Saturday, March 26, 2022

From the Archives - Tempura Debacle


Here’s a sad but true tale from my archives. I found it buried in a letter to my brother from almost thirty years ago, when my fiancée and I were recently engaged and living in San Francisco. Enjoy please enjoy.

The Tempura Debacle – January 5, 1994

[My fiancée] and I were invited to a couples-only dinner party. Her friend L— and her boyfriend were living in this dream house in Stinson Beach, near Marin County. This house had supposedly belonged to Robert Wagner, the star of “Hart to Hart.” This felt like a proper grown-up soirée so it was a pretty big deal for us.

Well, to get to this house was quite an endeavor, for two reasons: 1) it was at the bottom of this incredibly windy (twisty, not breezy—cursed heteronym!) mountain road, and 2) my fiancée and I are utterly incompetent in all matters of navigation. Thus, we drove up and down this road and a bunch of its evil twins for ages and ages, and became horribly late, which meant my fiancée was driving like a crazy woman. If I’d been behind the wheel, at the same speed, you could not have accused me of driving like a crazy woman, but could say I was driving like a man. “Man” in the sense of a (rightfully) put-out feminist saying, “Why you . . . you’re such a . . . such a . . . man!

Neither of us had eaten in many hours, partly because we’d been lost for so long. My fiancée, due to her empty stomach, and to all the pitching and turning and squealing of rubber, was becoming nauseated. It’s kind of like the nausea you get on a roller coaster after eating too much cotton candy, I imagine. In fact, the whole drive was much like a roller coaster, except that we didn’t have that deep-down conviction that we were on a track and everything was under control and nobody ever dies on roller coasters (except this one Elitch Gardens employee fifteen years ago, who couldn’t get the restraining bar past his gut and plunged to his death … but I digress).

Anyhow, we finally got to the party, and fortunately everybody else was just as late as we were. We knew only one of the other invited couples: my pal K— and his girlfriend S—, a friend of my fiancée’s. We got the pleasantries done as quickly as possible and then wolfed down some sushi, which was tasty but not altogether filling, and which (being as expensive as it is) wasn’t in copious supply. Then we sat down for the main course: do-it-yourself tempura. In the center of the dining table was a giant tray of chicken, shrimp, and vegetables, and our hostess set down a huge pan of very hot oil, about four inches deep. With chopsticks, we dunked tasty-looking morsels into batter, and then set them floating in the oil to be cooked. We learned the dos and don’ts of this type of cuisine:

  • DO get several morsels going at once so the dinner doesn’t take hours to complete
  • DON’T take the food out too early, especially the chicken and potatoes
  • DO remind yourself that salmonella is almost never fatal
  • DON’T expect to eat what you put in, since a very slow rotation of food, likely caused by the earth’s revolving about its axis, will always send your food wandering astray
  • DO try to achieve that patient, meditative state you developed as a kid when roasting marshmallows
  • DON’T pick up food you cannot identify, which tends to end up being lumps of batter, nothing more
  • DON’T, and this is the most important of all, don’t ever try to do this without the oil being hot enough—that is, don’t try to serve this without a flame of some kind under your oil to keep it bubbly hot

Alas, some of this wisdom arrived too late. You see, we ended up eating too much in general, and specifically too much raw batter, which tended to soak up oil. Our error was similar to a gambler’s habit, or perhaps the downfall of anybody who just can’t leave well-enough alone. In our efforts to cook something really tasty, we just kept generating more and more manufacturer’s defects, all of which we had to eat: big balls of batter, half-cooked vegetables, half-cooked chicken (which we put back in, to be cooked some more—or, more realistically, for somebody else to fish out). But we never really achieved the masterpiece we both knew we could. Meanwhile, the oil was cooling (there was, alas, no flame!), so our efforts because less and less successful, and by the end we were eating balls of batter that were barely crisp on the outside, runny and grainy on the inside, and devoid of anything that could be called “cooked” underneath.

But we were so hungry! Everybody else had put down their chopsticks well before we did, but they were so blasted patient about letting us continue, with the conversation continuing along merrily, that my fiancée and I just kept on eating and eating until finally we threw in the towel and sat back to reap the gastrointestinal harvest we had sown. The horror! I saw, at I believe the same time my fiancée did, that the level in the oil pan had dropped by at least an inch. I did a rough calculation and determined, silently, that we had each consumed more than a pint of pure oil. That explained a lot about the internal riot that seemed to be going on just above my beltline.

Well, the trip back in the car was even worse than the trip there. It was dark, and I was driving (how’s that for treacherous!), and as we made our way up the twisty mountain road, my fiancée began to rush me, for she feared she was going to be sick. I don’t mean unwell—she was already unwell—but sick in the sense of blowing chunks. I began driving even faster, which increased my poor fiancée’s nausea, and about halfway up the mountain she announced she wasn’t going to make it. I pulled over, and my fiancée opened her door, staggered a few steps toward the road shoulder, and began hurling spectacularly. Naturally, the other couple we knew from the party, K— and S—, appeared out of nowhere and stopped to see if everything was okay.

