Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and with it the pressure to knock it out of the park. But don’t fret if your potatoes aren’t silkiest rendition of the tuber ever tasted, or the turkey doesn’t crisp itself to an Instagram-worthy sheen. Most of us have epic cooking fails of our own.
My first Thanksgiving failure was as a guest. I’d just discovered how to make caramelized onions, and insisted upon making an onion tart to serve at my beloved aunt’s Thanksgiving dinner. That entailed a) claiming stovetop space, b) claiming chopping space, and c) claiming oven space. On Thanksgiving! I was so rude. (I was also 20, but still.) At least the tart turned out well, the turkey was done in time, and my aunt is very forgiving.
As is true of weddings, the people—and eating something for dinner—should be the priority at Thanksgiving. If things go off the rails in the kitchen, order pizza, laugh, and maybe open more wine. Here are the most noteworthy cooking failures I’ve compiled from friends, inspired by one’s admission that he tried to “roast” a large globe eggplant by putting it in a nonstick pan on the stovetop, uncovered, for 10 minutes over medium heat. (That this was unsuccessful still confounds him.)
Read these, laugh, and don’t sweat the small stuff this T-Day.
Julie: “I baked a pumpkin in the oven—seeds removed and stuffed with bread, cheese, and bacon. It exploded—in someone else's oven.”
Scott: “When writing The Shameless Carnivore, I cooked rattlesnake chili for a group of friends. I just threw the snake in to simmer with the chili instead of parboiling/braising it first to remove and reserve the meat. By the time the chili was ready, my slow-cooker was filled with snake vertebrae and ribs, and I ultimately had to leave a paper bowl on the table for people to spit it all out. Nothing says ‘Delicious!’ like a mouthful of rattlesnake bones.”
Emily: “I made a giant batch of ricotta mushroom ravioli filling for the restaurant I work at and I misread the salt measurement as tablespoons instead of teaspoons. We had to throw it all out. I wanted to cry.”
Caroline: “I was cooking in the dark and added a whole jar of peppercorns instead of capers to the pasta I was making for a group of people.”
Randi: “I once put filet mignon on a George Foreman grill. It was terrible.”
Jude: “In college, for Friendsgiving, we cooked a half-thawed turkey in our crappy oven without a thermometer. 375 equaled 250, we later learned. Five hours later, we dubbed it the "botulism bomb" and threw it out.”
Matt: “I melted chocolate in a metal bowl set over simmering water in an aluminum pot. Only the bowl was just barely too small, and sank ever deeper into the pot as it warmed, eventually getting so stuck that I had to throw the whole thing away. I scraped out the chocolate, though! It made a very fine mousse.”
Heather: “A pal and I followed a pesto recipe but didn't know that the 2 cups of basil leaves in the ingredients list should be the fresh kind. We used the dried kind, and not only was the result disgusting, but my roommate's food processor never worked again. I still feel bad about that.”
Collage: “I made an apple pie using salt instead of sugar. Super-gross but looked so beautiful.”
Emily: “My mom wanted me to spatchcock the Thanksgiving turkey so I got into this GIGANTIC bird with a butcher knife and cut the backbone out, only to discover that the oven was far too small to fit a spatchcocked bird. So I cut both legs off and roasted the legs and the stuffed breast separately. Apparently this is called a Hotel Cut, but I just did it out of necessity. It was actually one of the best turkeys I have ever made.”
Shaun: “I was using a wok at a high temperature and had the oil really hot—like, smoke point hot. I kept on going with it and tossed in some chili powder and lemon juice and something else spicy. Really acrid smoke started filling the loft and I had to shut everything down and leave the place. My eyes were burning and I was hacking! Ended up making some low-level tear gas.”
Ann: “A friend brought over some corn muffins as a gift the day before I went into labor… I thought they were cupcakes and frosted them all with chocolate frosting!
Shaw: “When I was like 12, I baked chocolate chip cookies, but grabbed the white powder to use for flour, only it was evaporated milk... needless to say the cookies almost destroyed my mom's oven. :(.”
Lesley: “I undercooked a pound cake when my in-laws were visiting. I went to turn it out of the pan and it cracked in the middle and its molten center oozed out. My MIL told me to just re-spread the cake/lumpy batter mixture in a quarter sheet pan and keep baking. She was right. It looked like a hot mess (and it was) but it was yummy!”
Rachel: “I got a heritage-free-range-etc bird from the health food store around the corner which was delivered late, at like 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, and when I went to pick it up, it was like a bony, scrawny 5-pound turkey with no breasts for a dozen people and no time to defrost a Butterball. We had to cook it in a T-shirt basted in butter so its bony little body wouldn't burn and there was so little meat we basically just had turkey gravy.”
Gareth: “I tried to make the Chilean sea bass from the French Laundry book and had three or four pots on the go at once. It took 30 seconds of taking my eye off the cooker at the end for the fish to stick to the pan, the saffron-vanilla sauce to separate and the parsnip puree to burn. It was about $70 worth of ingredients ruined.”
My biggest holiday fail? The first time I met my boyfriend’s mom, they were both feeling a little ill, so I was put in charge of an electric range (which I loathe) and Christmas lunch. I was handed a roly-poly, breast-only Butterball, which I’d never cooked. I threw together some stuffing using an old family recipe, managed to pull some veggies together, and pulled the bird out when it seemed done. I set it on a round gas range, turned away for a second, and heard a crash. Christmas lunch was On. The. Floor. My boyfriend’s mom and I still joke about my “floor-marinated turkey.”
So good luck with Thanksgiving this year, and if you’re the one lucky enough to just bring wine, remember to be kind—and forgiving.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.