Homemade Potato Chips                 Mike Splane                  2/7/94


I love potato chips, don’t you?  I like the burnt brown ones you sometimes find, and after a few months of experimenting at home I learned how to cook them to perfection. I thought I was an expert.


I enjoy my homemade chips and make them often. I don’t know what they taste like cold. I always gobble them down, hot off the stove.


One night, when making chips, I got careless. I put the pan full of cooking oil on the stove to heat up to just the right temperature. I started reading a letter, forgetting about the oil that was getting hotter and hotter in the pan on the top of the stove.


WHOOSH!  The oil ignited with a roar. Startled, I looked into the kitchen. The flames were shooting out of the pan nearly two feet into the air. I jumped up and ran for the kitchen. The flames doubled in size in the short time it took me to run the short distance across the room. Already the flames were scorching the oven hood. The white paint blistered and melted away. I snapped the stove controls to OFF and tried to swing the pan to another burner. The flames leaped out at me and I had to back away before I could even move the pan an inch. Starting to panic, I looked desperately around the kitchen trying to think of a way to put out the roaring blaze.


I glanced at the sink beside the stove. “Water’s no good on an oil fire,” I remembered. “Flour or baking soda would work, if I had some. Could I try salt? No, that’s too dangerous. It might burn worse. Are sodium and chloride gases poisonous? I’ve got to smother it, but how?”


BRRRINGG !! BRRRINGG !! BRRRINGG !! The smoke alarm suddenly began to scream.


I had to do something, and FAST! The flames were four feet high and the cupboards over the stove were already dangerously hot. The wall behind the stove was covered with gray soot.  Blake smoke, pouring off the oven hood as the paint burned away, already filled the air in the kitchen. The fumes smelled like oil spilled on a hot car engine.


I had to get the flames away from the cupboards or the whole place would be burning in seconds. “Maybe I should get out of here,” I thought for a brief second. “No, I can’t just let the whole building burn down,” I quickly decided.


I grabbed an oven mitt from the potholder rack and jammed it on my hand.  Standing as far back as I could, I cautiously took hold of the frying pan, holding it by the end of the handle, and picked it up, flames shooting up just inches from my face. The heat was terrific.


“Now what?” I asked myself. “Take it outside?” I looked across the room at the sliding glass door to the balcony. It was a quiet sunny day out there. It seemed like a hundred miles away. What could I do with the fire even if I got it outside? There was no place to put it down. I couldn’t dump it over the balcony; it would go onto my neighbor’s patio.


I had to do something, anything, so I set the pan down on the white tiled linoleum of the kitchen floor. The linoleum immediately started to bubble and melt, giving off fumes that smelled like a combination of hairspray and gasoline. The floor looked like it was melting but wasn’t going to burn. With the walls and ceiling out of danger I had gained a few seconds to act.


“Maybe I should open the window. I’m breathing in a lot of smoke and these fumes could be poisonous,” I thought. “No, I don’t want to give the fire any oxygen,” I quickly decided.


I looked across the room at the phone. Call 9-1-1? No time. As the fire alarm continued its loud wailing I was sure somebody would hear the alarm and call.


I sprinted across the apartment and into the bedroom. Yanking open the closet door, I pulled a thick woolen blanket down from the top shelf. The two-inch-thick blanket was folded over into several layers. “This’ll do it,” I thought.


I ran back into the kitchen. The room was dark with smoke; soot covered everything. I was coughing and my throat felt like I’d swallowed turpentine. With both hands I held the blanket spread wide in front of me to shield my face and advanced on the fire. I swooped the blanket down through the flames, covering the pan and smothering the blaze.


“I’ve got to get some air in here before I suffocate.” I ran to the apartment door, jerked it open, and breathed in the clean air from the hallway of the apartment building. I could hear my neighbors’ alarmed voices from behind their doorways down the hall, startled by the smoke alarm. I distinctly heard two people saying, “What’s that noise?” and “Is that a fire alarm?”


“Call 9-1-1! My apartment’s on fire!” I yelled. Then I ran back into the kitchen to check on the pan that was still melting its way into the floor.


“The fire should be out by now,” I thought. Stupidly I lifted the blanket, and then had to jump back as the fresh oxygen reignited the smoldering fire. With a roar, the flames leapt up, higher than before.


“OH SHIT!” I cursed. The fire had burned almost all of the way through the blanket! Instead of smothering the fire, I’d given it extra fuel! I slapped the blanket back down over the fire, temporarily containing the flames. “It’s going to burn through the blanket any second now,” I realized. “I can’t put this out by myself, I need help.”


I ran for the bedroom again. Back I ran with another thick blanket. I slapped this one on top of the first. BRRRINGG !! BRRRINGG !! BRRRINGG !! The smoke alarm continued blaring out its warning, but I wasn’t paying any attention to it now. I knew I only had a few minutes until the fire burned through the three-inch-thick pile of blankets. I ran back into the bedroom, wheezing and coughing from the smoke I’d inhaled. I snatched up the phone and dialed 9-1-1.


“I need the fire department! I’ve got a fire! In a pan! It might be out but I’m not sure! It could still be burning!” I gasped out hurriedly. My heart was pounding wildly.


The calm unexcited voice of the operator answered. “OK. We’ll be there in five minutes.”


I realized I hadn’t given her my address in my excitement. Panicking, I yelled, “WAIT!! WAIT!! Don’t hang up! Do you know where I am?”


1735 Woodland Avenue, right?” she calmly replied.  “They’ll be right there.”


I went back to check on the blankets. So far they were still intact.


BRRRINGG !! BRRRINGG !! BRRRINGG !!  I had calmed down enough to realize that the smoke alarm was still screeching. I grabbed a chair and pulled it under the alarm. Standing on the chair, I reached up, pulled the cover off the alarm, and tried to pull the battery out of the case. It wouldn’t come loose. I jerked at it and ripped the wires right out of the ceiling.


The sudden silence was a relief. I could hear my neighbors talking excitedly in the hallway outside my apartment.


Inside of thirty seconds I heard the sirens. A yellow fire-truck pulled up out front, blocking the driveway. My neighbors gathered to stare as four firemen, wearing yellow raincoats, peaked hats, and black rubber boots, their belts dangling with tools, purposefully strode into my apartment building, boots clumping, tools jangling. The lead fireman carried a walkie-talkie, the one behind him had a huge axe. They crowded into my apartment. They actually looked bored. “Where’s the fire?” the one with the walkie-talkie asked.


“In that pan there. I smothered it with blankets but I’m not sure it’s out,” I excitedly explained as I pointed at the pile of blankets on the kitchen floor.


“Humph” he snorted. Then he strode over to the blankets and kicked at the pile. The pan skittered across the floor of the living room, spewing red-hot oil all over the carpet, burning the carpet fibers, melting and fusing them into a stiffly frozen black tar.


I felt a surge of anger well up in me. “Why the hell did he have to do that? What a jerk!” I thought. “Now I’ll have to buy a new carpet. Why did I call these idiots?”


But at least the fire was out. The first blanket had a circle, twelve inches across, burned right through it. The second blanket was badly burned but it had been just barely thick enough. The fire had gone out before it could burn completely through.


The firemen stayed for only a few minutes. They brought in a giant fan and quickly aired out the apartment. A few minutes were spent inspecting the area over the stove to see if there was a fire in the wall. After ten minutes they were all finished. Just another boring job for them.


As the last fireman was heading out the door, he turned and waved his arm, pointing at the soot blackened walls of the apartment, still stinking of burnt paint and plastic. I thought I was a potato chip expert, but I’ll never forget the advice he gave me that day.


“Next time,” he said, “Put a lid on it.”