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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

An Overdue Apology

May 15, 2020

I have a long-overdue apology to make. In the early days of my writing career I used a lot of column inches making fun of my wife’s cooking. We were newlyweds and she was learning her way around the kitchen. I was thinking about how she used to cook the other day as she was preparing another shelter-in-place meal for our family.

I decided to look back through some of those early columns I wrote about her cooking over two decades ago. I discovered two things while sorting through those old columns: 1.) I am amazed that my early writing made it into print. It was bad. 2.) I am fortunate that my wife never stabbed me in my sleep after writing about her cooking. Three of the stories actually made it into my third book, “Nobody’s Poet.”

One of the first columns I wrote about my wife’s cooking was about a baking incident that occurred just months after we were wed.

Before I begin this one, readers should know that I love my wife more than life itself. She is an exceptional person and my best friend. She is an excellent mother. She is smart, she is fun, and she is beautiful. She makes me laugh. She challenges my intellect (she’s got it easy in that department) and she is completely devoted to our family. She is my rock.

And then there is her cooking.

My newly wedded wife wanted to make a cake: yellow cake with chocolate icing, my favorite. This was her first attempt at baking a cake.

The reader should know, that even though I am a highly trained foodservice professional, she doesn’t like me to be in the kitchen while she is cooking. I offer helpful hints, she shuns me.

Back to the cake. She used cake cans that were too small, and the cake rose unevenly creating a dome that came to a rounded peak in the center. A pastry chef would know to take a knife and cut horizontally, using the top of the pan as a guide, to flatten out the cake so it could be stacked and iced. That is the suggestion I would have made had I been allowed in the kitchen.

Then she iced the cake immediately. Once again, had I been in the kitchen I would have explained the principle of cooling a cake on a cake rack.

She took the least-domed cake and placed it on the bottom, placing the most severely domed cake on top.

She then placed it under the glass cake display. She called me in to see her creation. It was hard to see for the steam around the glass. However, as we stood in our newlywed kitchen looking at my wife’s first baking project, it began to move. Seriously, it moved.

As we watched, a crack began forming down the center of the cake from one side to another. The weight of the cake pulled from its sides and it split down the center. The hot icing oozed down into the crack re-icing the cake in an instant.

We stood there looking at her cake that had instantly transformed into two rounded chocolate ovals with a crack in the center. It looked like a big black butt. I dubbed it the butt cake.

The column goes on to describe how I left the butt cake under the glass display until it grew a lot of green fuzz and a friend who was sleeping over came in late and ate a piece. True story.

Some of those early stories about my wife’s cooking were accurate, but my judgement to put them in print may have caused some cold, lonely nights on the couch. While digging up the old columns I found one I wrote about her mashed potato cooking process.

Normally, my wife won’t let me within 200 yards of the kitchen while she’s cooking. It’s sort of like a gastronomic restraining order for restaurateurs, but the consequences are more severe, and the food is worse. However, I walked into our kitchen last week and witnessed one of the most baffling displays I have ever seen.

My wife was standing at the sink with a paring knife in one hand and a steaming hot potato in the other. The potato was cooked but unpeeled. She was juggling the scalding potato with one hand while trying to peel it with the other. I was actually impressed with her one-handed potato-juggling prowess. Folks, I never went to culinary school, but I would bet my next paycheck that they, almost always, teach that swinging a sharp knife while juggling and trying to peel a hot potato is not a safe and sound kitchen practice.

Typically, when one cooks mashed potatoes, they are peeled, then cubed, boiled and mashed. Not at my house. My wife boils the whole potatoes, unpeeled and then tries to peel them while they are hot. She claims it is easier this way. If you have never seen anyone do this, you should come to my house on mashed potato night. It is a sight to behold.

Her gravy always offered a wealth of column fodder.

My wife is currently listed among the Who’s Who of the Culinarily Challenged. She makes hard-boiled eggs explode. She burns toast. She scrambles eggs until they turn into rubbery green pellets. And any dish she prepares that lists cheese as an ingredient automatically receives 10 times the amount of cheese that was called for in the recipe.

But nowhere are her cooking skills more suspect than in the area of gravy.

I adore my wife, but you can cut her gravy with a knife. Gravy is supposed to be a flowing liquid that is ladled over a meat or starch. My wife doesn’t adhere to that principle. One doesn’t serve my wife’s gravy in a gravy boat accompanied by a gravy ladle, but rather on a large platter with a serving fork.

Erma Bombeck claimed that her family considered gravy a beverage. Well, in my family gravy is considered a meat, one to be eaten with a steak knife.

And about the aforementioned eggs.

Actually, my wife’s eggs are not as much scrambled as they are rubbery-green egg pellets.

I don’t know the exact chemical process that occurs to make an egg turn green, but my wife has discovered it. No, she has perfected it. It is sort of like Easter in reverse. Instead of the shell being dyed, it’s the yolk and whites (make that greens) that are colored.

In addition to being green, their texture is remarkably rubbery.

Simply transferring a plate my wife’s scrambled eggs from the kitchen to the breakfast room is an adventure. They haphazardly roll around on the plate. When walking with a plateful of my wife’s rubbery-green egg pellets, one must be careful to keep the plate level at all times lest the eggs roll off of the plate. My wife is the only person I know whose breakfasts require delivery tips and walking instructions.

Today my wife is an accomplished cook. We figured out an unwritten rule a few years in: She cooks for the family; I cook when friends come over. It works perfectly. I no longer hover in the kitchen and offer unsolicited tips. Well, almost never. She does an excellent job feeding the family, and she handles all of the bartending duties when friends come over. She is quite adept at both.

During these days of sheltering in place, I have come to appreciate her devotion and dedication to our family. I am no longer young and foolish. I do my best keep my comments positive. So far, I haven’t been stabbed in my sleep, and it’s been years since I’ve slept on the couch. Here’s to keeping both of those streaks alive in the coming years.


This week’s recipe: RSJ’s Italian Cream Cake

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