Jonathan O'GuinComment

A Catastrophic Post-Mortem: Fail Better

Jonathan O'GuinComment
A Catastrophic Post-Mortem: Fail Better

Why Hello There, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes. Today’s post is unique in the history of the site, and a rather exciting opportunity for me to finally put my money where my mouth is, so to speak.

But first, let me apologize: if you were excited for me to cover Dia De Los Muertos today, I’m apologize. I am a huge fan of the iconography and cultural implications of that holiday, and felt I didn’t give myself enough time to properly cover it and give it the attention it deserved. This is in no small part because, somehow, five hours after writing that it would be Thursday’s topic, I had already completely forgotten, and spent the next 2.5 days trying desperately to come up with something. This is not a new error in my judgment: despite having worn a perfectly serviceable costume to a party on Saturday, I picked my actual Halloween costume literally 25 minutes before I had to be at an event, wearing said costume, causing no small amount of consternation. Again, to all the fans of Dia De Los Muertos, we will come back to the topic, hopefully next year.

Today, we’re going to talk about something else: failure. And, briefly, Samuel Beckett.


You Can Bet it in a Second that Beckett’s Kicked the Bucket

Samuel Beckett was an Irish playwright of the mid-to-late twentieth century. At least, that’s how I knew of him. He was also a novelist and poet. But I mainly knew him for one of his more famous shows: Waiting for Godot. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a play about two men waiting for a third. And…that’s the entire synopsis. Despite what could be the most boring set-up imaginable for a story, the play is wildly famous and popular.


We're talking "I can afford to hire Patrick Stewart AND Ian McKellan for this gig." That's X-MEN levels of popular. 

I won’t go into more, other than to note that the play was taken as a lynchpin production for a movement dubbed “the Theatre of the Absurd”, a series of creative works that followed World War 2 that tended to be…kind of downers. The central argument was that the plays could be tied to the ‘Absurdist’ philosophy of Albert Camus, with the “absurd” being a stand in for…the concept that the world or universe has no meaning, and/or that the forces that change and affect our lives are beyond our comprehension, control, or understanding. When you think of the horrors of World War 2, it’s fairly easy to see why such an argument took hold strongly in the writings of European authors immediately following it.

Paragraph-long summations of decades-spanning literary careers and movements aside, Samuel Beckett has a particular quote that’s been gaining a lot of traction in various circles, particularly ‘lifehacking’ and tech circles: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” The phrase is motivationally potent: short choppy words, hard consonants, simple messaging. Of course, that’s tragically undercut by the fact it comes from a prose piece about… well, it’s somewhat unclear, but it reads to me at first pass like the inner monologue of an idiot God trying to create life and existence and not nothing how, eventually giving up.  Look, I told you his work was something of a downer.  The funnest facts about this guy is he hung out with several famous writers, and drove Andre the Giant to school.


At 12 years old, he was too big for the bus. A problem that Andre would become constantly familiar with through his lifetime.

But, just as with so many things, good lines, taken out of context, tend to last longer than their original intent. So it is that I myself, with this site, could be said to be attempting to help you all “fail better”. It’s at the core of what we do, the mission statement of the site: it’s better to fail trying to cook than not try at all. And if I can fail and help you, then all the better. That’s why today’s accident was so fortunate, in a way. It gave me an opportunity to show you my direct failings, and help walk through them, and hopefully past them. With no further ado, the Failure!


The Lame Event

So, Monday’s post covered a recipe for making sour candied citrus peels. In it, I noted that while the post focused on the lemon peels my dad would prefer, I had also started prep for grapefruit ones, since it’s my citrus fruit of choice.


As you can guess, given how reverently I photographed it here. 

The post never discusses what happened with the grapefruit, because the answer was “nothing.” By the time the Lemon peels were done boiling, it was time to make dinner, so I set aside the grapefruit peels to do “Later”. I didn’t do them Monday, because I tend to not cook after finishing up a post. I didn’t do it Tuesday, because Halloween. So I did it Wednesday; because I worried the peels might go bad if I waited until Saturday.

