Eating & Drinking: It chops, it slices, it maims, it really hurts
Sunday 21 March 1999
I don't think my heart can stand it anymore. Even my medical insurance company is starting to get twitchy, not quite believing that a grown man can consistently manage to cut, carve, fry, splatter, steam and scald his way to crippledom year after year.
You know those kitchen gadgets that are so safe that even kids can use them? Well, just keep them well out of the way of adults. What those daytime television commercials should really be saying is: "It chops! It slices! It shreds! It maims! It handicaps! It really hurts!"
I'm not talking about obvious hazards like cleavers, cook's knives, saucepans of boiling water, kitchen slicers, or deep fryers. I'm talking about plates, glasses, sinks, spoons, cupboard doors, oven racks, and cake tins. I could find a way to do serious damage with one of those rubber spatulas if I was left alone with one long enough. No doubt I'd trip over it.
Take the day I finally cracked the perfect taramasalata. I had been working on it for weeks, changing the bread here (crusty sourdough), increasing the proportion of cod's roe and lemon juice there, and experimenting with a variety of olive oils. Then, finally, I got it. As it whizzed around in the blender, I could smell that it was perfect, just the right balance of summery spice and tang. It had none of the fluorescent pinkness of commercial versions, but it looked and smelled great.
Then it started to clump. I turned off the blender, lifted the lid and started breaking it up with my hands. (Please, whatever you're about to say, I've heard it already.) Then my hip pushed the "on" button at the front of the machine, and for a split second, my kitchen turned into a scene from an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. I yanked my hand out, but not before the taramasalata turned a pretty shade of rose pink. It was then that my wife walked in. "Wow," she said. "Great colour."
Since then, I have set fire to an untold number of tea towels, grated about six tablespoons worth of knuckles, stuck myself with untold trussing needles, skewers and, on one memorable occasion, an oven thermometer. As for cutting myself, I now buy sticking plasters in bulk from the supermarket, and keep the iodine next to the red food colouring.
Then there was the time I opened several dozen oysters and somehow managed to get a fleck of shell lodged in my palm. It grew into something very round and pearl-like, requiring surgery and an overnight stay in hospital.
The most painful dish I have ever made was Singaporean chilli crab for eight friends all gathered around the kitchen table. I blame myself, though, and not my new wobbly wok. Nowhere in the recipe does it say "pour smoking hot oil over your right hand before adding crab". Fortunately one of my guests was a professional chef, who filled a bucket with ice and water and stuck my hand in it, thereby adding immeasurably to my life skills. I now know how to eat a crab with chopsticks in my left hand.
I know what you're thinking. It's me that's the hazard, and not the kitchen. Only amateurs make mistakes, right? Wrong. I once worked in the kitchen of a very experienced Swiss-trained seafood chef, who had cooked more crabs than another crab would see in a lifetime, in a distinguished career spanning three countries and three decades. Then one day, a careless moment, a loose claw, and wham, 12 stitches in the webbing between thumb and forefinger. Another well-respected chef of my acquaintance lost both eyebrows, and not a little pride, when his trout smoker blew up in his face.
Ask any professional chef to pull up their sleeves, and you'll see the truth. Burn marks, and lots of them, like the gradations on a school ruler. If they're not there, then your chef is obviously an executive chef, too highly placed to do the hands-on, arms-burnt sort of stuff.
Now, if you don't mind, I think you should stand back. I'm about to make a ham and cheese sandwich.
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