The Worst of All the Thieves

Like any self-respecting Southerner, I’m a sucker for fried food; chicken especially, but I’m not particular. Okra, catfish, onion rings, alligator, mushrooms, it doesn’t matter. If it can be dredged in batter and fits into the fryer, it’s fair game for immersion into hot peanut oil.

I’ve tried other types and mixtures of oil, but good old peanut old gives me the best results, even though it’s a little more expensive. Sometimes, you have to grit your teeth and cough up the extra couple of bucks for a quality result.

You have not lived until you have experienced the pure, orgasmic, mouth-joy of biting into a hot, gooey fried Oreo. It’s Granny slappin’ good.

I’m such a fan of fried food that whenever I fry a turkey, an event not necessarily limited to Thanksgiving and Christmas, my wife and I will gather up half a dozen other foodstuff we know respond well to the peanut oil hot tub.

1thief1We also throw in an experimental item or two at the end of the frying session, just for fun. We experiment at the end, as I have been known to ruin a batch of oil trying to fry ice cream. I didn’t realize until it was too late that the ice cream balls had to go straight from the freezer to the fryer after dredging and re-freezing. That’s what I get for trying to wing it.

On the subject of proceeding without instructions, my wife’s wash and dredging recipe is not only delicious, but a closely guarded secret that makes the pains Coca-Cola goes to in guarding their recipe look like posting the information on Wikipedia. This is a secret I suspect my wife will take to her grave, and my only hope to have it passed on to future generations is to catch her at death’s door with a way to record the particulars.

What I do know is that the recipe involves Corn Flakes, some way or another. I know this because whenever we fry chicken, my job is to crush them. I am then promptly shooed out of the kitchen, along with all fourteen kids and the dog. For some reason, she lets the cat stay. The cat must have some high-level, government security clearance of which I am unaware.

I probably sound like Rain Man when my friends ask me about it: “Corn Flakes. Definitely, Corn Flanks. Definitely.”

Fire is a tool to be respected. It warms, lights, and heats, but it can also destroy. The Portuguese have an expression that when translated to English loses a bit of eloquence, but still gets the point across: Fire is the worst of all the thieves because it takes everything and leaves nothing.

1thief4I’ve dealt with many a fire as a first responder, a volunteer firefighter, as part of a group of local residents who show up with our gear because a wildfire is coming close to our houses, and as the guy who once accidentally set a dumpster on fire because the charcoal briquettes were not completely extinguished.

And luckily, I’ve never had to deal with a fire more serious than an alternator fire in my dad’s Suburban (not my fault. It just happened to be my turn to drive), setting a half-inch drill on fire (kinda my fault), and severely scorching the kitchen cabinets from igniting a toaster while using it as a cooking surface for a grilled cheese sandwich (most definitely, my fault).

My aunt Rose, on the other hand, experienced two garage fires in three years. The second fire completely destroying the structure, and both ruined all the contents, including a fairly new model Corvette, each time.

Aunt Rose loved her Corvette, but was clearly unaware of the vehicle’s ability to accept fresh tires because she seemed to get a new one about the time the tread depth passed Lincoln’s hairline.

The more suspicious minded of you might be wondering how the second fire looked to a fire investigator or insurance adjuster.

1thief3And you’d be right, not in the criminality aspect, but in the suspicion. Quite honestly, my aunt Rose isn’t smart enough to be able to lie, and she was horrified at the prospect someone in a position of authority thinking she would orchestrate an insurance fraud torch-job, but it looked suspicious, even to a twelve-year-old.

Of course, I had an understanding of how a simpleton going about life can wind up in the damnedest situations. Just for the sake of argument, say you’re a dumb Portagee kid of about eleven or twelve trying to light the barbecue. Back then, a gas grill was a high-end luxury item powered by propane and hundred dollar bills, according to my mother.

