January 14, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
“Please don’t confront me with my failures,” sang Nico. “I have not forgotten them.” I can sympathize. Said failures are particularly difficult to forget when they sit glowering at you from your refrigerator. I have often pitied noncooks who will never know the gratification of perfecting a recipe or the sense of achievement that comes from transforming disparate ingredients into something nourishing and pleasurable. But by the same token, these people will never know the heartbreak of a recipe gone wrong.
In her classic essay collection More Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin writes of attempting to make a custard in an inadequately equipped rental-house kitchen. When the mixture curdled, “I remember flinging the pot into the sink and flouncing out of the house in tears, which I wept bitterly in a pine wood surrounded by clavaria and Indian pipes.”
My mother recalls a similar incident from her childhood in Palo Alto. Her own mother, never the most confident of cooks, somehow screwed up a lemon-meringue pie (there are many components to screw up) and, most uncharacteristically, hurled the misshapen pie out the window in a fit of tearful frustration. To this day, says my mother, the memory of rushing out into the yard and gobbling down the offending pastry off the grass with her father and brother remains one of the most thrilling of her early life.
To the noncook, these reactions probably seem excessive. But anyone who has gone through the process of inspiration, planning, shopping, and cooking understands the sense of total emptiness that accompanies such disappointments. After all, if cooking and feeding are the ultimate in social bonding and expressions of love—and we’re constantly being told such things—then these failures strike at something deep. You’re bad at love. And it’s almost worse when you’re surrounded by people who don’t comprehend your distress, who don’t understand what could have been, and who, worst of all, think whatever they’re eating is perfectly okay. More than once I have sat tight-lipped and miserable through a dish gone wrong—the grotesque Braised Lamb Shank of 2011 springs to mind—while my guests chowed down around me, uncritical and kind and infuriating.
Yesterday I made a tomato pie. Let it be said that, even at its best, tomato pie is a pretty revolting concoction: the classic formulation (most trace their roots back to James Beard) involves a biscuit crust, sliced tomatoes (canned out of season), grated cheddar, and a layer of mayonnaise. It sounds awful, but, when well prepared, it can be satisfying in a particularly Southern register. It’s not something I serve to guests (not anymore, I mean; I did once, in college) but it is cheap to make, and I figured it would serve as my week’s main fodder.
It’s not a particularly tricky dish to prepare, although between the making of the biscuits, the messy slicing of canned tomatoes, and the grating of cheese, a lot of dishes get used up. I fixed it as I always have, being careful to make allowances for my inaccurate oven, and, while it baked, was filled with the sense of well-being that comes from knowing your week’s meals are taken care of.
Was it the baking powder I used? The on-sale brand of canned tomato? The fact that I substituted a few tablespoons of yogurt for some of the milk? I don’t know. Sometimes luck deserts you. Just as there are periods where everything one cooks turns out well, on other occasions everything you touch is subtly off. Something astrological, perhaps. (My day’s horoscope, while belligerent, was inconclusive: “Don’t listen to those who counsel caution. The only reason they don’t want you to do anything adventurous is because they are worried it will make them look bad. And they’re right, it will—which is all the more reason to do it.”)
All I know is that my tomato pie was, and remains, one of the most disgusting things I have ever put in my mouth. It tastes … strange. Sinister, even. As if somewhere there’s a Dorian Gray tomato pie swanning around delighting people while this one putrefies under the weight of its misdeeds.
As of this writing, I have eaten it for three successive meals. I have tried it hot (awful) and cold (even worse). I have gulped water after every acrid, metallic bite and tried dousing it with vinegar and hot sauce.
Needless to say, it is enormous. Yes, I could throw it away. But it is too soon. Part of this is thrift; I planned to eat this abomination for days, and I will not give in and buy more groceries this early in the week. Part of it is willful self-delusion. I keep thinking that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I remember. But most of it is pure masochism; a part of me feels I must be punished for my failure, or at least experience the guilt of staring at it every time I open the fridge.
I checked out today’s Sally Brompton to see what the stars had to say, tomato pie–wise. My worst fears were confirmed. “Over the next few days it will feel like you have turned a corner, that better days are coming. They probably won’t arrive for a few weeks yet but because you know they are on their way you can start making plans.” As I suspected, the pie and I are locked in a fierce, sick battle of wills. We will be living together for a very long time.