What I Learned From My Latest Kitchen Disaster

Recognizing when you’re in over your head and embracing the humility is way more important than proving that you can do it all.
Publish date:
September 16, 2013
cooking, birthday dinner, taking on too much

Birthdays are a big deal in my book. It’s your time to shine, to be celebrated. Look at you, making another revolution around the sun. Schmancy!

My husband’s birthday was a few days ago, and as tradition has it, that meant making him a special dinner. Actually the b-day dinner custom started back when he was a kid. His mother asked her three children what meal they would like her to prepare, and his kid response was pretty respectable: fried chicken, sautéed greens, biscuits, and Boston cream pie for dessert. He’s had it every year since. Every. Year.

I liked the idea, the sweetness of it, and happily took over as Fab Birthday Meal Maker when we got together nine years ago.

I can’t front. In those early years, I took the easy road on this thing: bakery-bought cheesecake, market-made garlic spinach, and just-add-water box biscuits. The only thing I actually put my back into was the fried chicken. I lucked out and found a step-by-step, Martha Stewart recipe 10 years ago and still have the tattered thing tucked into a cookbook. Mind you, I was a vegetarian back then, so the whole “I’m frying chicken for my man” part of this was doubly impressive.

As I got more confident and competent in the kitchen (my repertoire was limited to veggie and fool-proof options), I started easing up on the ready-done’s and instead leaned into making more of this dinner from scratch. For a couple of years things went well.

That is until they didn’t.

The gist of what went wrong is the same as with most mini kitchen disasters: I was doing too much at once.

Also, I blame it on the egg whites. They had it in for me from the first crack. Clearly they weren’t trying to help, and the first two sponge cakes (of course the recipe called for two) didn’t come out looking right, all pale and crumbly. This is the point in the misadventure where I was supposed to scrap making Boston cream anything, and go directly to Whole Foods to buy a solution. But foolish pride bubbled up.

You have to make this thing from scratch! You’ve made chocolate cream pies, cheesecakes, breads, pumpkin loaves, and pastry before. Don’t let this one break you! You're going to write about all of this. Get it together, woman!

So, naturally, I looked up a different recipe for the cake and started completely anew. Brilliant. I know.

By this point, though, we’re well into the afternoon and I had to leave to pick up my son and begin Mama Time back at home while also finishing up the chocolate glaze and the sponge cake and getting the eggs to room temp and starting the biscuits and heating the oil for the dredged chicken and chilling the custard and making a quesadilla for the youngster and telling him nine different times that the cake wasn’t ready yet and manning the food processor, the stand mixer, the whisk, three burners, the oven, and an iPhone with my recipes.

All of it added up to too much and soon distilled into a puddle of ridiculous. When the birthday guy finally got home late I was ready to rake the entire mess from the counters like some sloppy soap opera starlet and wall-sliding into tears. Man. When keeping it real in the kitchen goes wrong.

My husband enjoyed the chicken and was grateful for my efforts with everything, including the rubbery cake and flapjack-style biscuits. (Oh, you already know we had to skip the sautéed spinach. No time for even that.)

I kept calling the dinner a "disaster," not realizing how much all my soggy complaining was raining on the man’s special day. That’s when he said something that clicked:

“Sometimes you need to do less to do more.”

Yes, Yoda. Yes! I was pushing when I needed to pull back, trying to force nineteen things on a tray that could only hold four. And all the pressure -- unnecessary and useless -- made the pipe burst, washing away any gains I'd made over the last few years.

Recognizing when you’re in over your head and embracing the humility is way more important than proving that you can do it all. That night after I logged that lesson, I packed up the leftovers in the fridge. The Boston cream pie wreckage is still in there now, making faces at me every time I get the butter. But it’s OK. I make a face right back, because soon that bitch will be in the garbage and I’ll be here on the winners’ bench, waiting for my next opportunity to take a chance, try something ambitious and new, and do my best--with a little less.