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The Walnuts Disaster of 2006

[My column in the Sunday magazine.]

The other day, my wife, who is the kind of person who believes there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, or, more specifically, a perfect and an imperfect way, decided that her fancy dinner party would require a really exquisite salad of arugula, baby greens, roasted beets and toasted walnuts. It would not only be delicious, but pretty. She had it all planned out. Nothing could go wrong. [Cue ominous music foreshadowing imminent disaster.]

Mary is an attentive person who has great powers of concentration, honed by years of standing on her head in yoga class. But this time, she got distracted and forgot the walnuts under the broiler. Complications ensued. Fire, for example. Black, billowing smoke. The chef was forced to use the most dreaded of cooking implements, the fire extinguisher.

The immolated walnuts became aerosolized in the form of a soot that spread throughout the house. Soot is an ingenious mechanism for discovering air flow in a home. One notices soot particularly on white pillowcases and white upholstery. Its natural response to any attempt to remove it is to smudge.

Surveying the Walnuts Disaster of 2006, I wondered if calamity is an unappreciated part of life, the way a forest fire is critical to the forest ecosystem. Perhaps the walnuts would serve a diagnostic function. Perhaps the walnuts, in all their sooty blackness, were a clarifying agent that would let us see the house for the first time in years. The soot had invaded every open cabinet and closet, settled on tops of doors and in remote crevices and vents, and behind objects that hadn't been noticed since the Reagan administration.

It made us look up, to those spaces above the eyeball line, where dust forms sedimentary layers that preserve the geological history of the house. A good sedimentologist would surely find, on top of the window frames, molecular evidence of what people cooked in the 1930s. Such as isotopes consistent with a diet heavy in turnips.

At one point, I looked behind the refrigerator, at the coils, and what I saw was not meant to be seen by human eyes. It was scuzz growing on more scuzz. It was schmutz proliferating orgiastically. It was as bad as one of those shows on Fox.

When you first buy a house, you think of it as an inanimate collection of rooms. But a house is more like a complex organism. Even though it may look presentable, you know that it is gradually disintegrating, that its arteries are clogging. In my house we have learned, over time, to ignore the things that are broken, the accumulated crud in the louvers, the peeling paint, the scuff marks and dents and divots. But after the walnuts fire, our eyes opened, and we realized [cue shrieking violins] that we live in squalor.

I don't want to overdramatize. It's not like we're living in a shotgun shack. But the neighborhood has changed. McMansions are sprouting everywhere. When the little old lady around the corner died, the new owners moved her entire house back to the alley and declared that it would henceforth be just a garage. The house built in its place appears to have roughly 18 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and a heliport. Day by day, it becomes more and more obvious that we are the rabble.

Our house is not even a tear-down: It's a burn-down.

And so it goes for our human existence as a whole. Let's face it, I'm entering the phase in which there is nothing left but decay and death. My buddies and I talk all the time about how we're in the endgame. We are conscious that our youth has been spent, and there is nothing left but the long march into twilight and the appointment with the grave. Also college tuitions.

Our job is to impose order and decency on this process of degradation. To keep it from getting too ugly. The inevitability of decline and eventual obliteration must not only be acknowledged but embraced. There must be a winter before a spring. The old must give way to the new.

I often say to my wife: "We've had our day. Let's move on so that others may revel in the sunshine." I also like to say, "We need to accept the fact that we're the little people."

She clings, amazingly, to the opinion that the hour is not late, that we are not decrepit, and that we need not resign ourselves to a grim senescence. Instead, she made the remarkable decision to try again with the walnuts. She reloaded. She fired up the broiler. No flames this time.

And even if the house wasn't perfect, the salad was.

[And now a comment from the boodler known as dr, who posted it last night:

Ah, cooking disasters. One of my hidden talents. I shall regale the boodle with tales that will make your blood run cold, but only when you go into your kitchens.

I was once making tea for my mother-in-law in my lovely bright yellow enamel teapot. I put the water on and went to sit and talk with her in the living room. About 45 minutes later, I thought I smelled something funny. You already know where I am going with this, since a teakettle on a electric stove for 45 mintes is long dry. What you may not know is that tea kettles can become one with the burner.

I was learning to make strudel, wild blueberry strudel, but I was lazy and bought the phyllo dough. The strudel turned out lovely. It was golden, picture perfect just like in books. I was so very proud of that pastry. My brother-in-law came by for morning coffee with mr.dr, so I cut them each a piece. They dug in and chewed and chewed and chewed. After a few mintes of this, my brother-in-law took the offending pastry out of his mouth as did mr. dr. In my fervour I had wrapped the parchment paper the phyllo was wrapped in, right in along with all the other yummy ingredients. They both said it tasted really good, it was just more fibre than they needed.

Just after we came to this house, we became hunter central. After a trip, families would arrive, beer and babies in hand and I was in charge of food. These were the days of expando-stew. As you got word people were coming, you just added more potatoes and veggies and you were fine. I once decided that I had better add a little more meat, so down to the freezer. I grabbed two packages of meat from the top, and rushed to get it on in time that it would be tender. The stew smelled lovely, the gravy was wonderfully rich and tasty. It was only when one of the kids came and whispered loudly in his dads ear, that he couldn't eat it, that I discovered that the extra meat I tossed in was liver.

These are just the cream of the crop. The boys always say the taste of home is burned food. They'd have taken those walnuts and thought it was old home week.

I'd like to be able to defend myself, but all I can say is that I love cookbooks, and am a great reader.--dr]

[As you know, we don't care much about page views around here, which gives us the freedom to blog about topics that no one cares about, and to write run-on sentences and make up neomalopropisms and whatnot. Which is why we were interested in this comment from blogger and boodler kbertocci , posted yesterday:

I was listening to NPR while cleaning my kitchen cabinets this afternoon. There was an interview with the editor of Business 2.0 magazine.

The new deal at that magazine is that all the writers will now have blogs and they will be paid according to how much traffic their blog generates.

The interviewer thinks that's a very bad idea. He says, "I worked in the newspaper business for many years. Oftentimes when I wrote something that was controversial, and the subject of the article objected to what was written, the person would say, 'Oh you guys are just trying to sell papers.'

"I would say, 'What, do you think I'm on commission?'

"Now the writers won't be able to say that."-KB]

By Joel Achenbach  |  November 5, 2006; 6:33 AM ET
 
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