Listen, this post is gonna be kind of weird. I don’t know where to take it. I wanna talk to you guys about it, and I think it could be important, and funny, or whatever, but I’m going in blind. So, if we ramble a little, don’t worry. It’s not a long conversation, so I can’t waste too much of your time.
I Left My Touchstones in the Forest of Arden
But here I am, talking to myself when I said I was going to talk to you. Selfish of me, I know. My apologies. When I’m uncertain how to do something, or on what to do next, I can get a little goofy. Flail around a bit.
So, y’all know what a “cultural touchstone” is? They’re…alright, the precise definition is a little tricky, but the easiest way to think of it is like, with Harry Potter.
You know. This little shit.
It would be surprising to meet anyone under the age of 50 who had never seen or read Harry Potter, right? It’s a phenomenon. It's so big it has its own theme park now. And a 64 page side-book of the main storyline just started a FIVE movie series! If I threw out “Malfoy” as an insult, I’d expect everyone in the room to know what I meant.
That’s a major cultural touchstone. Minor ones are more like the day-to-day things, and stuff that tends to show up on buzzfeed articles about “Only X Kids will Understand”, or “BLANK is true: do you feel old yet?” Like, 20 and 21 year olds this year have almost certainly never needed to lick a stamp to apply it: both because the US Postal Service stopped making stamps you lick, and because most processes that would have needed a stamp are handled on the internet now.
In like, 3-5 years, everyone under 20 will think this is just "the email button."
Sometimes, I find it interesting when I find what I think of as “missing” touchstones. Like, things that I’m clearly meant to understand and relate to…but can’t. And one of the ones that I’ve always felt this way about is a recurring event every December. Because, here’s the thing: I have no idea what “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” are like. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be experiencing. Do they smell really good? Do they make a cool crackling noise? What senses are supposed to be engaged, here?
Not only have I never eaten a chestnut, until last year or so, I’d never even SEEN one. So this year, motivated by the Christmas songs of old, wait, no, the Yuletide songs of yore, I decided to cook some.
I know I'm a pervert, but am I the only one who thinks a "Swedish Yuletide" sounds like some sort of euphemism for a sex act? Specifically, like a very friendly gangbang?
Time to Veg Out
Actually, my goal was two-fold here: see, in addition to everything I just said about chestnuts and touchstones and shit, as I’ve noted a couple times now, I arrived in Leavenworth to discover that my friend had recently adopted Veganism. I was indifferently supportive, in the sense that I literally don’t care what you eat unless it affects my ability to feed myself or plans for cooking. (At which point it can go either way: sometimes I take delight in finding recipes that meet varied dietary needs, exploring ingredients and methods I wouldn’t usually use…and sometimes I just want to make a goddamn meatloaf, you know?)
However, his new lifestyle presented me with an opportunity: I’ve had at least one post where I rambled about Justin Warner, a former winner of “Next Food Network Star”, and maybe I touched on his unorthodox cookbook, The Laws of Cooking and How to Break Them, which is a dramatic title, definitely.
The cover, which seems to imply that the Laws of Cooking are stored in eggs, is somewhat less dramatic.
In any case, I actually haven’t gotten a chance to make much out of that cookbook, just because of my family’s tastes, and timing. BUT, one of the recipes in his book seemed perfect, as we were having a game night: Vegan Philly Cheesesteaks! The recipe says to roast some chestnuts, soak them in some stuff, and they’ll form the “steak”, and yada yada vegan cheese, yada yada sandwich. That’s not the point. The point is that I had a chance to make a vegan meal for my friend, using a recipe from a cookbook I’ve wanted to use for quite some time, but never had the opportunity to do so, and have cool little sandwiches for a gathering, meaning I could get a broad array of responses!
So I bought two pounds of chestnuts for EIGHTEEN DOLLARS? By Jove, no wonder I never had chestnuts before! I can buy actual STEAK for cheaper than this shit! Fine. It doesn’t matter. It’s a Christmas thing, it’s for the site. Everything is fine. Now, my recipe for them needs them to be already roasted, so I’ll just follow the directions on the bag. 425 degree oven, 30-40 minutes. Gotta cut X’s into the flat side of them before hand, so they let out steam properly.
As my old pirate pal used to say: "Yar, Jon, ye won't believe it, but me X be all over me nuts."
Then again, I don't know that he did much cooking, so he may have meant it differently.
