First of all, on this last day of February, I can happily announce that this morning, I actually saw the street curb! We have had a couple of days of thawing, after a week of constant blizzards and Alberta Clippers coming through, so when the late February sun hits the snow, even when it’s 26 degrees ABOVE zero as the high, things start to melt. This is also very good news, since it means that in a couple of weeks, we will once again be able to see out of our window wells in the basement. Right now, it’s a bit of a tomb in each of the rooms, even with a window well that is 8 feet wide, 5 feet high, and 6 feet deep. Full of snow. Dirty snow right now…
I did my year long seminary internship in New Orleans, now 42 years ago. Half the time was spent working at a church in uptown, and half was spent teaching English to disadvantaged students who were freshman at the University of New Orleans. It was an interesting juxtaposition, for sure, and I can’t imagine I would have ever lived in New Orleans other than the internship.
New Orleans, or N’Orlins, or Nawluns, is truly one of our countries “unique” cities, along with a few others, like San Francisco and Las Vegas. From its music, to its culture, its food – and just the entire Carnival/Mardi Gras season – it’s really like no other. I have visited back there a number of times over the years, and found myself doing what most folks who live there do every day. At lunchtime, you spend time talking about where you are going to go for dinner! Hundreds of different restaurants to choose from, even after you have decided whether you are going for fine dining, or just good eating. Po’boys, gumbo, jambalaya, crawdads, and shrimp, crab, and alligator, not to mention washing it down with chicory coffee and maybe a beignet for dessert, or just a pecan praline, perhaps… it’s all good, and it’s all GOOD.
Over the past couple of months, Cheri and I have experimented in trying to replicate some of the dishes we enjoyed when we were there. We made jambalaya, and even baked a “king cake,” which is more of a bread like pastry, with almond filling rolled up inside, and then shaped in a big circle, like a donut, which is then baked, and the slathered with icing on top, which is then sprinkled with yellow, green and purple sugars. New Orleans food is nothing if not excessive! And don’t forget to hide the little plastic baby in the cake somewhere. Whoever gets the piece of the king cake with the baby in it gets the “privilege” of hosting the next king cake party. I remember one cartoon I saw where the husband is talking to the wife, and says, “If you get the baby – swallow it…” King cakes are usually only made during Epiphany, and never in Lent, since Mardi Gras is the time to get rid of all the fats and oils in your home, to prepare for the starkness of the Lenten fasting season.
Yesterday, we decided to thumb through one of the cookbooks we bought on a trip to the Big Easy, that showcased the unique dishes of the city. We found one in particular that sounded great. It was “crab au gratin.” Lots of butter and cream, with a little cayenne pepper and a truckload of crab meat, sprinkled on top with buttery toasted bread crumbs and then broiled in the oven. Doesn’t that sound great? We thought so, and so we went about getting the stuff we needed for the dish, even buying some small ramekins to make the individual dishes.
It's actually not a difficult dish to make. It’s just a bit harder to make it so it tastes good. Also, it was a good culinary lesson to realize you ought not to trust everything that you find in a cookbook – especially one that is sold to tourists. My first error, I think, was that I got canned crabmeat, instead of some good fresh stuff. It’s also a problem, in that you have to open the crab can with a can opener. This signals a primordial instinct among the three cats we have at home, who have believed since they were kittens that the sound of a can opener means either cat food is being prepared, or someone is having tuna – both of which send them running into the kitchen, howling and crying as though they hadn’t eaten for days, but in truth, they are just little pigs who like to beg and see if they can get a morsel, a taste, a chunk of the good stuff.
We followed the directions exactly as they were written – same amounts, even to the white pepper, and making the roux with the flour and butter. We ladled the mixture into the little bowls, covered them with the buttery bread crumbs, and then according to directions, put them in the oven to broil for 3-4 minutes.
Now, I was standing at the oven at about the 2-minute mark, and I noticed the aroma not unlike when you set the toaster on too long, and your toast looks more like ebony than nicely tanned. I opened the oven to check on things, and sure enough, each of the small dishes looked like they had been topped with Oreo cookies, and not in a good way. They weren’t flaming, fortunately, but they were looking more like blackened catfish than crab au gratin.
Still, I thought there might be hope yet, if we were to simply scrape the darkest parts off the top. Two other facts of nature came into focus at that moment. As I attempted to scrape off the crumbs, I noticed that instead of a nice first “au gratin” density that should have been part of the dish, for some reason, it had the consistency of “crab soup.” I’ve had bowls of cereal that held together better. It wasn’t even like a bad batch of oatmeal – it was, as they say, “loose as a goose.” I went back and looked at the recipe again, thinking I had just missed something that might serve as thickener. Nope. It was a form of milky seafood broth. This was not what I had either planned or hoped for.
Also, it was cold. Now, I truly believe, if I had been boiled on top of a stove, and then broiled in the oven, I doubt I would be cool to the touch! This creation, however, was vichyssoise – with crabmeat instead of onion, but it was still just plain cold, with burnt bread crumbs on top. We tried heating it in the microwave, but it still came out as a hot broth, but no thicker.
Did I say two other facts? I meant three. The final blow was that Cheri tasted it, she gently announced that beyond the cream, it had absolutely no taste whatsoever. Apparently, instead of three cans of choice lumpy crabmeat flavoring the dish, the dish itself somehow turned on its own, and sucked any noticeable flavor right out of the au gratin.
When this happens to a dish that you have worked hard to prepare, it’s only natural that everyone pitch in to change the name of the food you would have eaten. It became “crab au rotten,” and “crab no wantin” and even “crap au gratin.” The garbage disposal gave the dish its final send off, and everyone was left to find their own way in terms of a supper fare.
Now, I’m a pretty good cook. I do most of the meals for the family, and most of the time, things turn out quite well, actually. And I don’t just make one or two dishes – I’ve cooked a wide array of cuisines, and dishes, even turkey dinners, and prime rib roast. This, however, took me down, I must say. I didn’t believe that I had failed the meal – it was that the meal had failed me, and to follow those directions so closely, and have it become nothing more than a burial at sea was pretty frustrating.
For the first few minutes, the family actually was pretty sympathetic, and did not assign blame to me for the failure of the meal. Unfortunately, I ranted on a bit too long, and they grew tired of my personal pity party, and either walked away, or in so many words, told me to just get over it.
And so I did. I guess there will be other meals to succeed in making, and maybe even some that I won’t. And we have all had that wise person show up in our life and speak quietly and sincerely – “You know, sometimes that’s just what life is about. No matter how hard you work, sometimes, things don’t turn out the way you hoped.” You see, I believe that, and I also believe that when things don’t turn out, it’s not necessarily because we have not been intentional (lots of “nots” and “don’ts” in that sentence….). When we don’t care, or don’t act intentionally, we certainly have a much better chance of failure, or making a mess. When we do try, though, and then fail, the more important thing is the effort, the process, more than the finished product. Thomas Edison, it is said, failed 10,000 times before inventing/perfecting the light bulb. That’s a lot of wasted crabmeat. Sometimes, though, you just need to look at a different recipe. Sometimes, you have to summon up a different technique. Sometimes, you just have to dump it all in the trash and try again another day. The blessing that is ours is that God so very often gives us another day, another chance, another time to hope, and perhaps another time to succeed. Sometimes, God simply whispers in our ear, “It’s ok – you truly did do your best. Don’t beat yourself up about it – just try again…”
So, I’m sure we will. I’ll find a different recipe, buy some different crab, and enjoy success at some point in the future. Maybe not today, but sometime…
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.