Tuesday, May 14, 2013

How I (with a little help) Created an Internal Combustion Engine in the Kitchen on Christmas Day without Killing Anyone; Or, How I Learned to Relax and Love Physics

(I came across this story, which I'd written for a cookbook my sister was creating, while searching through some old files. It never made it into the cookbook, although the recipes did. I can't imagine why my sister wouldn't want this story to get out.)

It was 1996 (I think). I inexplicably decided to try being a vegetarian that year, although I ate fish as well (so I was technically a pescatarian). My reasoning may have had to do with being healthier or losing weight. Mostly, though, I lived on macaroni and cheese, so it was not the healthy choice I'd intended it to be, nor did my waistline shrink. But I digress.

At Christmas that year, in order to try to not miss having turkey, I decided to cook salmon for the big family meal.

Anyone who's ever been to a Keenan Christmas Feast understands the level of happy chaos that exists in the hour before dinner is served to the salivating guests. But very few people really get to see the true bustling excitement in the Inner Sanctum (the kitchen). There occurs a dance, almost a ballet, of bodies and food moving through space. Potatoes are being beaten into submission, turkey carved into manageable pieces, vegetables removed from cooking pans, bread warming. It's just a flurry of food!

Shortly after the oven was vacated by the Great Bird, I slipped in the Fish, a large slab of salmon that had been marinating for 24 hours in a combination of Jack Daniels, teriyaki sauce, honey, and ginger. Back then, the ratio of JD to teriyaki was roughly 1:1, and the Fish was swimming in it. As it began to cook in its marinade, my eyes began to water with the burn of evaporating alcohol. We left the oven door slightly ajar, you see, so that the fumes could escape. This is what an exhaust fan is for.

Normally, this would not be a problem. Most of the Keenans know about The Marinade. My father, in his 36th year of sobriety, happily awaits the moment when the alcohol has evaporated completely, and we can feast upon the fish. But not this day. This day the Keenan household was full of the Unknowing, those guests who had not yet experienced the eye-stinging glory of how I prepare salmon.

So naturally, as one of them passed through the kitchen, he or she closed the oven door. You know, to be helpful.

The kind of alcohol present in spirits such as whiskey is ethanol. Ethanol is used also as a fuel in internal combustion engines. As I understand it, the way that works is that the fuel (alcohol) combines with an oxydizing agent like air, and the resultant high-pressure, high-temperature gasses expand throughout the combustion chamber to push up against part of the engine to move it.

So, when the ethanol in the whiskey mixed with the air in the oven (for kicks, let's call it a closed chamber), it released high-pressure, high-temperature gasses that pushed up against the only moveable part of that chamber.

The oven door.

Now, in internal combustion engines the gasses that are left over after the moveable part has been moved get shunted right out of the chamber through some sort of exhaust vent. In automobiles, this goes down a pipe which releases exhaust out of the back of the car. This allows the gasses to cool a little bit before meeting the outside air, so the gasses are released without too much drama.

In this case, however, the gasses expanded with great force (which is normal) and rapidly pushed the oven door all the way open. All this is pretty normal in an internal combustion engine. Where this deviated from most designs is that the open door was now also the exhaust port. When the super-heated exiting gasses mingled with the incoming air, the mixture of which made contact with the very hot oven element, we had just a little bit of an explosion.

The kind with fire. 

Leaping out of the oven door for a brief few seconds and then going out.

It is a testament to the angels which the Keenans keep exhaustively busy that no one was standing in front of the oven door when all this went down. A few of us were around to see the door explode open and the flames shoot out. What an exciting moment that was!

It was also one of the best salmon fillets I've ever made.

Who says physics isn't exciting?