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The Great Tandoori Chicken Incident of 2022: A True Story Starring Johnny Depp

The Great Tandoori Chicken Incident of 2022: A True Story Starring Johnny Depp Cover Image

S. A. Smith

November 3, 2023

The Innocent Beginning

Anybody like Indian cooking? My husband Bill and I do, so when I found a recipe for making tandoori chicken using two big clay flowerpots, I jumped right on it.  But it took us a couple of years to get around to it. For one thing, the cost of the flowerpots (previously under $10 each) had skyrocketed to $35! Hmmm, $70 just to cook a chicken that might not live up to the hype? No, thanks. We finally found flowerpots priced at a reasonable $14 each and went to work. BUT it's integral to this story to remember that cost played a major factor. 

Finally, on June 1, 2022, more than two years after I'd found the recipe, Bill and I got serious about upping our Indian food game. The chicken required marinating in a tantalizing mixture of yogurt and numerous aromatic Indian spices. It smelled so good! If it hadn't been so messy, I might've rubbed some behind my ears--and it  would've been the most expensive perfume I ever owned. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the chicken.

The process of turning flowerpots into a makeshift tandoori oven is this: construct a "nest" of aluminum foil in the bottom of one flowerpot, throw in some charcoal briquettes and light 'em up. Split the chicken and hook each half on long wires (we used disassembled coathangers), poke the other ends of the wires through the hole in the bottom of the second flowerpot, make loops in the free ends, and put a steel rod through them to hold the chicken up. Finally, set the flowerpots rim-to-rim, and wait four hours.

Easy-peasy, right? Well, yeah, unless you have a recently rescued, half-starved Weimaraner that came to you with no training. The optimal location for the "tandoori oven" was the flagstone patio, but the fear was that Chaso--an overgrown weenie of a house dog that requires frequent outdoor adventures--would smell the chicken, get excited, knock the flowerpots over, grab the bird, and burn himself in the process of eating our lunch. The only safe place was on the wooden deck because we could block it off. 

The Disastrous In Between

Four hours went by, and we went to bring the chicken in. Gloved almost like a heavyweight boxer, Bill separated the flowerpots, and we nearly fainted with gastronomical delight. The chicken smelled divine, as if some Indian god had waved a bejeweled hand over it in blessing. As Bill placed the halves on the plate I was holding, I couldn't help but notice the still-burning briquettes in the bottom flowerpot. They looked like a heap of golf ball-sized rubies burning in hell, and I could imagine the devil running his fingers through them and laughing maniacally. It was a bit unnerving. This was the ensuing conversation:   

ME: "You're gonna douse that charcoal, right?"     

HIM: "Nope, it'd break the pot. It'll be okay. They'll burn themselves out."

ME: "How about dumping 'em in the firepit?" (Which was all of eight feet away.)

HIM: "Nope, the pot's too hot to handle. It'll be okay. They'll burn themselves out. 

ME: "Uhhh . . . okaaaay."                                                                                                 

Did I mention the bottom flowerpot was sitting in a holder that didn't quite fit (sort of like my jeans after the holidays)?

So we innocently took our chicken inside, where I'm embarrassed to say we ate the whole thing. Being satiated with fowl, we decided to watch a movie on Netflix. I gathered up some snacks--gorging on lunch does not minimize the need for movie snacks--and we settled down. One movie turned into two. Two turned into a third (we had a food hangover of epic proportion!).

An hour later, I got a text from my friend, Patty. It just so happened that our excursion into semi-authentic tandoori-oven cooking happened on the day the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial ended. Patty is a retired defense attorney, and she followed the trial as if she were Mr. Depp's lead attorney. The text was eight inches long, and I asked Bill to pause the movie so I could read it. Patty texted the basics to me, along with a lawyerly explanation: the ramifications, the why of what happened, and so on. I asked him to keep the movie paused so I could answer the text. Eight inches later, I noticed the dirty dishes on the sawed-off vintage white enamel table that serves as a catch-all in our tv room, and I asked him to keep it paused so I could take them to the sink.

As soon as I walked in the kitchen, I heard a funny noise--sort of a schwhaaanng sound.  I immediately thought we had a plumbing leak. We'd had one upstairs, and it was disastrous for the downstairs ceiling. Finding no faucets spurting water, I thought the leak might be coming from the sink on the patio. I stuck my head out the door, and that's when I saw it.

Our downstairs deck consisted of a small square section around a tree with a step-down triangular section. Coming off the square section was a landing with a built-in storage area and a staircase leading to the bigger upstairs deck. The triangular deck was toast, the landing was toast, flames were licking up through the boards of the square section, and more flames were crawling up the staircase.

The Happy Ending

Did I run to tell my husband? No. I beat on the wall, screamed at him to get his carcass outside, and went to battle the flames myself. Luckily, we have a faucet at the corner of the square deck. But it was scorching hot--duh, fire!--and it took several ouch-punctuated attempts before my tender hands got a proper grip to turn it on. Grabbing the hose, I pointed it toward the fire to save the day. But instead of gushing out, the water came out in a sad little stream, as if Niagara River had dried up and was sending its last pint of water over the Falls. The hose had five holes in it--duh, fire! 

Bill finally came outside, took one look, and ordered me to "go get that thing over there." He didn't even point to where "there" was! I was still looking at him as if he were a world-class idiot when he loped across the yard and came back with the other hose, the water surging out in a splendidly satisfying gush.

In about twenty minutes, he completely vanquished the fire. You may be wondering why he didn't call the fire department. He "says" it's because he knew he could put the fire out before the local, almost purely volunteer fire department could get to our house.  I say it's because--wait for it--years ago when it was a TOTALLY purely volunteer fire department, he was the fire chief for more years than I want to remember. 

But every cloud (or cloud of smoke) has a silver lining. Though the fire never actually spread to the upper deck, the heat compromised the wood enough that it also needed to be replaced. We'd built it--and the bottom decks--ourselves. We're avid if not particularly skilled DIYers, so now we have much nicer decks, top and bottom. And it's all because my husband didn't want to risk breaking a $14 flowerpot. And the insurance company paid for "almost" all of it. 

But, in my view, even better than that is the bragging rights I gained. If not for Patty texting me at that precise moment, we could've been binging Netflix as our house merrily burned down around us. But all's well that ends well, and I'm the only person I know who can say her husband almost burned the house down, but Johnny Depp kept her from being homeless.

The recipe for flowerpot tandoori chicken is coming soon for anybody brave enough to try it.  Just douse the charcoal, okay??? Johnny has a new life, and he won't be around to save you!