I don’t mind telling you that cutting those Xs was an exercise fraught with tension. The point at which the outer shell gave way varied wildly, so I constantly felt like I was about to overpower one and cut my hand. But, that harrowing experience out of the way, I’m pretty done for the next hour. I don’t really need to prep anything else for the cheesesteaks, since it’s just “re-roast chestnuts in this marinade to make them meaty, cover with a layer of vegan cheese (the actual recipe has me create my own vegan cheese, but it was cheaper to buy pre-made.), and serve with peppers and onions.” So I went off and played 30 minutes of Cuphead!
"Don't Deal with the Devil" was important advice in the 1940's, as we all recall that Satan ran a very lucrative cardsharking ring.
And after about 15 minutes things started to smell pretty damn good. A warm, nutty, bread-like smell wafted from the kitchen and into the computer room. If this smell was any indication, these chestnuts were gonna be pretty good. I patted myself on the back for picking a great recipe.
After another 10 minutes, the smell had kind of faded. And by the time I pulled them out of the oven, another smell had arrived: the stink of defeat.
Yeah, it turns out the fucking bag for the chestnuts straight up LIED TO ME. I looked up other recipes following this failure (because hindsight is 20/20), and I’ve found that all of them that roast the nuts at that high of a temp stop cooking by TWENTY minutes! For no apparent reason, my recipe was twice as long as it should have been, and it definitely showed in the final product.
Shriveled, Hardened, and Black...Is this a chestnut, or my heart?
This was burnt by COAL standards. I took a quick nibble to see if anything could be saved, and also so I could literally say that “the meal turned to ash in my mouth.” Fun Fact: ash isn’t actually too bad. A lot of restaurants are experimenting with vegetable ashes for flavoring. This one, since it was made inexpertly and unintentionally, was not one of the good kinds of ash. It was bitter, chalky, and represented a complete loss of the dish.
The game night went off fine, as we had plenty of other foodstuffs, though one of our guests, the one to bring the rolls for the cheesesteaks, wasn’t reached in time to tell him of the failure of the venture, so his contributions were also sadly limited.
The Lesson, and a Pay-Off
I talk a lot on the site about not being afraid of failing in the kitchen, or at least not letting your fear prevent you from trying new things. And while I’ll often express disappointment in a recipe, or show you how what looks like a failure can be salvaged, it’s been a while since I straight up ruined something I was cooking. And I wanted to show it to you. Because some days, you can’t save the dish, no matter your culinary expertise. Some days you end up losing several hours’ worth of work, both in making the food itself, and in the hours worked to make the money you lost, with nothing to show for it.
It would be easy, after that kind of an event, to say “I’m not good at cooking”, and throw in the towel. Hell, the only other thing I cooked that night was a pre-made thing of Cream Cheese Wontons from the freezer section of the supermarket. I threw in the towel for a couple hours. But the next day, I got up, and I pushed on. As the old saying goes: “It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down; it matters how often you pick yourself up.”
Or, as they phrase it in England:
"I get knocked down, but I get up again
You're never gonna keep me down"
And then they piss the night away.
So I didn’t get to eat roast chestnuts. It’s still a cultural touchstone I have no connection with. Or at least, it WAS.
For, while at the store buying the ingredients for the cioppino, I found THIS:
So I took it.
Later, the store found me and made me pay for it.
That’s a bag of pre-roasted chestnuts, in case you’ve lost the ability to read images, but somehow retained your ability to read text. Apparently, it’s just a common snack in Japan. So, here and now, I’m going to eat my first chestnut, and you’ll all get to learn what I think.
The smell is…strange. A little like Slim Jims. Oh, weird, they’re kind of wet. Ummmm. Hmm.
They’re not...bad. The texture is chalky, but not in an..entirely unpleasant way. Kind of like a potato, with the shearing of the starches. A potato is actually a pretty good comparison. It’s not super-flavorful, though there’s sweetness, a little like honey. I think it’s weird, but kind of enjoyable. Nate fucking hates it, though. Like, he shook his head like a startled horse a full 30 seconds after first decrying how bad it was. So maybe don’t serve them to just anybody, yeah?
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MONDAY: WE’VE HAD A LOTTA RICH DISHES OF LATE, SO LET’S GET CRISP, CLEAN, AND A LITTLE MEAN, WITH A HORSERADISH SALAD.
NEXT THURSDAY: YOU KNOW WHAT? LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT JUSTIN WARNER COOKBOOK. IT’S BEEN A WHILE SINCE WE REVIEWED ANY COOKBOOKS.