Spinning Spaghetti Sauce Cans and Other Kitchen Anomalies

The electric can opener in my kitchen is such an indispensable small appliance that it never occurred to me the potential it could have for making a huge mess. Enter: The Spinning Sauce Can Incident.

For years I had struggled with the difficulty of opening spaghetti sauce jars and tried every brand before deciding that the Ragu, Prego and all other sauce makers had sincere grudges against old people with arthritic hands. What a victory it was to look higher on the grocery store shelf and discover Hunt’s sauce in cans. I bought two.

When the big spaghetti cooking day arrived, I put the can under the gear of the opener and pressed the activating handle on top while trying to support the bottom of the can with a very painful left shoulder joint that won’t allow an elbow bend of more than 90 degrees. The opener went wild with spinning, and once the lid was completely loosened, the little magnet held only the disconnected lid. I was sure the gear would not hold the can since it was one of those chubby, 24 oz. sized. It spun about ten complete turns when I also found out that my right arthritic thumb was not able to loosen the lever readily. Images of red sauce flying all over panicked me.

Disconnecting the plug crossed my mind, but I would have needed a functional third arm. Finally, I worked my right thumb under the activating lever and gave silent thanks to the Oster Company for creating such a strong little gear. Not a drop was spilled. The experience got me thinking about how my least favorite room in the house is a collection of anomalies, some bordering on absurdities for a person who doesn’t like to cook.

This is a kitchen I have worked in for 46 years, but only recently have I realized it is not “age appropriate” in many ways. When my husband and I first moved to our Leroy home, I was 5’, 4” tall but am shrinking alarmingly. Upper cabinets are out of reach for stacking or cleaning much of anything. Lower ones are too deep to crawl into, although long-handled mops and dusters help. Progressively, I have made an attempt to thin out old-fashioned things, like heavy iron skillets, a four-legged grater, and a Bundt pan. The latter stood a chance of being used sometime after the next 50 years or never. Someone at Giant Eagle can do the baking.

There is nothing more asinine and useless in my kitchen than its collection of cookbooks,  except for once in a great while. At least at a younger age, cooking was “something I didn’t mind doing” and even deluded myself that I might learn to enjoy it. Eventually cooking to me became a necessary evil, and now I have it categorized as one of life’s biggest annoyances. Being what my mother appropriately called me, “a picky eater,” cooking was of little interest to me.

Almost all of my food- related negativity was centered around meat, but it took a long time for me to realize that my mother’s way of cooking beef and pork deserved some of the blame for my attitude. She was a germaphobe, and during my childhood there were huge concerns about undercooked meat, especially pork, which might contain the trichinella parasite and was responsible for a disease called “trichinosis.”

Mom’s habit was to put a beef or pork roast into the oven early in the morning and cook it all day, enough that it shrunk by half and had no moisture left. It is odd to notice how much times have changed. Mothers of my generation ruined many a pork roast because of a potential parasite but allowed us free-range kids wandering rights of many a neighborhood without the slightest fears about kidnappers, child abusers and other deviants as are present nowadays.

I recall sitting at the table trying to roll meat around in my mouth, and it felt like dry, tasteless ball of thread.  Mom wasn’t fond of meat either, and no wonder. Dad, however, had to have his meat and potatoes, and he didn’t like rice or pasta. My mother was one of the sweetest people ever born. I knew that she was a wonderful mother, so combined with my basically passive nature, I was far too sensitive to risk hurting her feelings by complaining. I did learn to pig out on the potatoes and almost everything from Dad’s garden, including eggplant, corn and broccoli. Rutabaga and parsnips didn’t make the cut, though.

In addition, I have an outsized squeamish gene about any food that once was a living thing. Seafood, for example, begins and ends with my acceptance of Lake Erie perch, which in reality isn’t SEAFOOD at all. I became very clear about seafood from visits to my dad’s brother in Maine. He was a lobster fisherman, and it took me only one experience at seeing my aunt throw the live lobsters into boiling water to make me bolt out of her kitchen into the dense fog, where getting lost was far superior to watching events in that kitchen.

Many years back I volunteered to make Thanksgiving dinner for my husband’s sister and her family. I got the obligatory turkey, which lucky for me had a “remove the giblets before roasting” label. Reaching inside that bird to pull out that disgusting, slimy wad of innards about did me in. It was my first and last time preparing a turkey.

In another weak moment, at what was then Lutz’s Inn (now Rider’s), Chuck talked me into ordering trout when he said it was just like perch. When it came served with the head still on, Chuck had to hold me down in fear I would run out of the place and embarrass him.

For someone who did not raise children, I have, however, done much cooking in my past but now want food prep to be as simple as possible, with the goal to avoid starvation, rickets, scurvy and ptomaine. Fortunately, my current partner, Patrick, has very simple tastes; his typical choices for a week are, chicken, chicken, spaghetti, vacuum packed rotisserie seasoned turkey, chicken at the Elks, leftover chicken from the Elks, and turkey. (Repeat for Week 2).

