Kitchen mistakes: Toll House cookies, potato chips and Popsicles

July 27, 2021
a photo of leg of lamb
Try Bill St. John’s “mistake” marinade recipe for leg of lamb.

Accidents happen, especially in the kitchen.

I do not refer to knife cuts on fingers, or when the burn stings, or bright copper kettles boiling over, or any other least favorite thing.

I mean, rather, adding too much salt to the soup that you then cannot remove, or whipping the egg whites into peaks stiffer than those you see out the window to the West, or forgetting to turn down the oven in Step 3 of the recipe, unfortunately after it is way. too. late.

Now what?

Well, take a deep breath and channel Julia Child. Until bagged salad came along, she was the best thing to happen to the American kitchen. Unpretentious, always laughing, happily sloppy on occasion, she did not fear the cooking mishap. She just trudged on.

Do you remember the famous moment from her TV show when she clumsily flipped a potato cake and sent it flying out of the pan and onto the floor? She picked it up, put it right back in the pan, and said into the camera, “If you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?”

When once asked about what she did with her culinary mistakes, she said—in that falsetto, fluttering, Cambridge warble —“I feed them to my husband.”

Did the chocolate soufflé fall? Call it “’bombe’ au chocolat,” she said. Cookies burnt in spots? “Crumble them and put them on the ice cream.”

She always entertained and she always taught, especially in the case of the kitchen mistake, not to cook so seriously that it gets in the way of your food.

It also helps to put on the perspective specs and to see your cooking flub within the formidable history of cooking mishaps that turned a frown upside down. Cake.

For instance, the original Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce was a mistake. In 1838, Lord Marcus Sandys returned to England from his time in India and fancied flavors that he had tasted there. So, he asked two pharmacists, John Lea and William Perrins, to fashion him something based on his recollections. They did, but to them—and a disappointed Lord Sandys—their batch was unpalatable.

But Lea and Perrins left the concoction in their cellar where, unattended and unbeknownst to them (until they happened to taste it a couple of years later), it metamorphosed into one of the great condiments of the western world.

The potato chip was a mistake (chef George Crum, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1853). Toll House cookies were a mistake (Ruth Wakefield, eastern Massachusetts, 1930s). The popsicle? A mistake. (Frankie Epperson, San Francisco area, 1905).

Indeed, some of the great foods and beverages of all time were not planned or preordained at all.

Beer wasn’t invented by some dude in a flannel shirt tinkering with hops levels, but likely about 10,000 years ago by a Mesopotamian who unthinkingly left out his soupy barley porridge in the Sinai sun. The wettened grain fermented and suddenly suds.

I imagine wine got its start in a similar way, an ancient Persian with bad aim having sat down on some grapes that he was about to eat and, angry with himself, marched his derrière to the washroom, forgot about the mishap, came back a few days later and found the puddle of grape juice to have, um, changed.

And cheese. Who could have come up with cheese as a good idea? Bossie didn’t; it’s spoiled milk. Unless you play with it a lot after it turns rotten, it just stays bad yogurt.

Someone once had had to say, “Away with these curds!” but then had second thoughts, didn’t want to waste, and put the glop into—of course! why didn’t I think of that?!—a calf’s stomach. Where, in combination with the wild bacteria forever in our air (and even in the air of an empty calf’s stomach), the rennet native there further coagulated and firmed the curds into the first cheese.

Beer, wine, cheese—perhaps most things fermented—have been mistakes, yes, but also miracles that we have inherited down through the millennia in the kitchen and cellar. We have played with these miracles to our great pleasure.

Look how we’ve turned all the accidents that happened with simple things such as grains and grapes, salts and milks, coagulants and adjuncts, into thousands of delicious tastes and flavors. All now, of course, we merely do it all on purpose.

What a marvel it was to take a newbie cheese that wasn’t much more than farmer’s cheese, toy with it, mold it, let it dry and age, and turn it into, say, a Cheddar from England, or a Parmigiano-Reggiano from northern Italy. What other miracle was it to have found that the milk of not only cow, but also of nanny and yak and mare and camel and water buffalo and reindeer and moose and ewe too all make cheese?

And what a delight it was to combine, in one case, the additional mistake of leaving cheese in the presence of fuzzy-moldy bread to later find that even more mold makes marvelous cheeses (bloomy rinds such as Brie and its brothers, or the blues that we call Roquefort or Gorgonzola).

And was it error—or genius—to somehow figure out that, if someone splashed salty water and liquor all over aging cheeses (I mean, again, honestly, who’d a thunk?), they could come up with the funkiest, most odiferous, gooiest, stickiest, and yet most ethereal and heart-stoppingly delicious, cheeses that ever came to be (such as Époisses or Gruyère)?

Who knows what other terrific tasty is somewhere, somehow accidentally coming to be?

The recipe here is my own fix on a mistake. The original marinade listed apple cider as an ingredient. I misread it to be apple cider vinegar, slightly a different thing. But underneath all the sour was a tasty tang. So, I ratcheted way down the level of vinegar and kept it, omitting the apple cider alone altogether. It’s one of the most favored meats that I grill.

Grilled Marinated Butterflied Leg of Lamb

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

1 4-6 pound leg of lamb, boned and butterflied

1/2 cup cider vinegar

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (Lea & Perrins works, but there are others)

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 teaspoons dried mint leaves

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

2-3 lemons, halved at their equators

Directions

Mix all the ingredients together except for the lamb and lemon halves. Marinate the lamb for at least two hours, in or out of the refrigerator, turning occasionally. After marinating, if the lamb has been in the refrigerator, let it come to room temperature.

Prepare a grill with two heat zones, one very hot, the other less so. Remove lamb from the marinade and grill over the hottest portion of the grill, covered, until well-crusted on both sides, 5 minutes each side.

Place on the less-hot portion of the grill and continue cooking for 15-25 minutes more, covered and turning just a couple of times, or until the interior temperature of the lamb reaches 130 for medium-rare (the lamb will continue to cook while resting).

Transfer the lamb to a cutting board, loosely tent with foil, and let it rest for at least 10 minutes or for up to 1/2 hour. Brush the lemon halves on their flat sides with olive oil and grill them, flat side down, until nicely charred and blackened, about 3-5 minutes. Thickly slice the lamb against the grain and serve with the lemon halves for squeezing.

Reach Bill St. John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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