I took the peels and tossed them in water to boil. While it was going, I prepped the wire rack, the sugar-citric toss, and started discussing the idea of an eventually-coming post of variations of Spam Musubi with my brother. (Stuff like “Thanksgiving Musubi” and “Breakfast Musubi”. It’s a real bad idea, and we’re excited to see how it goes.) And…eventually, I came to the “boil in syrup step”, which, as I note in Monday’s post, was going to take 40 to 50 minutes for grapefruit. Since nothing happened when I did it Sunday, I decided this would be a fine time to do…anything else. So, after 15 minutes, I wandered off.

10 minutes later, my brother popped his head into my room.

“Hey, how long is that thing on the stove supposed to cook?”

“Uh, about 15 more minutes. That’s why I walked away.”

“Huh. Well, it smells like it’s burning.”

Let’s be clear, in the pantheon of cooking phrases, “something smells like it’s burning” is among the most worrying.  Also, FUCK YOU Microsoft Word. I do not mean “its burning”, since that’s the fucking POSSESSIVE tense. Your autocorrect suggestion is the OPPOSITE of the truth. Sorry, got distracted. Anywho, I got upstairs, and sure as shit, that shit was burning.

uh oh.jpg

BurnING, already burnED, these are negotiable terms.

I swiftly moved it off the heat, and stared at it in dismay. Goddamn it, THIS is the batch I WANTED. Why did I screw THIS one up? Luckily, it was like $6 in citrus and $1 in sugar, so I hadn’t wasted anything valuable. Other than my time, and hope, but Nathan assures me neither of those is very important.

Of course, I immediately considered where I had gone wrong. Leaving a boiling pot is, of course, always something of a mistake. I also noted that I may have misproportioned my sugar the day before, putting one cup in the water and two in the tossing bowl. I wasn’t sure if I had or not, I simply remembered thinking that today’s sugar had looked bigger when I dumped it in. While trying to peel the caramel-coated burnt rinds out of their clumps, however, I noticed some things.

Firstly, don’t try to pull burnt sugar out of pan with your bare hands. Sugar melts at 366 degrees, you WILL get burned, dummy. Second, I noticed that the texture of the sugar was VERY grainy in the areas it had clumped, which suggested my problem was that I failed to properly stir/dissolve the sugar before adding the peels. Lastly, I noticed, (because if I’m going to touch burning hot caramel with my bare hands, I’m DEFINITELY going to eat it 15 seconds later) that this could be saved.

the issue.jpg

See how gritty and shitty this looks? Don't do that.  Also, probably don't eat it like I did.

The syrup wasn’t totally burnt, and many of the peels had only minor scorching, or none at all. Maybe, with some quick thinking and the right tools, this could still be saved. Luckily, one of tools needed could pull double duty!

See, the only way I know to get hardened sugar out of a pot without enough elbow grease to start a Model T is to re-cook it: throw a bunch of water in the pot, and heat it up, dragging a spoon over the sugar to get it to dissolve. And, since this was just re-introducing water to a mixture that had been lacking it, I resolved that this could be the solution.

Prying up the ruins from the pot-rinse, I ended up throwing out half of the rinds, for being too burnt, or coated in too-dark syrup. I then moved them all to a new pot, with about 3 cups of water, and just heated it on medium heat for about 6 minutes, this time without leaving, and stirring occasionally.



What did I get for my efforts? Well, honestly, they looked pretty much just like the lemon peels, but much more They were much softer, but initial tastes made me hopeful this could work. (Also, as a fun/gross note: the water they were heated in? Turned dark brown. We’re talking “a reasonable color for black tea” levels of color here.) I tossed the little rascals in the citric sugar, left them to dry for 9 hours, and what did I find?


A disturbing amount of natural sunlight for 1 AM? 
Maybe don't write build-ups for pictures you didn't take, asshole. 

Caption Jon's spite aside, A few quick tastes proved me right, and also a little wrong: these tasted generally fine. Tart, sweet, and they hadn’t lost the grapefruit flavor. However, the ones that did have actual searing of the rind ended up carrying a weird bitterness, and a MUCH tougher consistency at the burn site. Like almost Jolly Rancher levels of hard. So those guys weren’t saved, but hey, I went from a 100% failure to 40% salvaged. As I told my geology professor when I walked in an hour late to the final: “Hey, any points are better than none.”

So that’s an example: I went from the crushing realization that I had burnt the part of the recipe I actually cared about, to walking away with at least a week’s worth of perfectly serviceable snacks. That’s one heck of a better failure, and the kind of thing we hope helps you fight your food fears.