The Art of Serving Bad Food

My grandmother (my mom’s mom) is an excellent host. She’s funny and friendly, plans ahead to make sure everyone feels welcome, and cooks great food.  Her weak point is how she handles food that doesn’t turn out to her expectations.

“Next time, I’m going to make something good,” she will say, even while everyone enjoys way more calories than they should.  She will call her daughter ten times after an event, declaring that NEXT time she has company she is going to make something good.  She’ll forget about the flawless coconut cream pie she made, and only remember what she thinks were dry meatballs, runny potatoes, or chewy green beans.

Apparently, a few of those genes have trickled down into my bloodstream, because I’m still a little gloomy about the bread and the ice cream.

Remember how I was making strawberry pie the other weekend? We had Marnell’s family over for the first time, about 20 people.

Well, despite my struggles to find berries, the pie itself turned out.  The homemade ice cream we made was decent too, although a little soft.  We told ourselves that the next time we made it, we would let it run a little longer in the machine.

Because we divide the food among the families, I didn’t have to make much.  The pie was okay, and the hamburgers I mixed and shaped were okay too, thanks to Marnell’s grilling.

It was the homemade hamburger buns that I couldn’t decide what to do about.

I made a bigger batch of bread dough than normal in my Bosch, and when it got done kneading, I thought it looked a little sticky.  I added more flour.  It still looked a little too sticky, and had never really formed a ball in the bowl, so I added more.  By the time I rolled the dough out for the buns, it might have held its own at a rubber factory.

They tasted good coming out of the oven, but what doesn’t taste good fresh and warm?

By the meal the next day, the buns were similar to hockey pucks, differing mostly in color and composition.  They were hard, small, and unshapely.  Thankfully, I had bought buns at Aldi as a back-up.  But I didn’t quite see just pitching all the ones I had made.  The flavor wasn’t terrible.  I discussed them with my sister-in-law Doris who also uses a Bosch.

“These are kind of hard,” I explained to her before the meal.

“Oh I’m sure they’re fine,” she said.

I took her over to the basket.

“Oh, they are kind of hard,” she conceded. “Maybe they got too much flour? With the Bosch, you just need enough to get the dough to pull away from the bowl.”

I set them out dismally, but as far as I know, no one broke a tooth.  Marnell’s family isn’t given to talking about food much, and no one commented on them.  Max, however, a charming young man of about 18 months with delightful brown eyes, was wandering around looking for a snack in the afternoon.  He took one bite of one of the homemade buns, and spit it out in horror. (In all fairness to myself, he did the same with the purchased ones a bit later.)

I had barely recovered from that event when we had our community garden night.  With our new homemade ice cream machine, I had dreams of churning up a lovely tub of ice cream and scooping it into paper bowls as the warm sunlight fell over the sweaty laborers. We knew that it had been a little soft at the family gathering, and that we should churn it as long as possible.  We debated starting it before the work night started, but there was no sure way to tell how long the work would last. We both thought Marnell would have time to get it going once we had a good idea of how long the work would take.

Because our tiller was not working properly, we asked to borrow our neighbor’s.  The neighbor wasn’t home, but he thought it would work.  So what actually happened about the time Marnell might have been working on the ice cream, is that the neighbor’s tiller was full of muddy-looking gasoline and wouldn’t run, and Marnell was over on the other neighbor’s step turning it upside down with the second neighbor, and clearly out of the game to start the ice cream.  Although the garden was teeming with people who needed my direction or help, I pulled out the ice cream maker, poured in ice and salt and ice cream mix in the wrong order, and gave the keeping of the machine over to Jeremias, a young man of about 10, overconfident in his skills at everything, and returned to the garden.

So it was that about half an hour later, when everyone was ready for ice cream and the weeding was done, that the ice cream was about the consistency of a shake.  A mist was descending over the garden creating a fine mud on the earth’s surface, and making the cement eating area behind our house even uglier.

