Burnin' Down the House!
This was my moment to truly impress this girl.
The veggies were sliced and diced; the bacon cooked once in hot water and left to cool in the freezer; the spices measured and lined up; the substitute gnocchi in the water pot, ready to boil, next to the one filled with oil. I was gonna blow her socks off with this recipe, this show of Iron Chef skills and preparation.
This skewed view of my cooking skills almost turned out to be the death of both of us.
I was setting out to prepare thrice cooked bacon, a recipe inspired by the one found at Mission Chinese, my Mecca of restaurants For those who hung out with me or visited when I lived in San Francisco, this small, cramped spot on Mission Street, with its floating Chinese dragon, mismatched silverware, noisy kitchen, and lightning-fast service offers the best Chinese food I have ever, and most likely will ever, have. So when I left SF for Montana, I snagged a copy of the cookbook written by the culinary mad scientist himself, Danny Bowien.
So here I was, living in Helena, Mission Chinese Cookbook in hand, ready to flex my culinary skills in front of Emma. Everything was prepped; all I needed to do was fry the bacon and boil the water.
That's when all hell broke loose.
See, I'm an idiot. I'd been so preoccupied with chopping veggies and getting everything set up that I didn't pay attention to which burner I'd turned on. Keep in mind, there are two pots on the stove, both with lids on; one is filled with water, the other oil. And what I intended to do was boil the water, turning the electric stove to full burn. For some reason, though, I turned on both burners to High.
I lifted the lid off the pot and the oxygen in the room rushed in, igniting the oil.
I had a four-foot inferno on my hands, the flames leaping from the pot to lick at the ceiling, smoke boiling out of the pot. I've never dealt with fire like this, one that has a mind of its own. I jumped forward, trying to put the lid back on, and for that I received minor burns on my hands.
Alright, well that didn't work.
Maybe if I put it in the sink, in something ceramic, keep it away from any and all water to avoid an oil bomb. I grasped the handles of the metal pot, the oven mittens burning in my hands as I tried to walk the pot to the sink. I could feel the hairs on my arm burning away, a minor sunburn sitting in as my gloves combusted. Oh shit, this wasn't going to work. Back to the stove with the pot.
Emma at this point hadn't realized that she should start fearing for her life. And I quote: "At the time all I could think of was 'Daaammmnnnn, this guy's doing some Hibachi shit for me!'"
It was when I transferred the pot back to the stove after my failed movement to the sink that she realized this wasn't part of the plan. And that's when our reactions to stress kicked in. I get quiet, real quiet, and methodical when stressed out, something that never happens in real life. Emma, on the other hand, talks herself through the situation at a mile a minute.
"I need you to look for a fire extinguisher! Think there's one in the hallway?"
I said this as the roiling black cloud of smoke was starting to inch down the walls, getting so low as to almost touch our chests. This was bad, real bad. I was going to burn this whole house down. Then came Emma to the rescue, sprinting in with the extinguisher, from which I pulled the pin, aimed, and sprayed. The yellow fire retardant doused the stove, smothering the fire and coating the two melted temperature knobs, the blackened fridge. But we weren't done yet.
Because the cloud of smoke was really starting to worry me. It wasn't dissipating. At all. So it was time for a phone call.
"Yeah, ah this isn't really an emergency now, but I had an oil fire in my department. We're both alright but it got outta control. You don't need to send a fire truck, I put the fire out, but I could use some help getting rid of the smoke. We're both fine. But please, don't send a truck or turn the lights on. Or the siren."
Five minutes later red lights were strobing through my melted blinds. At least they kept the siren off.
Four fire volunteers rushed up the steps, their chief strolling in behind them (I didn't realize it until she admitted it later, but Emma was having the time of her life when the young, burly volunteers came running in to save the day. I had other things on my mind to worry about). The chief walked up to me, a small smile peeking out beneath his bone white walrus stache as he took in the hanging smoke.
"Didn't turn out as expected, huh, son?" Laughter tinged his question and at that, I was finally able to relax, the adrenaline slowly starting to drain away. I laughed along with him as Emma and I detailed the inferno, the fact that this was my first time cooking for her, and that it was my own damn fault. I knew that it was my well-deserved punishment to take the ribbing in stride.
The volunteers set up a fan on the bottom floor and within an hour all of the smoke was gone, leaving Emma and me to take in the damage. A thick, chemical, bonfire smell still permeated the whole apartment. The kitchen was a war zone: ash covered every surface, from the melted blinds, to the melted stovetop knobs, to the blackened side of the fridge, to the charred wall and ceiling that abutted the stove. Retardant covered the frying pan, water pot, and melted oil pot like poisonous yellow snow.
All I could do was laugh. I was drained but still could not believe what had happened. I'd not only almost burned my whole apartment down but also took this amazing girl with me in the process. And thankfully this amazing girl still had it in her to treat me to dinner out of an endearing sense of pity.
Then came the "renovation." I won't bore you with the details, but 2 days later, one of which was dedicated to scrubbing ash off of every surface and the other spent painting, and a $250 tab, the kitchen was back to normal. Granted, new blinds were needed, and the paint was a shade off from the original, and the fridge's side is still a bit burned, and I'm down to two temperature knobs for four burners, meaning that I have to move them around when cooking. But there was no electrical damage and by some will of fate, that's the only thing my landlord cared about. I was off the hook.
Emma and I later recreated the dish for Christmas, sans oil fire, and it tasted pretty frickin' good, if I may say so myself. As a word of advice to those of you who think you're daring enough to pull off an intricate meal on the first dinner date, though: just don't. Stick to the pasta and keep it easy.
But for those of you adventurous enough, or stupid enough, here's the recipe.
Beer I drank: Hope Slice Summer Ale by Deschutes Brewery
Song I heard: Red Eyes by The War on Drugs
Book I read: Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West by Timothy Egan