Well, that was it. He could put it off no longer. He had stalled as long as possible, but finally the time had come, he had to attempt the impossible, but he had a plan. If he did it right, it just might work. The key, he thought, was a methodical procedure. It had served him well in his engineering, why wouldn’t it work in the kitchen? The first stage was to find the right meal. He went directly to the TV guide and started furiously flipping pages in search of a cooking show.
“Wednesday, 3:15pm, Gilligans’ Island, All My Children, Oprah, no, no, not that, there must be one here somewhere.”
There! 3:30, public television, “Cooking with Ethel”, it was a start. He grabbed a brand new high-grade video tape and began tearing at the plastic.
“Damn, why do they have to make these things so damn hard to open, its not like its a drug or something. “, he thought.
“I can just see it now on the evening news: ‘Man dies from licking arsenic tainted videocassette, have your tapes checked now!’”
“arhh, gotta get this thing unwrapped and in the machine before the show starts in a minute and a half. Surely they must know people need these things in a hurry!”
He shoved the tape in the machine, flipped on the VCR to channel 2, checked to make sure it was on SP speed, and hit RECORD. Then he ran into the other room for a notebook and pencil.
He made it back to couch just in time for the opening credits.
“This could just work”, he thought, “I was an engineer, this is just cooking, I can make this work.”
He sat transfixed in front of the TV for the next 60 minutes furiously scribbling notes in his old spiral notebook. When it was over, he just sat dazed for a second before stopping the VCR and plopping back into the couch. He stared at the notes and saw that they were confusing and incomplete. Just according to plan.
He rewound the tape in the VCR, but did not play it again just yet. Remembering back to his fast paced college lectures, he first sat down and recopied all his notes to new pages so that, incomplete as they were, they were at least neatly written and arranged on the page with lots of white space for additions. Still not even considering going anywhere near the kitchen, he sat back down on the couch and started up the tape again from the beginning. This time it was little easier keeping up with the show since he already had some notes. He only stopped the tape to write three times throughout the hour and was able to fill in a lot of information. After he was through, he again sat and patiently recopied his notes. It was getting late and he started thinking about having a snack soon, but not yet.
On the third time through the tape he was really getting some good complete notes. He filled in a few missing spots, and added more complete descriptions and even a few diagrams to the parts he had before. He had all the words down now, but there was still a lot of it he really didn’t understand. Did “parboil” have something to do with golf? How could one really “separate eggs” without a home centrifuge, which wasn’t a problem for him, but he really didn’t think most people had.
He started the tape rewinding while he again recopied the ever growing notes, which he now began thinking of as the ‘master plan’. After pausing no more than 20 minutes to fortify himself with some pretzels, sat down at his desk with the master plan and started to work up an ingredient list, or ‘bill of materials’ as he thought of it, and of list of terms to be defined. Seeing as it was now close to midnight, the library was closed, so he headed off the to a 24 hour grocery store. He carefully took into account his inexperience working with these materials and decided to purchase some surplus to be used for training or repeat procedures.
“Hmmmm, lets see, the list calls for 6 eggs, better get three dozen just to be sure.”
By the time he left he had filled his cart with at least four times the needed amount of each item, and much more of some items. He made it home by 2am and, still unable to go the library, sat down to review his notes one more time before going to sleep for a few hours.
The old mechanical bell style alarm clock rudely jarred him from his sleep at exactly 7:40 am. An exactly calculated 20 minutes before the public library would open. He threw on yesterdays clothes, washed his face in the sink, no shower today, and grabbed a pop tart from the open box on the counter before heading out the door.
“Ahh, pop tarts”, he thought while he briskly walked down the street, “the perfect food, no muss, no fuss, instant gratification”.
Stopping briefly to avoid a passing car, he crossed Bluestar Avenue and continued down 4th Street towards the John Augustus Roebling memorial library.
“Too bad they have to put them in those annoying little foil bags, slows me down.”
He resolved that, after the project was done, he would cut open all the packets and keep the naked tarts (“hmmm, sounds more fun than they are”) in the open cardboard box.
He made it to the front door of the library at exactly 8:03am.
As he pulled open the heavy wood door he thought to himself, “Hmmm, just a little late, gotta leave a few minutes earlier next time”.
After two and a half hours of pouring through dictionaries, encyclopedias, cooking manuals and one chemistry text he had his definitions. Parboil, sauté’, baste, garnish, he now knew exactly what the words meant, if not how to do the procedures. The two amused reference librarians couldn’t figure out why he didn’t just check out a cooking how-to book, but that was not the way he did things.
Back at home he recopied his master plan, integrating in the new information from the library to make a complete procedural manual with text, diagrams and supporting reference material. One or two more viewings of the tape, another trip to the store with a tools and equipment list and he may just be ready to head to the kitchen, he thought.
He once again sat in front of his television as the tape played. Stopping, starting and re-watching certain segments, this time he paid special attention to the manual procedures as they related to the library reference material he had gathered. He carefully filled in missing details and adjusted the procedural steps and diagrams to exactly apply to this particular recipe. He also worked up a list of necessary tools and equipment. Bowls, measuring cups, knives, pans, he didn’t have any of it. Had just never needed it before, just a Swiss army knife to open boxes.
He realized he had underestimated the extent of equipment he would need and was disappointed that it was close to 4 in the afternoon by the time got back from the store, but he was beginning to feel good about his chances now. He had all the tools, equipment, and materials he needed and understood the goals of the project and the manual procedures involved.
