Piano Chicken and Other Tales of Cooking Gone Wrong

Just in time for holiday feasting, I've decided to eat lean. This was a guilt-inspired decision brought on by invading my son's Halloween bag, which I managed to find no matter how hard I tried to hide it.

Eating lean means lettuce, lettuce, and more lettuce for lunch, as I explore the wonders of salad instead of making my usual Dagwood sandwiches. It also means that I'm having to stress my culinary skills, which are admittedly just one step above feral.

For instance, since all of the so-called experts on Web MD (who I suspect are just college students paid hourly to churn out recycled holier-than-thou advice from women's magazines), insist that you need to balance protein and healthy carbs while grazing on greenery, I decided to make a big girl salad yesterday that actually included sliced hard-boiled egg. Talk about excitement! I was nearly panting with pride as I heated a pot of water and gently set two pristinely white eggs in to boil.

My virtuous frame of mind led me to my desk, where I actually paid bills on line (more cause for self praise!) and caught up on emails. I might have made a phone call or two also.

At any rate, it wasn't until the dog started barking in the kitchen that I realized my eggs were, in fact, not only boiling, but exploding. The water was long gone, the lid had flown off the pan, and my eggs had exploded onto the floor, the stove, and even up into the vent hood. Holy Mount Merapi! There is nothing like the stink of sulfur to put you off your feed -- a diet tip that the WebMD minions are certainly welcome to borrow.

"You must have been cooking by remote control again," my husband Dan said with a sigh, when I mentioned the disaster in the kitchen that night.

"At least I tried," I said.

"Do me a favor," he said. "Stay out of the kitchen."

This is, really, the mantra of our marriage: I stay out of the kitchen until it's time for me to do the dishes after Dan cooks. I didn't know this is how it would be when I met him, of course. In fact, our first real date consisted of me whipping up an impressive (for me) lasagna out of jarred sauce and no-boil noodles, which Dan gallantly suffered through with nary a complaint.

It wasn't until Dan cooked dinner for me about a week later -- handmade spring rolls, chicken satay, jasmine rice -- that I understood what I was dealing with. My husband started cooking for himself at age 12. By his teen years, he was avidly reading Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Mother of God, what a weird kid is what I would have thought if we'd met in high school. Luckily, I married Dan in my thirties, when I was old enough to know what kind of prize he really is.

There are people like me -- lots of us, I'm sure -- who would just as soon eat out of cans if we didn't have children to make us feel guilty for not serving something other than tuna on crackers. My friend Phoebe, for instance, describes her husband Michael trying to cook chicken; he went downstairs to play the piano and got so distracted that smoke filled the house. When Michael presented the blackened bird to their family, "He told us that he'd made a special dish called Piano Chicken," she says with a laugh.

My friend Peach once tried to roast chestnuts. She didn't bother reading a recipe; she figured she could just bake them at 400 degrees "for a while." She made the mistake of opening the oven to check on them and had to hit the floor as the chestnuts shot out like bullets. Another friend of mine, Chris, had no idea that you should pierce the skin of a potato before baking it, and was forced to spend an hour cleaning mashed potato off her oven walls before she could use it again.

Then there are people like Dan. Dan thinks nothing of throwing together Spanish tapas for twelve, and he made our Thanksgiving perfect, from the turkey he somehow set on fire with brandy to three different kinds of pies baked with his own special lard & butter crust. (You should have seen my daughter's face when he told her that he used 14 sticks of butter to make our holiday meal.)

Dan is the one my friend Deborah turns to when she wants to ask a question about braising beef or seasoning roasted vegetables, and he and our friend Mary can carry on a conversation about different types of Mexican peppers for hours. Dan and I once went to a dinner party where one of the women had just returned from a tour of different olive oil producers in Italy; I have never seen a happier man. Meanwhile, that woman's husband and I talked about our dogs.

What makes the difference between a cook like Dan and somebody like me, whose efforts often result in meals like volcanic eggs, or those shortbread cookies I made where I forgot to put in the flour, even though that was one of just four ingredients? Is it genetics? Interest? Experience? Or just the ability to pay attention in the kitchen for more than 12 minutes?

I have no idea. I only know that, when Dan cooks, there's no place like home.