To celebrate the end of the semester, my English 102 composition class here at UNM-Taos holds a potluck party I’ve labeled “Eating Culture.”  For extra credit, students bring a dish with cultural significance, plus a one-page, double-spaced sheet (to post on the wall above the dish) sharing that food’s story.  Throughout the semester we have analyzed American culture using our text, Reading Culture, 7th ed., as a guide.  This party provides a fun way to “taste” culture and to learn the deeper meanings behind some familiar and not-so-familiar foods.


One of the many lessons that emerged at this week’s “Eating Culture” party was that some beloved items came about as a result of a big mistake.  Take chocolate chip cookies, for example.  As the story goes, in 1930, while making her popular “Butter Drop Do” cookies, Massachusetts innkeeper Ruth Graves Wakefield discovered she’d run out of an essential ingredient – powdered baker’s chocolate.  So she added cut-up pieces of a Nestlé’s semi-sweet chocolate bar to the cookie dough, expecting them to melt evenly into the cookies.  They didn’t.  Instead, the chocolate bar pieces remained soft and intact.


Nevertheless, she served these mistakes to the guests at her Toll House Inn and Restaurant in Whitman, Mass., renaming them “Chocolate Chip” cookies.  They became an immediate sensation, and soon people were asking for her recipe.  When the recipe was subsequently published in a Boston newspaper as “Toll House Cookies,” the cookies became famous all over New England – and then, of course, the entire U.S.


The first Brownies, too, were likely created by accident, the result of a forgetful cook neglecting to add baking powder to chocolate cake batter.  But this mistake definitely took hold.  When the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog published the first known recipe for Brownies, these new chocolate bar cookies quickly became enormously popular — so popular, in fact, that a Brownie mix was even sold in the catalog.


Arguably the world’s best example of a culinary-mess-up-turned-success-story is that of France’s classic Tarte Tatin, a caramelized upside-down apple tart traditionally served warm from the oven, topped with crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream.

Various versions of its origin abound, but my favorite, in brief, is this:  Sometime around 1898, Stephanie Tatin, who with her sister Caroline ran a hotel in the lovely Loire Valley, was in such a rush to fix lunch for their hotel guests, she forgot to line her tart pan with pastry.  Spotting her big mistake too late, she slapped a round of dough over the already baking apple slices, left it to bake until golden, then (no doubt crossing her fingers) flipped the pan over before serving.  This mistake quickly became a signature dish at the Hotel Tatin and ultimately a permanent fixture on the menu at Maxim’s in Paris.


The moral to all this, bien sûr, is not to be afraid to make mistakes. “Greatly begin,” nineteenth century New England poet James Russell Lowell admonished, adding,  “…Not failure, but low aim is crime.”  Whether it’s in the kitchen or classroom or workplace or wherever, my advice is:  Go for it.  One taste of this tart is proof enough that mistakes can be good indeed.


Tarte Tatin

In an ovenproof 10-11” frying pan (an old-fashioned cast-iron skillet is good), combine:  1 cup white sugar, ½ stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, and 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice.  Cook until bubbly, about 1-2 minutes.  Add peeled, cored golden delicious apples (about eight apples, cut into eighths; golden delicious apples work best because they hold their shape).  Cook on top of the stove for about 30 minutes, until apples are caramelized.  Top with a round of puff pastry (Pepperidge Farm is a good brand), cut to fit the diameter of the pan, allowing a bit more to tuck in all around.  Bake at 375 degrees for 35-45 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown.  Cool in pan about 10 minutes.  Carefully invert tart over a serving platter with a lip.  Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.