Thursday, 4:00pm, just over 24 hours into the project and he now was ready to enter the kitchen. Armed with his procedural manual and a kitchen VCR and television, he carefully started. Repeatedly rewinding and re-watching each section of tape, he ever so carefully tried to duplicate what he saw on the screen.
His first frustration came with measuring the dry ingredients. He found that measuring spoons were grossly imprecise and spent a long time trying to scrape the spoonful exactly level with a knife, only to find a larger clump or piece of whatever he was measuring would stand above the level line, or get knocked out leaving a small hole in the smoothed surface. The measuring cups were not much better, requiring long periods of increasingly gentle banging of the cup on the counter to try to exactly level the powder within the cup. He wasn’t sure he could continue under these conditions.
He grumbled at the TV, “Why couldn’t you just give me the gram weight, then I could just use my balance to measure it out, or if I could find the specific density of flour, I could calculate the mass, but how would I find density of each spice…”.
It took him a while but he finally settled down to a compromise. He would use his chemistry graduated cylinders for volume measurements, and use his balance to weigh out the few liquid ingredients which he could calculate a mass for. He was uncomfortable with the low level of accuracy, but he would have to accept it for now in order to proceed.
10:30pm, Eggs. The ingredients, including spices, were all measured out, carefully placed into appropriate sized beakers, flasks and test tubes, and laid out across the kitchen counter in the order they would be used. He took the first carton of a dozen eggs out of the refrigerator and put them on the counter in front of him. Re-watching the procedure on the tape several more times, once in slow motion, and re-reading his notes and procedures one more time, he screwed up his courage to crack some eggs. He remembered that he had actually done this once before in his life, but that was an unpleasant memory from a long time ago in his childhood. He paused for a moment as the memory came over him. How he had accidentally gotten one small piece of shell in the egg and how his dad had scolded him for “contaminating the sample” and made him throw it all away and go without breakfast. He had never tried again since. He realized that he was somewhat dreading facing up to the challenge, and was glad that he had bought so many extra eggs and that no one else was there to see his sinfully prodigal use of them.
“Okay just hold still now and this won’t hurt a bit”, he smirked to himself as he delicately swung the butter knife at the side of his first victim.
Only the smallest hairline crack appeared on the side of the egg.
“Okay, not hard enough, lets try again”.
As he swung the knife he envisioned a simple mechanical machine with a weighted pendulum swinging at the side of a fixed egg, which he could use to discover the exact force to apply for a perfectly cracked egg. His next thought about what the shape of the head of the pendulum should be was abruptly interrupted by the feeling of egg yoke running through his fingers as he realized he had just discovered how much force was far too much. One down, eleven to go. He washed his hand and grabbed his next victim. This time his blow was closer to the correct amount of force, and with some pulling the egg came open dropping its contents and a healthy dose of egg shells into the waiting beaker. After one more yoke covered hand attempt, the fourth egg split cleanly in half dropping into the beaker with not a single shell. After several more successes and failures, his success rate started going up and it only took him 14 broken eggs to get his 6 good yokes and whites. “Not bad”, he thought, “but I wonder what I can do with the other dozen I left over”.
As the hours wore on late into the night he gradually worked his way through the tape step by step, rewinding over each part for a second, third or fourth look with his detailed notes always at hand. Sautéing the onions took two attempts, one filling the kitchen with black smoke.
So much sauce was spilled when it boiled over, he had to make and combine the remains of three batches. The buttons on the VCR were covered with food fingerprints and he had long since tracked the spilled flour out of the kitchen and onto the living room onto the carpet, but still he methodically moved on, delicately pouring in each pre-measured ingredient and checking off each procedure in the manual as he went.
Finally, after what seemed like days of labor, he had a complete baking pan ready to go into the oven. He had used a high precision digital thermometer from his lab placed in the exact position the pan would occupy to set the oven temperature. He didn’t understand how they could get away with selling an oven which needed to be set at close to 335° to achieve the desired 325° oven temperature. He glanced at the built-in timer but just scoffed and decided to not even waste any more time by checking it’s accuracy. He would use his lab experiment chronometer. Using welding gloves as oven mitts, he carefully placed his masterpiece into the oven, gently closed the door and quickly started his timer. He pulled a chair over to sit in front of the oven. He was glad that he remembered to account for the oven light being on when he had calibrated the temperature, so now he could peer impatiently through the window at his creation while it underwent its heat treatment. After taking a few moments to complete a post assembly check list and update a few of his notes, he just sat transfixed in front of the oven for the remaining hour and twelve minutes on the timer. He already had his gloves on and was poised with one hand on the door when the timer sounded its sterile dual tone chime. Instantly he swung open the door and carefully pulled out the pan. After placing it delicately on the stove top, he reached for his results evaluation procedure. Step by step he painstakingly checked each physical characteristic of his meal to see if it fell within design specifications. Surface temperature, internal temperature, texture, moisture content, color, and viscosity were all scrupulously measured. He referred back to his notes, and even watched the end of the tape again for comparison.
Exhausted, he sat back in his chair and stared at his marvelous creation with bleary glazed eyes.
“God damn, I actually did it”.
“Hell, with a few days to clean up this mess and go shopping again, I should be able to invite her over for dinner sometime next week.”
He beamed to himself at his accomplishment and grabbed a pre-opened pop tart from a nearby open box.