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November 14, 2013

The Worst Stew Ever

1969

I was feeling in the mood for some sherry tonight. It must have been because I had been watching a lot of Stephen Fry shows. So I went out to buy some. As I browsed through the liquor store, I saw a familiar label. I had my hand on the bottle, but then decided against it since I'm the only person I know who has a taste for it.

When I got home, my wife was making a beef stew and I started to laugh. When I explained, she joined in the laughter. It wasn't that funny at the time.

Dee and I were living in a small attic apartment on Whalley Avenue in New Haven in 1969. I had dropped out of the CIA (chef not spy) school, had worked for a time at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and was now a sort of vaguely part-owner of a kind of half-assed co-op venture that consisted of an organic food shop called "The Food Shop" and an herb shop with the far more creative name "The Herb Shop." When we could afford to pay ourselves we did, but more often than not we'd make do with leftovers from the food shop to keep ourselves fed.

Dee worked at the Yale library and her salary went for rent with very little left over. So the food from the co-op was critical to us. There were many skipped meals and those we had were pretty skimpy.

One night, what we had left were some random aging carrots and potatoes and some scraps of meat. Dee was at work, so I was cooking. I cobbled together a stew; adding in some flour for thickener and a bouillon cube for more flavor. Some parsley and sage from The Herb Shop punched it up a little but it was still a bit bland, so I pulled a bottle from the cupboard, sloshed what was left into the stew and tossed the bottle into the trash. The stew bubbled away on the stove top for a couple of hours. It smelled fantastic.

When she got home, Dee's face lit up at the smell. I dished out a bowl apiece, and put some croutons made from the ends of some stale bread on top. I was basking in her approval as she raised the first spoonful of stew ...

"Oh dear God," she said, "what is this?" She spat it out.

I was shocked. I lifted my spoon, tasted then followed her example and spat it out. It was bitter; incredibly, inedibly bitter.

What the hell had I done? I thought back. The herbs were fine. The meat scraps smelled fresh. The veggies were a bit soft but should have been fine ... the flour? ... the boullon? Oh my God! The wine.

I went to the trash can and pulled out the wine bottle. The label spelled out my idiocy in large letters: "CAMPARI". I had spiced up the stew with one of Italy's bitter aperitif wines.

Attempting to salvage something from this debacle, I put our bowls of stew on the floor. The cats sniffed at the bowls warily and departed without even attempting a taste.

We went hungry that night, but we were young and resilient and it wasn't long before we could laugh about it. After all, we still had each other.