The Great Potato Fire

When Ben goes out of town, I generally eat only two things for dinner– Panera Thai chopped chicken salad, or Manwich sloppy joes. The Panera salad would be my number one choice at all times, as I love restaurants but hate buying gigantic pants, so the salad is a good compromise, but it is also fairly expensive, so I have to limit myself. Which leaves me with the Manwich, because I never learned how to cook, and sloppy joes push my culinary skills to the max.

My mother tried to teach me, but I just wasn’t interested. Why learn to cook, when food could just magically appear when someone else cooked it? And as a very anxious person, I tend to worry far too much about cooking to actually enjoy the process– what if I’m doing it wrong? What if this tastes disgusting? What if I poison someone with my inferiorly prepared chicken breast?

But I think the true reason I steer clear of cooking is The Great Potato Fire of 2001.

Allow me to set the scene– it was the end of my first semester in graduate school. My roommate had just moved out, taking with her all of the furniture and the means to pay the cable bill, so I was sitting on the floor in the living room in my pajamas at 3 pm on a Wednesday, sewing a sock monkey as a Christmas present and watching a video cassette of The Mikado that I had gotten from the library. You know, as one does from time to time. I was hungry, but I had no money– and not the “oh, I couldn’t possibly afford sushi and sake!” kind of no money, but the “it’s cool to use washcloths as toilet paper until I can afford to buy more as long as I wash them, right?” kind.

There was no money. But there was a potato.

One big, fat, perfect potato. The kind of potato that begs you to give its worthless existence some meaning by turning it into french fries.

Where I got the idea that I knew how to prepare french fries, I have no idea. I guess when you have no furniture and you’re watching light opera in your pajamas on a weekday afternoon, you develop a sort of hubris that you wouldn’t normally exhibit out in the world. But I went to work, carefully slicing the potato into fries, warming oil on the stove, sliding the potatoes into the pan. Yes, yes! This was all going according to plan! I can cook! Someone call my mom!

I had vague memories of my dad making fries in the Fry Daddy when I was growing up, and it didn’t seem like you needed to stand guard over the Fry Daddy at all times. So I went to check my e-mail.

This, in hindsight, may have been a mistake.

It only took a few minutes before I noticed that something seemed wrong. At first, it was almost imperceptible– the air just started to feel oily, as if I had chosen to skip eating the french fries and intended to inhale them in vapor form instead (a not altogether unpleasant experience– someone call the vape people and get them on this!). By the time I thought to investigate, the vapor had evolved into a white, voluminous smoke– a smoke that turned tornado gray and then erupted into flames before I even made it all the way to the stove.

I had finally done it. I had set my kitchen on fire.

Unsure of how to proceed, but unwilling to die in my pajamas surrounded by sock monkey detritus, I sprinted into the parking lot and began screaming for help. As luck would have it, the maintenance man just happened to be out doing his rounds, and he trotted over, much more slowly than one would hope when one is standing in a parking lot screaming for help. Upon surveying the situation, he calmly opened the cabinet under my sink, removed the fire extinguisher that apparently had been there all along, and put the fire out, simultaneously saving my life and robbing me of the only opportunity I had ever had to use a fire extinguisher under legitimate circumstances.

“There you go,” he said. “Enjoy your day.”

After he departed, I surveyed the damage. The walls behind the stove were scorched black, and the stove itself was enveloped in the pinkish-white foam of the fire extinguisher. I looked forlornly at the cremains of my last potato, swimming in rapidly congealing grease and foam. I had no money. I had no potato. And now I had a giant mess. That I was going to have to clean up myself.

I thought for a moment of simply abandoning the apartment, allowing it to be annexed by the two angry pit bulls that lived next door. But, knowing that if I did so, I would never get my security deposit back (and blissfully unaware in the moment that setting your kitchen on fire pretty much automatically costs you your security deposit, anyway), I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. The pan containing the fries had warped, so rather than try to salvage it, I just carried the whole situation out to the dumpster and threw it in, grease, fries, foam and all. I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning out the nooks and crannies of my stove, and scrubbing (futilely) at the scorch marks on the walls. And in those moments, I learned two very important things:

  1. I had just physically passed through the portal from childhood to adulthood
  2. I was never, ever, ever going to cook anything again if I didn’t absolutely have to

That night, my best friend Ashley took pity on me and bought me a Chick-Fil-A dinner. Soon after, I flew home for Christmas, and when I returned, flush with parent money, I found a second job to ensure that I would always have enough money to keep myself in cereal and restaurant food for the rest of my days.

Ben loves to cook and he is terrific at it, and he has tried to teach me several times, but nothing ever sticks. Maybe if I hadn’t left to check my e-mail the day of the Great Potato Fire, things would have turned out very differently, and I would be a world class cook by now. I like to think that’s true, but honestly, given my attention span, it was never really a question of if I would set the kitchen on fire. It was just a question of when. 

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