Burn baby, burn

I set my sister on fire once. I don’t mention this as a bragging point, only as an example that I am in fact capable of setting something ablaze. It’s annoying to even have to bring up really, because I’ve been led to believe since childhood that fires were exceptionally easy to start.

As any issue of Highlights magazine will tell you, a pot of boiling water can go up in flames the second you turn your back on it. And god forbid a spent match should land on the ground because – run Bambi, ruuuun! – the whole goddamn forest will go up in a towering inferno.

I’ve been mapping escape routes and practicing my stop, drop and roll since I was old enough to light a bottle rocket, after which I’d carefully submerge my lit punk in lakewater before disposing of it in a sand-filled tin can.

Even now I live in constant terror that one of my guy’s lighters will spontaneously combust the second it goes for a spin in our clothes dryer, and well, there goes the neighborhood. He’s far more casual about his lighters than I ever could be, and will send two or three of them rattling around while I twitch and confirm that our townhouse is bolstered with cinderblock.

My trepidation around fire does not override my fascination, however. Every trip to a Greek restaurant includes flaming saganaki, and with each cheer of “Opa!” I think, “I could totally do that.”

There’s just something magical about the way fire quells the bite of alcohol and turns a dish into a toasty, caramelized plate of heaven. Why should I wait to go to New Orleans for real bananas foster, or pay some guy in an apron to flame my cheese? I never did quite complete my culinary degree, but no matter. I have enough bravado to be certain my kitchen skills extend to flambéing.

For my first foray into deliberate fire starting, I chose a simple shrimp recipe. Loaded with garlic, cayenne, and a symphony of other Cajun flavors, the final burst of cognac combined with fire would create a rich meal to rival any we’d ever eaten down south.

My prep work that night included a mental rundown of all my necessary ingredients: Garlic? Check. Worcestershire sauce? Check. Child-safe kitchen lighter? Check. Fire extinguisher? Hello …. Fire extinguisher? Apparently in our excitement at purchasing a killer bottle of cognac, we forgot to buy a fire extinguisher.

I don’t know why they’re not sold in liquor stores, really. Seems to me fire goes as well with liquor as soda and ice, so it stands to reason extinguishers should be lined up right next to the condom and jerky displays.

It was partially the fault of liquor that I set my sister on fire that one Christmas. She’d broken her wrist falling on ice a few weeks prior – something I suspect she’d been hoping for years to do – and was sporting her cast the same way a wrestler brandishes a folding chair.

“I’ll clothesline you, muthafucka!” was her battle cry over crudités, and by dessert she was every bit the impervious superhero (with ice, of course, being her only kryptonite). I’ve since learned the quality of the alcohol you drink bears no effect on the quality of your thinking while under its influence, but at the time it seemed a fine idea to knock back another glass of champagne and challenge my sister’s assertion that her cast was no different than Wonder Woman’s wrist cuffs.

She’d been waving her arm across the table quite a bit, mostly to grab at the bottle of Dom on my side, so with the next swipe she took, I pulled out a lighter, did my best Wicked Witch of the West impression and asked, “How do you feel about a little fire, Scarecrow?”

It was my intention to just wave the flame under her cast, but a small error in depth perception brought the fame to contact the surface directly.

She snatched her arm away and was about to declare victory over fire when we all caught a strong whiff of burnt cotton. You always smell it before you see it. Next thing we knew, there was a trail of smoke coming from the cotton lining of her cast and my sister had knocked her chair back from the table and was twirling around the room screaming, “I’m on fire! I’m on fire!”

She clearly wasn’t as well versed in stop, drop and roll as I am.

In situations like these, the wise thing to do is usually offer assistance of some sort. And I would have, truly, if the whole situation hadn’t locked my body into involuntary fits of snorting laughter. It’s just what we do in my family: My dad happens to roll off the roof while cleaning gutters, we laugh. I break my foot while attempting to navigate walking and eating cheese fries: we laugh.

And she was fine, anyway. The flame had only singed a loose strand of cotton, and we were able to carry on without a trip to the ER that holiday.

That mini, not-quite fire was unintentional at worst. My shrimp were in a controlled environment, and according to my research, the ¼ cup of cognac would only produce a quick flare-up, then subside into a bubbling sauce of tasty goodness. I could always slam a lid onto the pot if I felt the flames were worrisome.

So with all the confidence in the world, I prepared to flambé, armed only with an unbridled love of food and a video camera. My guy typically has more sense about these things than I do, so he kept a safe distance from the stove as he documented the event.

The sauté portion of cooking went exactly as it should, and my shrimp were sizzling just as they do on Iron Chef or any of my other favorite cooking shows. I grabbed my cognac, inhaled the lovely scent of garlic and butter and delusion, and added it to the hot pan as instructed. With a quick flick I ignited the kitchen lighter, braced myself for the inevitable, and touched the tip of the flame to the pan sauce.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Where was the whoosh? Where was the “Opa!” moment? I wanted fire, and all I got was some crackle as the sauce continued to simmer mockingly. My guy was doubled over on the floor, rocking in laughter as I started to swear at my meal.

“Burn, damn you! Burn!” All my caution had gone to hell at this point, and I leaned over the pan, sloshed more cognac into it and fumbled to ignite the stupid child-proof kitchen lighter. My guy wrenched the thing out of my grasps before I could do any real damage, and suggested he give it a try.

He didn’t fare much better – he managed to set one shrimp ablaze for a second or two – and the dish sizzled on as if it were coated in sodium silicate and not 100-proof liquor. We gave up our dreams of flambé and decided it was best to serve the dish before it overcooked.

And while our not-so-flaming Cajun shrimp were delicious, I couldn’t help but think that I’d had far more success in setting my sister on fire. And while this didn’t entirely surprise me, it did make me just the slightest bit sad.

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