With no intentions of consulting a recipe, today I rifled through my cookbook collection only for the purposes of this article because I wanted something to poke fun at. Nothing could suit the purpose as well as a very famous tome, The Joy of Cooking,  by Irma Rombauer and her daughter, Marian Rombauer Becker. Both had obsessive compulsive attitudes about food  designed to drive people like me psychotic. I think most women of my generation know about that cookbook. Mine is the 1964 edition, and there were twelve previous editions, the first being in 1931. My copy was given to me by one of my sisters-in-law as a shower present, and I am sure she considered it indispensable – great cook that she was.

Joy was touted as the most complete cookbook ever published (787 pages plus an index). Once every decade when I consulted it, its reputation was right on. Almost no recipe is complete on any one page. Most of them run something like “Chicken Cacciatore,” – See “Cooking Chicken,” pg. 416.” Then comes the sauce section as in “See sauces for chicken, pg. 702.” One needs to flip through three pages before finding anything remotely like real directions. I would wager that Jesus gave detailed instructions to twelve apostles in less time than it took the Rombauers to test a recipe.

Now, back to the undisputed completeness of Joy. Randomly I opened my copy to about the middle; you will likely think I am making this statement up, but it opened to the chapter on “Game.” The items included things that made me think that some of the early backwoods Leroy hunters, complete with wads of chewing tobacco, submitted directions to the Rombauers, but please bear (pun) with me and read some direct quotes from Joy (with my editorializing in parentheses).

The chapter I randomly opened begins with a short paragraph entitled ABOUT SMALL GAME. The next paragraph is ABOUT RABBITS AND HARES, which begins with “When rabbits and hares are young, the cleft in the lip is narrow, the claws, smooth and sharp. To ensure tender meat, hang the animals by the feet from 1 to 4 days. Some of the most delicious game sauces use blood as a thickener, (Insert gag reflex here). Then follows “To trap and preserve the blood, see page 321”.

 (The “ick factor” in these directions is off the map for people like me. In addition, I once raised a baby wild rabbit and have always been an animal lover. I could not even have lived on a livestock farm and taken anything to slaughter after looking into its big eyes each day. Making the rabbit prep directions worse is that right beside them is a drawing of one hanging by its legs and two hands in rubber gloves pulling the skin off. No pioneering woman lives in this house).

Successive pages cover preparing squirrels, opossums, racoons, woodchucks, beavers and beaver tails, and peccaries. (I didn’t know the word “peccary” and would have guessed that it was a bird. Not quite: the Rombauers called it a pig-like animal.)  Directions for ‘possums include trapping and feeding them milk and cereal for ten days before killing. After a ‘possum is dead, it needs to be immersed in water just below the boiling point, after which hair and several glands need pulled out. One of the other mammals has “kernels” along its back that need removal before cooking.

Just on the chance that someone wants to learn the basics about bear meat recipes, here go the Rombauers, who didn’t notice that bears were part of their overall chapter title “Small Game”( It takes an obsessive/compulsive English teacher to notice worthless trivia like my previous sentence). The bear meat chef is supposed to “Remove all fat from the meat at once as it turns rancid very quickly. If marinaded at least 24 hours in an oil-based marinade, all bear, except black bear, is edible. Cook as for any recipe for beef pot roast, pages 412 – 420. Bear, like pork, can carry trichinosis.” (My father was not a mighty hunter. My mother would have fainted flat out had he brought home some bear meat).

(A final gem at the end of one of these wild game recipes suggests, “Serve with NOODLES, page 384.” Needing to look on a separate page for cooking noodles made me think I must have been doing them wrong for the past 60 years of opening cellophane bags. Of course, this suggestion was followed by a noodle recipe, as if the Rombauers never heard of Mrs. Weiss).

Whenever my culinary limits and icky feelings about food seem overwhelming, I always remember a discussion years ago with my friend Carol Benroth. She and her husband Jan, who does most of the cooking in their home, were having their son over for dinner. Jan prepared and roasted three Cornish hens, apparently without Carol’s knowledge about the menu. When she looked at the fare, not only could she not eat them but needed to leave the room. Things could have been worse. What if the meal had been served in someone else’s home in which they were the guests?

Now our thinking can jump to the present when we have entire generations dependent on fast food that comes through a window with no sign of its origin.

I wonder if The Joy of Cooking is out in a new and improved edition. It probably is. The world is really lucky if Marian Baker had a daughter or two to take up the task of editing for fast food generations. I will be very sexist here and just say that if she had a son, he was unlikely to inherit his mother’s perseverance.

