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Welcome to WFAEats — a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and interesting in the Charlotte food scene. We want to share stories, recipes and culinary escapades and hear about yours!

The Most Important Rule Of Cooking

My story begins in 1999, when I was a freshman at St. Olaf College. I had just started seeing a girl, and I decided to cook her Valentine’s dinner. I selected one of my mom’s go-to dishes, a stir-fry, for which I thought (incorrectly) the recipe included only soy sauce and dry sherry, thickened with corn starch. I wasn't sure of the proportions or if there were any other ingredients, the importance of which later became very apparent.

While at home in January, I bottled up a randomly proportioned mixture of soy sauce and sherry, and threw a few tablespoons of corn starch in a baggie. A few days beforehand, I picked up some frozen chicken breasts, broccoli, and Uncle Ben’s rice.

On Valentine’s evening, I sautéed the chicken breasts adequately enough, added some broccoli, and then emptied my soy sauce-and-sherry concoction into the pan, followed by a corn-starch slurry. The “sauce” quickly thickened, so I poured the dish onto a bed of mushy instant rice and served, thereby violating a cardinal rule of cookery that has remained front-and-center ever since:


I had set a table for our meal, and presented the plate beaming with youthful, ignorant pride. My date took her first bite just as I took mine, and as my taste buds recoiled from the onslaught of gloppy, salty, overpowering “sauce,” my mind cried, “Oh NO!”

Joe Nelson

  It was obvious in afterthought that soy sauce is strong and salty; it must be diluted with at least water and sugar. Additionally, I had failed to properly proportion the corn starch to the sauce, resulting in a pudding-like texture.

I looked up apologetically and felt my cheeks start to burn. My date managed to choke out an “It’s good,” and even ate a few more bites before agreeing that we should just order a pizza.

We dated for another year or two before going our separate ways. After college, motivated by the gastronomic disaster of my freshman year, I continued to develop my culinary skills, eventually attending culinary school. I cooked professionally for several years before hanging up the apron and starting a different career. I cook for family and friends; I truly enjoy creating the perfect sauce, one that fills your mouth with absolute pleasure. And while I may have made it many times before, I always taste before serving.

Joe Nelson's story is a winner of our WFAEats Valentine's contest, where we asked for your best food-themed Valentine's story.

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