I decided to scoop the ice cream out into plastic cups, because it would have puddled into the bottom of the paper bowls I had purchased. Our friend Carmen had brought ice cream toppings and she bailed me out by adding sprinkles and passing cups to the children.

“The ice cream is really good!” said my neighbor whose dad had helped turn the tiller upside down.

Well, at least the taste was okay. Still, the ice cream felt like a flop. One elegant lady who was at the garden for the first time was a little astonished, I think, at the general state of our snack time.

Perhaps, the key is in expectations.  (I think I’m paraphrasing some things my husband has told me here.)  If I wouldn’t have been hoping for perfection, it would have been easier to handle. My grandma is an expert at knowing how something should be, so I think it makes it harder for her when things go wrong.

Mostly, I suppose, it’s that unpleasant thing called pride.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, does it? Perhaps I learned more from messing up than I would have from everything turning out.

Also, why not just remember that the taste was good? (Although, when I ran this story through our family writer’s meeting, my older brother Scott thought the ice cream story was so bad, maybe I should be embarrassed. I had the word “warm” in initially, and he thought I meant the ice cream was warm, which thankfully, it was not.)

I would really like to hear your stories and tips, though, especially since I’m new in the business of hosting people more regularly.  Perhaps you can give me a strategy on how to handle my perfectionist genes!

Exciting news: the conductor on our wedding train photo has been found! Stay tuned, for the whole story, which I think I can share next weekend, even though we plan to be 22 hours away in Pickle Lake, Ontario.

29 thoughts on “The Art of Serving Bad Food”

  1. Well, your Aunt Molly says you can tell a Virginia cook by the way she apologizes for something before you even start eating. So I’m no help. 🙂 Truly, though, I have learned to laughingly admit mistakes, and prioritize making my guests feel comfortable in my ordinary home.

  2. We haven’t made a whole lot of homemade ice cream but if I remember right my dad used to say the more salt in the ice the better. Somehow it makes it colder and the ice cream harder. He used to use a lot of salt.

    1. You are right about the salt! If this helps any I figure at least a half hour of churning per batch.. with an electric ice cream maker

        1. I had that problem for way too long. Now I use a pint of salt. If you plan to make much ice cream, buy a bag of softener salt. Much cheaper. (crystals, not pellets) Put all the salt in last. On top of the ice. I’ve had times where I’ve layered the ice and salt and it’s frozen too fast and created a layer of ‘ice’ around the inside of the canister. Big problems.

          Also, the mixture expands as it gets cold. If you fill the canister too full, it will never get hard. If this happens, simply scoop about a pint out and continue mixing it. (put the extra pint in freezer and it will freeze as expected.

          Never substitute whipping cream with sweetened condensed milk unless you’re sure you’ll eat all if it during round 1. If you freeze it with sweetened condensed milk, it will get hard as a rock.

          For more ice cream tips, see your ex-neighbor.

          1. Thanks! And I heard about your homemade ice cream from one of your other ex-neighbors! He didn’t say anything negative, said he had some at Connor’s birthday party I think.

  3. Mildred Carroll

    I decided a long time ago, that company meals are about fellowship not food. So I keep it simple, (only a few dishes on the menu) make things that I know turn out well with a minimum of effort, and then let it go. If the green beans are crunchy, or the chocolate cake is under baked, I figure it’s probably not their last meal and as long as no one gets sick, we’ll just have fun anyway! I’m not the perfectionist my husband is though, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask! 🙂

  4. About ice cream: 1. Use lots and lots of salt. 2. Use a metal dasher – plastic does not conduct cold enough to make nice ice cream – don’t know if the addition of more salt to the ice will fix that flaw. 3. Let ice cream ripen a couple hours after you quit churning. Pack it with more salt and ice. Failure to follow these instructions will produce a soup that tastes like melted ice cream! How do I know? Guess! lol

    Ah…you live and learn and it never ends…about the time you think you have made all the errors possible you will find new ones to make. 🙂