This had all the appearances of a common collegiate phenomenon: a young party-goer has consumed too much alcohol and the designated driver must pull over and barf him or her. Now, to be completely honest, I haven’t actually participated in this time-honored ritual, though I did once take a guy out of a club to barf him. I didn’t really even know the guy, but he needed to be barfed and I was tagged in to help. It was the guy’s birthday. He was a rich kid from Marin County, (supposedly) Australian, who I only knew through my girlfriend at the time. To be honest I didn’t much like him. As he got drunker and drunker that evening, two things happened: his Australian accent got stronger, and he started hitting more and more blatantly on my girlfriend. Thus, it was kind of a relief when he got so drunk it was inevitable that he puke, because that would naturally put an end to his hitting on anyone (or at least being successful at it). So another guy and I each took a side and hauled him out of the place, his feet practically dragging along the floor because his motor control was so shot, and he puked his guts out into the gutter, or maybe a planter or a hedge, I can’t remember.

A digression

I know that was a pointless digression, and I suspect you really want to get back to the puking-up-tempura story, but I’m reminded of another anecdote, also involving an Australian, and I’ve decided to tell it. This was M—, a work colleague of mine, who was a very large, stocky (but not yet fat) ex-rugby player with no neck. (That may be redundant—ex-rugby player with no neck—but it seems like a significant detail.) M— was a very boastful guy, always saying he attended such-and-such college which was “the Harvard of Australia.” At our company holiday party, when people were standing around the restaurant bar drinking, he started bragging about having competed in numerous fraternity boat races (i.e., speed-beer-drinking competitions) in Australia. In fact, he supposedly represented the team that ended up winning some prestigious tournament one year. I told him, breezily, that I thought I could take him. Naturally this caused all kinds of excitement in our ranks, given my weedy build, my youth, and my notable lack of reputation as a boozer.

M—probably had no idea I could be a legitimate competitor, but regardless (and presumably just to drag out his moment in the limelight) he went through all these special pre-chugging exercises, and got all psyched up, and really seemed to take the thing seriously. I just stood around patiently waiting for the fracas to begin. Naturally, the bosses were watching in amazement, like circus-goers seeing a frail man taunting a huge lion with nothing more than a chair and a whip. We were drinking some dark manly-man’s beer, I can’t remember which, but the important thing is that I wasn’t messing around: I really believed I could beat him. I wasn’t worried about his pedigree and track record, because the fact is I am an astonishingly fast drinker, kind of an idiot-savant in this tiny realm. I believe that in this life everybody has a gift, some special talent they never had to work for. Some people can fly fighter planes because they have nerves of steel, perfect eyesight, etc. Others are geniuses who can build interferometers. And then there’s me: a bizarre underweight distance athlete who for some reason can open his throat like a simple valve and dump a pint of beer down it in under three seconds. Kind of a useless capability for me since I was never in a frat or anything, but kind of fun to trot out occasionally, my little parlor trick.

Of the actual race there’s not that much to say: I kicked M—’s ass. It wasn’t even close, really. I pounded my beer, and put the glass upside down on my head to show I was done, and he was still—well, it’s tempting to say he was nursing his beer like a little old lady at a luncheon sipping tea that still too hot, but I guess he did manage to finish within a few seconds of me, but that means of course he was only half as fast. The jeering began instantly and was relentless. He was super bummed, needless to say. I almost wish I hadn’t done it, since this party skill clearly meant more to him than to me, plus he’d done all that bragging in advance, but I emphasize “almost” because he was a jerk, and a bore, and I did enjoy my five minutes of fame. He made all these excuses, said he was out of practice, tried to nullify the results on a technicality, etc., all to no avail.

Back to the tempura story…

Gosh, where was I? Oh, yeah, I was talking about my fiancée puking next to her car on the side of the road in front of our friends. K—had a good laugh at our expense when he realized what was happening and why. He and S—took off, and finally my fiancée seemed to be done barfing so we started out again. But by the time we got over the Golden Gate bridge, she was feeling sick all over again and now I was beginning to feel nauseated myself.

We found a nice quiet street in Pacific Heights, the wealthiest neighborhood in San Francisco, and parked the car, and she leapt out and puked into the street, and suddenly my stomach gave way as well and within seconds, we had created nothing short of a complete and total barf-O-rama! My fiancée stood at the head of the car, bracing herself on the hood and disgorging breathtaking amounts of lumpy white slop. I was down at the trunk end, retching man-sized portions. Two pools, a matched set, began to form, eerily white beneath the mercury-vapor streetlights, looking strangely like pancake batter being dropped on a griddle, but lumpy instead of smooth..

The sound was monstrous: two voices, a soprano and a bass, making the telltale sounds: BrrrruuuuuUUUUUGH, BrrrruuuuuUUUUUGH, bah-GA-GA-GA-GA! After several minutes of this, lights began coming on in the windows of the houses nearby, so (wiping our chins) we climbed back in the car and drove a few more blocks, parked again, and finished the job. By the time it was all over, every bit of sustenance had been ejected from our bodies, so we had to drive to a gas station and buy Gatorade.

I think it’s going to be a long, long time before either of us can eat tempura again.

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