Last week, the Guardian ran a hilarious article about “dodgy recipes,” including a “bizarre creation” by legendary chef Ferran Adrià: a Spanish tortilla full of crushed potato chips, which food writers—who normally wet their pants at the mere mention of Adrià—deemed a giant recipe FAIL.
More baffling, no, more sickening, was the appearance of Jean-Christophe Novelli’s latest Orangina-based (cough, funded) attempt to encourage us Brits to stop being so boring – an Orangina and smoked salmon timbale. Food writer Xanthe Clay, whose children were left traumatised after eating it, described it on Twitter as the “love child of a 70s buffet and a 70s airline dessert … Odd” and in a subsequent blogpost as “mesmerizingly nasty”.
Setting aside the pragmatic, if not egregious reasons for such a recipe’s inception, these aberrations are an important reminder of the fallibility of cookery writers. There aren’t many of us who don’t have a recipe or five they’d rather were forgotten – that attempt to be wacky that misfired, the ill-conceived combination that seemed so clever at the time, that bold endeavour to fly by the seat of our pants that ended in naught but a wedgie.
My mind immediately went to a “dodgy recipe” that has lingered long in the memory of my own family: the infamous “cranberry chicken” made by my late and much-beloved grandmother.
Grandmee was in many ways an excellent cook—she had a bachelor’s degree in home economics and taught the subject for many years. She was a terrific baker, and I still dream about the fresh peach and blackberry ice cream we used to make every summer. But like most women her age, Grandmee’s meals owed much to the cuisine of the mid-20th century—the Dark Ages of US cooking. Canned stuff. Dried stuff. Frozen stuff. Bottled stuff. Things like fresh garlic and olive oil were seen as exotic and slightly suspect. Curry or chiles were handled as cautiously as a live grenade.
Our family’s dish of mesmerizing nastiness came from a recipe in Ladies’ Home Journal or Family Circle or one of those magazines and consisted of the following trifecta of awfulness:
1 can jellied cranberry sauce (the kind that slides out of the can with a moist sucking sound with the little ridges of the can still impressed upon it)
1 bottle of Catalina salad dressing (a spicy tomato and high fructose corn syrup-based concoction)
1 packet of Knorr Onion dried onion soup mix (as seen in other American classics like meatloaf and sour-cream dip)
Mix together. Pour over unsuspecting chicken parts. Bake in a casserole dish until bubbly.
I confess that when this was set in front of me, I couldn’t eat it. And I will eat most things. I can’t even excuse myself by saying I was a little kid at the time; I wasn’t. I was in my early teens and had been raised to eat whatever Grandmee made, even if I wasn’t crazy about it (which rarely happened, because the lady was truly a good cook). But this was sweet and sour and salty and oniony and MSG-laden and a nightmarish combination of things that really, really didn’t go together…so I faked a stomachache. I don’t think I was fooling anyone. I know I wasn’t fooling my mother, and she got her smarts from Grandmee, so I’m fairly sure I wasn’t fooling Grandmee either. MamaSharper did, however, smuggle me a bread-and-butter sandwich that night before bed and admit that the Cranberry Chicken hadn’t exactly been her favorite, either. I’m sorry, Grandmee. I love you and miss you. But that chicken was awful.
I know we have many avid cooks and eaters among us…what’s the biggest recipe/culinary FAIL you’ve ever encountered (or were responsible for)? Please share in the comments—although this may be one of the few food-related threads where we DON’T want to swap recipes…except as cautionary tales.
P.S. You may also enjoy one of my all-time internet favorites: James Lileks’s Gallery of Regrettable Food, a site devoted to the culinary horrors of American recipes from the 1940s-60s.