Sunday, May 20, 2007

Hugh Almost Burns The House Down

Hugh Almost Burns The House Down

This is an account of a kitchen fire I had a couple of weeks back which almost resulted in the house burning down.

I planned to cook pork so I put a frypan on the right gas burner, added oil, got the oil really hot then put in the pork. I fried the pork on both sides at a high temperature to sear the meat and seal in the juices, then turned down the heat for prolonged cooking. This is how I always cook meat.

I had already boiled up some small sausages, and these I planned to fry for taste, because I prefer fried sausages rather than boiled sausages. So I followed a similar procedure.

I put a frying pan on the left burner, added some of the canola oil we use for cooking, got the pan hot then cheerfully input the sausages.

The sausages splashed athletically into the hot oil. The hot oil shot upwards into the air and immediately caught fire. And I realized, in a flash, that I had a pan on fire on the stove top, and that burning oil has splashed to the left, where the end of the sinkbench wraps round the cooker.

I was immediately totally focused, and cool enough to analyze my own response, which was one in which theory directed action.

The way to handle a pan fire is, as I knew, to cut off the air supply. In a Western kitchen you can simply open the oven compartment, pop in the burning pan then close the door on it. The pan will soon exhaust all the oxygen and die.

In Japan there is no such option because Japanese kitchens do not have oven compartments. If I need to explain the word "oven" to one of my Japanese students of English, I tell them to think about the compartments they will have seen in the boutique bakeries which are a feature of metropolitan Japan, proper bread-baking ovens.

Our cooker does have a compartment for grilling fish, but you couldn't get a frypan in there because it's only large enough to take about half a dozen sardines.

But I handled the burning pan problem elegantly. I simply picked up the pork frypan and put it directly on top of the frying pan which contained the sausages.

The result was that the pan fire was extinguished almost immediately.

I then turned my attention to the fire burning in the left corner, and saw that there was a big pot of oil, intended for deep frying, right near the oil that was burning. I was still intellectualizing, and so realized that this pot, if it were to catch fire, would become a non-trivial problem.

Accordingly, I picked up the pot of oil and placed it in the sink bench, a big stainless steel affair which is about the only thing in our Japanese kitchen which is as big as (or even bigger than) its standard Western counterpart.

Now, how to put out the flames in the corner?

My first thought was to unroll some tinfoil and use that to suppress the flames. But that would take too long. So I slipped the kitchen mitt onto my right hand and used it to pat out the flames, figuring that the mitt would not burn. True. It did get a bit singed, but it didn't catch fire.

At this point I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I had confronted danger and had handled it, I thought, pretty well.

Ever since I resumed cooking, I have thought of the kitchen as a zone of danger, conscious that my limited vision and damaged brain make me an accident waiting to happen. For that reason, I have made it a rigid rule that my three-year-old daughter, Aiko Cornucopia Boadicea Nishikawa, is absolutely forbidden in the kitchen when I am cooking.

While I had been fighting the fire, Cornucopia had been watching TV, unaware that anything had happened.

While I started cleaning up the mess in the corner, I gradually became aware of the fact that there was a smell of burning plastic in the air. I do not have a strong sense of smell, but the plastic was distinct in the air. And the smell was getting stronger.

Logic clicked me to an answer: something must be on fire. Something plastic.

That was when I saw that burning oil had splashed not just to the left but also to the right. To the right of the cooker, on the sink bench between the cooker and the kitchen sink, there were various plastic items sitting on a couple of trays, and a fire had started in amongst these objects, which were burning happily.

The human brain is designed to short circuit when under stress, presumably because it is better to panic and do something rather than freeze. If a saber tooth tiger jumps out of you in the jungle, anything you might do is probably going to be better than just standing their and intellectualizing about it.

Shocked by the sudden reappearance of the fire, I panicked and, without thinking, grabbed hold of the burning plastic with my left hand, the one which was nearest to the flames, and scooped the burning stuff into the sink.

I realized at once that I had burnt my fingers on molten plastic, so immediately placed my hand under cold running water, and ended up getting away with no more than one small burn blister.

I hadn't seen the fire to the right because I'm effectively blind in the right eye, but now I scanned the kitchen with my semi-functional left eye, looking for a fourth fire.

As I did so, two thoughts went through my mind. The first was this: gee, this is a hackneyed ending. I mean, we're deep into cliche territory here.

We've all seen this movie, right? After a struggle, the monster is vanquished, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Then, whamo! The monster comes roaring back to life again. It's not dead after all.

The second thought was this: just how am I going to clean up this mess and conceal this catastrophe from my wife?

As I was thinking that, I heard my wife, Murasaki Nishikawa, at the door. As soon as she walked in she smelt the stench of incineration. She also noticed that both her husbands hands were black with sooty grease and that the kitchen was one big mess.

My wife took it upon herself to clean up the kitchen, and was working on the task until late, late into the night.

Sunday 20 May, I cooked under ideal conditions, with wife and child outside with neighbors and their kids. I cooked a fish called buri, my favorite Japanese fish. Plus baked potatoes and baked kumera, the kumera being the sweet potato which the Japanese call the satsumaimo.

As noted before, Japanese cookers do not have an oven compartment, but we have a gadget called a "microwave oven," a two-in-one device which can do ordinary microwaving, but which can also bake, employing for the purpose two heating elements which unfold from the sides and swing into position to do baking.

I'm big on baked potatoes these days because potato skins are one source of magnesium, an element that my last set of blood tests told me I was low on.

Together with the fish and potatoes I served boiled sweetcorn (kernels, not whole cobs), rice and a salad. A simple salad of cucumbers and tomatoes for daughter Cornucopia, and a more elaborate salad for my wife and I, including mung beans, sprouts, and foliage grown from soy beans.

I also cooked eggplant, green capsicums and mushrooms.

A pretty good meal, though I say it myself.

I'm not the world's greatest cook, but I'm certainly more of a cook than some of my male Japanese students of English. Recently I had one male student in class on a one-to-one basis and we were tackling a lesson which features cooking. One of the tasks in the lesson is to look at a picture of some basic cooking utensils and to give them names. My student told me that demand was unreasonable.

"I don't even know the names of those things in Japanese," he said.

To spell check this file, I used Abiword, a free text editor. I had planned to buy the latest and greatest version of UltraEdit, version 13.00a, and got all the way to the point where I clicked to buy a registered version. But their site rejected my credit card details, saying I must have made a mistake, though I don't see how I could have, since I always copy and paste exactly the same details, and my card doesn't expire for a couple of years yet.

If you can't register UltraEdit then it becomes unworkable because, first, it undoes any modifications you've made to the way it behaves, then it signals that your use is limited and that after a set number of days it will become unworkable.

This experience has left a bad taste in my mouth, and has led me back into the world of software wars, from which territory I hope to issue an updated report in due course.

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