If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Don’t Cook

For too long — weeks, even — the stove went untouched. Entire meals were created out of cereal and fruit. It was too darn hot to consider anything else. Except for the day that my husband decided to introduce the entire family to the local tienda, where he managed to insult an entire culture by shouting at the produce stocker, “DO … YOU … HAVE … ANY … CILANTRO?” (“Yeah, dude, right over here”) and staring through the glass refrigerator doors and repeating, “Where’s the queso?” We came home with $26 worth of the greatest ingredients you could buy and proceeded to chop, dice and assemble for 90 solid minutes in the middle of the day. By the time we ate, the temperature in the kitchen had climbed to 87 degrees.

Not long after that, the kitchen closed–at least to cooking. Everyone was welcome to eat in there and leave dirty plates wherever they pleased, but the stove and oven were off limits. Unspoken and unofficial, the rule was something like, If you think I’m about to stand in front of that stove, you may have lost your mind.

We eventually ran out of cereal and fruit, and I was forced to make a meal out of the only two items remaining in the freezer and pantry: chicken and canola oil. And everyone knows that chicken + canola oil = a heat stroke in 103-degree Alabama August. And while I admit I’m prone to exaggeration, the flashing sign at the municipal baseball park is not. It declared the mercury reached 103, and I’m not about to argue. It’s too hot to argue.

Yet I fried away.

The upshot of frying chicken is that you get to eat fried chicken. AND you get to make crustballs.

Crustballs were born out of defiance, years after my hand was smacked too many times from pulling crust off the fried chicken while my mother stood in front of the hot stove, one hand on her hip, and not smiling. (It wasn’t just her; nobody smiles while frying chicken.) She fried whole pieces of chicken, not the fancy boneless kind of chickens that grow on farms these days. The chicken part was full of all sorts of problems — namely, the bones.

Peeling chicken off bones, when all you really enjoy is the crust anyway, seemed flawed. So I picked and peeled the crust. She would smack my hand, and I would yell,  “Then just make the crust, and I wouldn’t do this.” Then she would answer, “You can’t just make crust.” And this is one of my most vivid childhood memories: getting slapped around in the kitchen by my mother. And being lied to.

I invented the crustball recipe in college — and not by accident, like you might think. I figured (and rightly so) that if you can fry chicken, why not combine the bowl of flour (with or without bread crumbs or panko or whatever) and the bowl of milk and eggs and pretend they have a chicken center?

Like Edison and the light bulb, I was onto something big.

A family favorite was born, even before I had a family.

This may explain why my now-10-year-old was diagnosed with gallstones at 5 years of age and why, during meal prep Monday night, while working my way through a substantial pile of crustballs as if they were popcorn, I doubled over and quietly announced that I was about to die.

“I think it’s the crustballs.”

“Maybe you should go lie down.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, grabbing the counter. “You don’t lie down after you’ve eaten something like that. I’ll be all right. Just leave me alone for a minute.”

“Really, maybe you should lie down.”

“Don’t talk. I think it’s making it worse.”

Within a half hour, I was relatively OK and even vertical.

In light of these events, the kitchen is, once again, closed. We reopened prematurely, and we regret the inconvenience…and the crustballs. However, please visit our fruit and cereal bar often.