This was back in the days when Gretchen and her then husband, Doug, lived on the first floor, I lived on the second floor, and Paul and William Henry lived on the third floor of this rambling connected set of three-flat apartments in Evanston. Or as Gretchen says, everyone lived in her living room.
We had just completed a Moebius Theatre rehearsal on a Sunday afternoon. Doug had to go into Arthur Andersen to finish some work before Monday morning. Gretchen said she would make superburger (a sloppy joe variant) for the rest of the group for dinner, which sounded good to us. Also, she had frozen french fries that she could pop into the oven.
And this is when I opened my big mouth. "You don't want to cook those in the oven. They will come out soggy and tasteless. You want to cook them in a deep fryer."
"But Ropey," Gretchen said, "I don't have a deep fryer."
"Do you have a kettle?"
"Do you have oil?"
"Then you have a deep fryer. Here, let me come back and show you how to do this."
So off we went to the kitchen, which was at the back end of this shotgun apartment, as far from the living room as you could get. Gretchen pulled out the pot and the oil. I placed the pot on the front right burner of the gas stove, poured in the oil, turned on the flame, and announced that I would be back when the oil was hot. And then I went back to the living room to talk baseball with Mike.
Some number of minutes later, Gretchen appeared in the living room. "Are you going to make these french fries?"
"Yes, I am. I'm just waiting for the oil to get hot."
A somewhat larger number of minutes later, Gretchen returned to the living room. "Are you going to make these french fries now?"
I looked at my watch and decided that it was probably past time to get back to the kitchen and make the french fries, so I headed back with Gretchen and William Henry, who had decided that he too would like to understand this improved method of making frozen french fries.
Arriving in the kitchen, I looked at the oil, watching the convection currents swirl around in it. I suspected that the oil had become too hot while I was talking baseball and not paying attention. Of course, I didn't actually want to *say* this. I removed one french fry from the bag and chucked it into the oil. It bubbled alarmingly.
"Yes," I thought to myself. "That oil is really too hot. I need to cool it down without making it obvious that I have let it become too hot. Now how can I cool down hot oil?"
The answer turned out to be a matter of basic thermodynamics. I had a bag of cold french fries in my hand. If I added them to the hot oil, then we'd establish a lower temperature equilibrium and no one would be the wiser.
I need to explain about these french fries. This was long before the age of warehouse clubs, but what I was holding was clearly a bag of french fries intended for food service purposes. I was later informed that Mrs. Hardy had given the french fries to Gretchen's Aunt Kathleen, who had passed them along to Gretchen's mother, who had then given them to Gretchen. This bag of french fries had aged. They had not aged well. They were well-frozen, but they had been in and out of enough freezers that a fine coating of rime ice had formed on each and every french fry -- which was one of the reasons that I hadn't wanted them to go into the oven in the first place, because they were pretty much guaranteed to come out soggy and miserable.
The trick now was to get the french fries into the oil without getting burned. Fortunately, I trained as a chemist in my youth (B.S., M.S), so I am familiar with how to handle volatile reagents. I held out the open bag of fries at arm's length over the pot, inverted the bag, and then pulled my hand back as fast as I could as the contents of the bag entered the oil.
And there, reaching from the surface of the oil up to the ceiling, was a pillar of flame that the Israelites would have been proud of. As mentioned above, I am a trained chemist, so my first thought was "I've volatilized some of the oil. If I leave it alone, it will *probably* go out by itself. If I mess with it, I could make it worse."
William Henry, our spectator in this process, started frantically looking around the kitchen for the fire extinguisher, which normally sat on a counter, but which Gretchen had decided to put away today before preparing dinner.
Gretchen, meanwhile, looked at the pillar of flame, which was happily burning inches away from the curtains in the kitchen window and thought, "So this is it. We're all going to die."
It turned out that I was correct. Happily, the curtains did not catch on fire before the volatilized oil burned out and the fire went away. At this point, I found the pot lid, placed it on top of the pot and announced that the secret to making good french fries was to shock them properly when they hit the oil. These fries had not only been shocked, they were downright discombobulated. And when they were done frying, they were fished out of the pot and pronounced to be excellent by all.
There was the matter of the kitchen ceiling. There was a lovely tracery of soot above where the pot had been, looking quite artistic, like something that you'd pay an artist to airbrush there for you.
Folks wondered what would happen when Doug came home and saw this. Gretchen, being quite experienced in such matters, had the correct call. It went pretty much like this.
Open back door. Enter Doug.
"Darlin'," Doug said. "What happened to the ceiling?"
Gretchen replied, "Roper made french fries."
Anyway, this is how to make excellent french fries.
Please do not try this at home.