Indignity Vol. 2, No. 68: The sound of breaking glass.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 68: The sound of breaking glass.

Fresh From the Oven, a Pyrex Surprise

THE OTHER EVENING I created a kind of kitchen disaster I'd never managed to create before. When I'm cooking, or really in general, I try to anticipate the worst thing that could happen, and to take steps to avoid it, or at least to minimize the damage. I crack eggs one at a time into a separate bowl, for instance, so as not to get any shell fragments in with everything else, and also as defense against the day I might encounter the first rotten egg of my life. Rotten eggs were something I was warned about as a small child, a warning I presume had come down through the generations from the era when groceries were less refrigerated or predictable. For all I know, the egg that originally inspired the precaution came from a dusty corner of the household chicken coop. Nevertheless I stay vigilant.

Accidents happen, anyway. Sometimes a pan of fatty short ribs might ignite under the broiler and need to be smothered by something large and flameproof. Not doused with water, of course. Imagine the disaster, recognize it, and respond.

But I was only roasting some beets. They were a pair of Chioggia beets, the kind that are striped red and white in a bullseye pattern, about baseball-sized. I mostly just needed to get them out of the fridge; I'd cooked the greens from the original bunch a while ago, and then made some of the beets into shorvedar chukander a while after that. The beets were so large, though, I ended up with these two still kicking around. The recipe said to wrap them in foil and bake them at 400 till they were knife-tender.

I put the two foil bundles in the oven, on a square Pyrex baking pan. The pan had been around forever; I was baking brownies in it when our teenager was a toddler, and it was already old then. I didn't even think about it.

After 40 or 45 minutes, it was time to check the beets. This was where I made my mistake. I'm still not sure precisely what made it go wrong, but I know the underlying bad decision that made it possible: for some reason, when I took the pan out of the oven, instead of doing the usual thing and putting it down on the raised metal grating of the stovetop, I tried to put it down on the counter opposite. Maybe I felt crowded by the saute pan of grated zucchini on the other side of the stove that was beginning the very, very slow process of cooking down into a paste, to become a pasta sauce. Maybe I was trying to put the beets closer to the knives, for tenderness-testing.

Regardless, as I set our ancient and reliable pan down on the counter, or possibly just after I set it down, the far side of it cracked off and fell away. I assumed I'd bumped it too hard against the granite. Later reading—there is a whole literature around the shattering of Pyrex cookware, it emerged—suggested it might have been the thermal shock of the hot glass meeting the cool stone. This came later, after things got worse. For now, I carefully lifted the foil parcels of beets off the intact part of the broken pan, discovered through the knife test that they needed more time, moved them to the sturdy little enameled steel pan that came with the toaster oven, and popped them back into the oven.

That left the broken pan to deal with. Or to not-deal with. The glass was still presumably somewhere near 400 degrees, after all. Trying to do something about the wreckage right away would only bring on new problems. Let it cool down on the counter in peace, and deal with it later.

I was down the hall, talking with the younger child about his summer homework, when we heard the sound of glass breaking and falling. The child instinctively yelled at the cat, but I knew the cat was asleep on the bed in the big bedroom. I had taken that into account when I decided to leave the pan where it lay. Anticipation!

In the kitchen was what I hadn’t anticipated: the shattered remains of the pan, now strewn across the counter and all over the floor. The extensive literature on shattering Pyrex tends to use scare quotes to say glassware has “exploded,” on the grounds that often that really happened is it merely startled someone breaking up completely into fragments. Here, the pan had disassembled itself with enough force to throw substantial chunks of the glass clear off the counter, where they further shattered against the tile floor.

Instead of a minor, inconvenient mess on the counter, I now had shards of glass all over the kitchen—shards of still-hot glass, moreover. Also it was time to check if the beets were done. And the zucchini needed stirring.

I had probably read about the Pyrex problems before, when they were in the news, and put them out of my mind. I spent long hours of childhood hanging out in the biochemistry labs where my parents worked, with Pyrex glassware all around. Etymologically, it had "fire" in the name. It was built to deal with challenging work.

Or was it? Pyrex is a licensed brand name, for a wide array of products. The original Pyrex was made by Corning, out of tough and shock-resistant borosilicate glass, but through the decades and without much disclosure, makers swapped in tempered soda-lime glass instead. The tempered glassware is cheaper and more likely to break, but when it does break, it's supposed to shatter into relatively harmless and dull pebbles, the way car windows do.

Our brownie pan was so old, it might have had either kind of glass in it. It had delivered the worst of both worlds: going violently to pieces at a slight bump or thermal shock like cheap tempered glass, but ending up in pointy shards, like the higher-grade glass does, instead of in safety-glass nuggets. It was possible, even, that it had originally been tempered glass, but had lost its tempering through years and years of heating and cooling. Or not,

Whatever it was, it needed to be swept up. First, pivoting my feet on a glass-free patch of floor, I reached over and got the beets out of the oven—the knife said they were done, at least—and gave the zucchini a stir. Then I got someone to give me a paper bag, dampened some paper towels, and started cleaning up the mess. The hot glass could go in the paper sack, to keep it from slicing through the plastic kitchen trashbag; even at 400 degrees, according to Ray Bradbury, it should have been 51 degrees too low to start a fire. Time and the damp paper towels would cool it off even more. After we'd wiped the floor three times, with me sweeping my phone flashlight over it to check for glints, and I'd run the vaccuum over it for good measure, I figured it was safe to finish making dinner. The beets were pretty good.


Five Pop Singles About Child Abuse, Released During My Teenage Years, Ranked in Ascending Order of Chart Position as Listed on Wikipedia

"Birthday," the Sugarcubes (No. 69, U.K. Singles)

"Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa," De La Soul (No. 50 U.K. Singles)

"Candyman," Siouxsie and the Banshees (No. 14, U.K. Singles)

"What's the Matter Here?," 10,000 Maniacs (No. 9, Billboard Modern Rock Tracks)

"Luka," Suzanne Vega (No. 3, Billboard Hot 100)

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