves. Through her gaze, I saw my 16-year-old attempt for what it was: a pitiful business of burnt phyllo, wilted salad, and soupy whipped cream. Amateur dog s#*t.

Nowadays, a whole fried fish with accoutrements, simple in preparation and arresting in presentation — not unlike one Grandma might have made — is my kind of entertaining. Even she would have a hard time finding fault with it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Diep Tran is the former chef-owner of Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles and the founder of the Banh Chung Collective, an annual queer-centric celebration of the Lunar New Year. Most recently, she co-authored The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook, one of NPR’s 2021 Books We Love. She also has been featured in The New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, Lucky Peach, Saveur, the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, KCET’s The Migrant Kitchen, and HBO Max’s Take Out with Lisa Ling.

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