I should really do the culinary-challenged a huge favor by publishing MY idea for a cookbook. (Notice I said, “should do,” not “will do”). I would call it The 5/3 Antithesis Cookbook to The Joy of Cooking. It would have 13 pages, not nearly 800. The 5/3 is a reference to each recipe’s maximum of five ingredients and its maximum of three, one-line instructions. Almost every recipe would have a can of soup listed, mostly the cream kinds as the only differences between cream of mushroom, celery, asparagus and chicken are the sizes of chunks in each. Run out of one, throw a different one into the mix. Also, the cook should be sure to have an Oster can opener and a ceramic covered stovetop.

Instructions would always refer to “plop pots.” My lower kitchen cabinet doesn’t contain anything qualifying as “cookware.” Rather, the plop pots are lightweight and roomy containers designed to hold meat from a cellophane- covered tray or a vacuum -sealed sleeve of plastic; one cuts off the end of the package and squeezes the meat out until it plops into the pot.

The last page of my cookbook would be an index with three alphabetical listings: Campbells,  Progresso and Store Brands. A single person could get along so well with the 5/3 cookbook. Young people should not even glance at it because it might ruin their aspirations about becoming the next Rombauer competitors.

Older women know better, but older women who happen to be cooking for a man are best off with one completely ignorant about food. Patrick, a life-long bachelor, survived most of his previous decades on tasteless hospital food and also says his mother wasn’t much of a cook. Perfect! He doesn’t know the difference between a can of Cambell’s and an eight- ingredient sauce that had to simmer all day.

Although the cooking tome overall is the best example of a kitchen anomaly for me, I have created or just lived with many more. Struggle as I might, I have never achieved NEATNESS, and there is no room in a home that cries out for neatness more than a kitchen does.

Two junk drawers occupy the space right next to my cookbook drawer. Many necessary items are there, along with assorted appliance cords that probably fit nothing because what they were for has long since croaked. Then there are flashlights, which in my house double as receptacles for dead batteries. There are tubes of ossified glue, along with a broken plastic statue of a very pregnant young gal with a line under her saying, “Kilroy was here.” I have saved the statue to put in front of any friend with a sense of humor, except I usually forget to do so.

The cupboard above my refrigerator is a never-never land of I don’t know what. I have no step stool tall enough for access because the fridge sticks out too far. Now the fridge itself is a disaster, partly because of my limited arm use but also because refrigerators are surely designed by engineers who have never had to clean one, namely MEN. There are all kinds of molded plastic materials that can be designed without cracks and crevices, but no one designing fridges seems to know the word “smooth.”

Continuing clockwise around my kitchen are two wonders of the modern world: the dishwasher (not me) and the stove with a ceramic top – no deep cracks acting as magnets for what boils over. (And, I hereby offer an apology to dear friend Carol Lewis. She was the RHS home economics teacher who tried in vain to get the rest of us to call that big cooking appliance “the RANGE.” One would think she was a vocabulary teacher in her spare time).

Once a year, always in winter, my grumpy neatness gene takes over, and I clean my entire home like a possessed dervish. The effort didn’t get far this year as a fall left me with a fractured hip in February, adding to the limitations of the arms and hands. As an example of wonderful foresight on my part, Patrick lives with me and is an orthopedic surgeon who goes into his grumpy mode if his nurses get his instruments in the wrong order.

However, left to his own devices in my kitchen for three weeks as I re-learned how to walk after he did a perfect and painless hip surgery, he re-arranged my cupboards. The dish detergent was right beside the raisins just because there was an open spot there to shove it in. Dishes were stacked with the smallest ones underneath the largest. He had watched me make hundreds of baked potatoes over the years in the microwave but had to ask how to do it when I wasn’t functioning yet.

He wondered why the exhaust fan above the RANGE never got used, and I told him it didn’t work. He is a “fix-it guy” who can’t stand to see broken things. He took the two knotty pine boards off above the switch and tore the old fan parts down to use for finding new ones. He was happy to find them readily, but in attempting assembly, discovered there was no wiring up there at all, in spite of there being an exhaust opening outside. I had told him that the house was strange in many other ways than just its crooked walls.  All the old pieces, including the boards, are still lying on the table where he put them in February. He never complains about my messiness, and the important issue is that he has never left someone’s body part behind at his surgical scene.

It doesn’t help that my penchant for leaving preserved food on the counter, along with dirty dishes in the sink, invites problems. An opened bag of raisin bran that we had left by the coffeepot took on a life of its own, literally. I went to pour some and noticed the flakes were moving – ants – those big, sweet-eating devils raced out of the bag and headed up my arms. Pat got some of those “guaranteed to kill” ant traps. They don’t work well. So much for cereal manufacturers who claim their foods are low in sugar. My kitchen has had many ant tenants every summer. Chuck once told me it was no wonder – “Their mother feeds them so well.”

As soon as I get a new shoulder joint, I am going to overcome that pesky/ messy DNA that has plagued me all my life.

But before closing, I think it would be interesting to know if any of my former English students remember the meaning of “oxymoron.” If so, can you also figure out why I consider the title The Joy of Cooking an oxymoron?

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