      1. My homemade ice cream has never turned out badly so I really can’t identify with any helpful solutions.

  5. Is this any comfort? When reflecting this week on the lovely time we Lees had at your house, I was remembering the cute little extra squirt of Cool Whip on the top of each piece of strawberry pie then that whole strawberry topper on each pie. I had totally forgotten about the buns until you reminded me in your article. 😉 Does this prove that guests leave remembering the good stuff?? We all hope so….right?? 🙂

  6. The way I have come to deal with my perfectionist tendencies is to have three busy sons, an even busier husband, and lots of demands. 🤣 if we’re going to have company or do things, it’s going to be imperfect! But I’d rather that than no company, no outings, no trips! If we had a great time and had slushy ice cream, wasn’t that worth it? If that’s part of the price I have to pay, I will take it. Guests sense if I am intent on impressing them or enjoying them. Sadly, I’ve learned that the hard way! Thanks for writing this!!

    1. That’s some great feedback… “the price I have to pay”, trading perfection for time together. Thanks for sharing!

  7. 1) hard bread = French toast for breakfast, or strawberry shortcake, or trifle (alternating layers of the bread, fruit, and pudding till you fill a clear bowl (if you have one, or a plain bowl if you haven’t); top with whipped cream; you can omit the fruit if necessary). You could use your ice cream instead of pudding because it’s soft, and the bread will benefit from it.

    2) Ice cream the way I make it = one can *condensed* milk, one pint heavy/whipping cream, one teaspoon vanilla extract. Whip the cream till it forms medium (not soft, not stiff) peaks; pour in condensed milk and vanilla, stir, then beat till fluffy. Put in freezer overnight if possible. This doesn’t make a huge amount, but make two or three batches, being sure to let them freeze as long as possible. I vary this by adding chopped candy, crushed cookies, peanut butter and chocolate chips, etc. I’ve never used a machine. I use a standing mixer because that was here when I became the cook. The person I cook for loves this stuff. Oh, and don’t add fruit whether whole, chopped or blended because it freezes solid. Disaster cookies (those which taste good but fall apart or look ugly) are good mix-ins.

    3) If your green beans are crunchy, dress them as a salad. If the cake is underdone, add warm fudge sauce (chocolate syrup) when you serve it. Potatoes won’t whip nicely? Add a little more milk, spoon them into a buttered baking dish, dot with butter, and bake till golden. And so on.

    4) insofar as you are able, make as much of your food the day before your event. The flavors will develop from being chilled overnight, and you will make it easier on yourself. Try out new recipes without company so you can fix problems, and so you can start a little catalogue of easy recipes which taste good.

    5) Remember to enjoy your company. It will all get easier as time goes on. A dear friend, a newlywed at the time, invited me to dinner and served “corn tartare,” as I called it. She forgot to cook it. We smiled about that for years when the subject came up.

    6) Say a prayer of thanks that your worst problem was food which didn’t quite turn out.

    1. Wow, what a great catalogue of tips! Thanks for taking the time to share these. I’ve heard of ice cream without a machine! You are so right about number six.

  8. Linda Sprouffske

    I thoroughly enjoyed all the tips and suggestions myself. My favorite ice cream story was when a friend served hers and it still had the egg yolk staring at us from our bowl. And the pancake I made that was hard enough to roll on it’s side when I tossed it out to the dog and even he stared at it askance. And the newly wed that served us blueberry muffins having put in 1/4c salt instead of sugar.
    And as others have mentioned, I learned a long time ago that people remember the atmosphere more than the meal.
    May the Lord continue to fill your days with love and laughter. Some of our “mistakes” make the best remembered stories.

  9. Katrina’s Aunt

    I often apologized about food that didn’t turn out so finally my husband made a rule that I am absolutely NOT allowed to make a negative comment while seated at the table with guests. I almost broke the rule when my friend wrestled with some tough pie crust and a piece shot half way across the table.

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