If charcoal was good enough for pioneers and cavemen, then it was good enough for the Cunha household, as long as there was no less expensive option. I’m surprised I wasn’t expected to grill burgers over a campfire stoked with two-by-fours stripped from the abandoned house down the street, like some hobo in a train yard.

You learn an awful lot about yourself trying to cook with the Kingsford. Things like how far you can flick a lit, wooden match. You learn how long you can blow on a stack of black rocks with your head immersed in lighter fluid fumes before you become dangerously lightheaded. You learn that much like a kettle, a watched pile of briquettes never turns grey.

One thing I didn’t learn until years later is that “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing.

You also learn that gasoline is significantly different from charcoal lighter fluid in terms of flammability…or inflammability. Take your pick.

It turns out that the fumes are the dangerous part of gasoline because they are what actually burn. They are also heavier than air, spread out from the source, and have a tendency to pool.

Try as I might, I have never been able to ignite gasoline with cigarette, even when said coffin nail is lit. Myth Busters investigated the movie lore of the Slow Motion Cigarette Flick and confirmed what I had figured out at thirteen years old (yes, I started smoking at twelve or thirteen. My lung still feels fine).

1thief2As the flame flowed up the stream of gasoline from the barbecue to the metal canteen cup in my hand, it dawned on me there must have been a flame hidden in the briquette pile. You would be surprised how cool a flaming quart of gasoline in an aluminum cup burns. You can actually hold on to it, which is a good thing because it gives time for reflection on the series of poor decisions that let up to that moment.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of men; calm and panicky. On realization of holding enough burning gasoline to fill a Big Gulp, a panicky man will drop the container, with the result being a sheet of flame spreading in all directions. A calm man will set the aluminum chalice on the ground and let it burn itself out.

This would have been a better story if I were the panicky sort.

1thief5Speaking of finding yourself in a burning ring of fire (my apologies to Johnny Cash), did you know that the propane flame coming out of the burner of an outdoor turkey fryer will ignite peanut oil as it overflows the pot when you miscalculate the turkey volume? It will leave a literal ring of fire on the patio and make you reconsider putting that fire extinguisher back on the shelf at Home Depot because you didn’t want to spend thirty-five dollars for a good ABC-rated fire putter outer.

Peanut oil is both flammable and inflammable. Knowledge is power.

I’m not saying that a little flaming cooking oil in the middle of a twenty by twenty cement slab is a reason to go all Backdraft, but the nature of fire emergencies is they get out of hand very quickly. Quite counter-intuitively, most fires start off as fairly piddling affairs and can be put out with relative ease. It’s the delay in action rummaging around in the garage for the only fire extinguisher you own that allows the situation to get out of hand.

Fire is the worst sort of thief, so keep a few fire extinguishers handy. At minimum, one each in the kitchen and garage. I mean big ol’ honkin’ suckers. The sort that you grunt when you pick them up. I keep a fire extinguisher in my bedroom based on the concern I am woken up to a fire going on and can’t get to one of the other ones or need it fight my way out.

I would even recommend keeping one in the barn, workshop, and any other outbuilding because delay is what allows a few small flames to become a conflagration.

Fire is the worst kind of thief.


3 thoughts on “The Worst of All the Thieves

  1. Fun read. And true enough. But fried Oreos? OMG I shudder. I shudder even though I am from the corn belt (born in the corn) and every State Fair is held for gluttony of the worst fried sort. Forget the butter cow. What did we come here for? Eating fried food! However I never was able to wrap my culinary instincts around all that fried stuff. The only thing I can’t resist is fry bread which has to be absolutely fresh made right on the spot. That’s it. Sorry.

    I will remember to stay calm next time I light a can of gas on fire. I didn’t know that.

    And the Portugese are right. Fire is the worst thief.


    • There’s a lot of wisdom in the wrinkles of generations past.
      And, yes! Fried Oreos are the new standard of greatness. It’s no long “the best thing since sliced bread.” It’s now “the best thing since fried Oreos.” I’m hoping to coin a phrase, so please help spread it around. lol
      Thanks for reading, as always.


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