Kitchen Confessional: Burnin’ Down Da House

Burning House

Now that the turkey leftovers are gone, the tryptophan torpor has receded, and we’ve physically and emotionally pushed away from the Thanksgiving table, I need to get something off my chest. A kitchen confessional, if you will: On the Holiest of Holy Days for culinistas all over the country, I failed miserably at the stove. Twice.

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It was far and away the worst hatchet job I’ve ever committed–and it was at baking, my bailiwick. In the 20-something years that I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinner, yes, I’ve forgotten to take the giblets packet out of the bird; yes, I’ve both under- and overcooked the turkey; and, yes, I’ve neglected to heat the stuffing to the ideal (read: salmonella-free) temperature. But I’ve never, ever failed to whip up gasp-inducing desserts. But I can’t take full responsibility for my fumble: I mostly blame Twitter and Instagram, because if it weren’t for me snapping pictures of my marvelosity in the kitchen for public consumption, I would’ve had a relaxing holiday, and the members of the Roxbury volunteer fire department would’ve been able to finish their meal undisturbed.

Let me backtrack. Please.

The Tuesday night before Thanksgiving I was planning to make my pumpkin cake with maple-cream cheese frosting and Melissa Clark’s spiced maple pecan pie for dessert. The One is a pumpkin freak and demands the cake every year. The pie was a concession, a peace offering to those poor friends of ours who’ve been politely eating the same dessert for nearly a decade. I thought they might want need a change.

Knowing that some of my blogging brethren, among them Ree Drummond, Shauna James Ahern, David LebovitzGail DosikSara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, are quite adept at snapping cell phone pics of their kitchen hijinks and tweeting them while cooking, I decided I could, too. So with iPhone in hand, and iPad in its kitchen condom, I began clicking away. But instead of waiting until the cake was safely in the oven to upload the shots and check Twitter for the inevitable onslaught of kudos from you all, I decided to reply to every single response while baking.

Cake Making

Basking in your immediate adulation and unconditional love with one hand while meticulously dividing, weighing, and smoothing the batter with the other, I noticed something odd. As in the batter spreading as thick as spackle. I had to work it into the edges of the pan, where the sides meet the bottom. No big deal, I thought. I’ve made this a million times, and it always comes out perfectly. Must be the dry weather. With that, I slid all three pans into the oven and returned to my 4G iNeedConstantLoveMachine.

Forty minutes later, I pulled the cake layers from the oven to discover they hadn’t risen much. No big deal, I told myself again. I’m using three nine-inch pans instead of the usual two eight-inchers. They’re bound to be a little thinner.

I tipped the cakes out of the pans, and instead of steaming circles of spicy pumpkin loveliness, I was affronted by what can only be described as mutants. Each layer was riddled with worm holes. Entire sections were curdled and dry, with huge gaps in them. No big deal, that’s why God made frosting. It was while reaching for my iPhone, to see who else liked my photos on Instagram, that I spotted them sitting on the counter, mocking me: a chorus line of three cans of unopened solid-packed pumpkin. I’D FORGOTTEN TO ADD PUMPKIN TO THE PUMPKIN CAKE.

For a brief, dark moment, I contemplated passing off this castrato of a cake as the real thing. Chances are my guests wouldn’t know, and, most important, neither would you. I imagined millions of you sitting at your computers or holding your cellphones while watching “Body of Proof” just waiting for the final shot of my towering creation. Guilt, my constant sniggering companion, won out. I dumped the damn thing into a plastic trash bag like so many dead bodies on TV.

The next morning, refreshed but hours behind, I turned out what The One later called the best pumpkin cake ever. Below is its headshot, which is what I, of course, tweeted.

Pumpkin Cake

The cake redo slapped me all the way into the middle of Wednesday afternoon. If I worked quickly and efficiently, I could knock out the spiced maple pecan pie and prep my three side dishes: Virginia Willis’s bourbon sweet potatoes, roasted carrots with an agresto sauce (a to-die-for mix of chopped nuts, lemon juice, vinegar, wine, parsley and spices), and homemade green-bean salad. (Revel below.)

Thanksgiving Sides

Melissa’s recipe calls for maple syrup and demerara sugar to be simmered until reduced by about a third. Being in a hurry, I calculated I could save almost 20 minutes if I let it boil down–and who the hell has demerara sugar in the middle of rural Connecticut? So I used granulated sugar instead. It was then that I walked out of the kitchen into the family room to get a recipe. I’m talking all of 60 feet, people. I was flipping through a cookbook when what sounded liked a nuclear-disaster siren went off.

I ran to the kitchen and from the pot billowed the blackest, foulest-smelling smoke I ever had the misfortune to encounter. Now, I’m good in emergencies. The One and I were like hopped-up Eagle Scouts on 9/11, filling bathtubs and sinks with water; withdrawing huge sums of cash from all of our accounts; and shopping for food, flashlights, batteries, and the current issue of People magazine. But on this day, as I ping-ponged between four fire alarms and three French doors, shooing out the smoke with my apron and a spatula (spatula?), what’s the one thing I forgot to do? Turn off the stove. So as soon as I got the air raid under control, it started again. And again. And again. Finally, I tossed the pan in the sink then thought better of it and flung it out into the yard.

With the bleating now over, the phone rang. Holy go to war, the alarm company. I smoothed my sooty apron and cleared my throat. “Hello?” I said, as if I were the top earner at a phone sex company.

“Sir, we have a report of an alarm trigger at this residence. Who am I speaking with?”

“David Leite.” My voice was all warm caramel and Cognac.

“Who else is on this account?”

“_______________,” I replied, using The One’s real name.

“What’s the passcode, sir?” Passcode? What passcode?

And as if reading a roll call, I listed every single password I could remember. (Note: None of these are real. What do you think? I’m crazy?) “Ginger, Gilligan, Miss Piggy, Marcia Brady, Julia Child, Tom and Jerry, Mr. Spock.”


“Murphy Brown…”



Dial tone. He’d hung up on me. Then the most sickening sound pierced the air: the wail of the town’s fire alarm. “Noooooooooooo!” The One is going to kill me. I could see the headlines in the Litchfield County Times: “Lauded Food Writer Almost Burns Down the House.” Frantic, I called 411 and asked for the Roxbury Fire Department.

“Sir,” said the operator, “you don’t need to call the fire department. You just need to dial 911.”

“No, I don’t need to report a fire–”

“Then why are you calling the fire department?”


“Sir, I’m required to connect you to 911–”

I pressed “End Call” and dropped my iPhone on the couch as if I were letting go of a putrid piece of pork. Lying there, it chimed an alert: “Instagram: Talon245 liked your photo.” Oh, how sweet of him. I instinctively reached out to see what he’d written. “No!,” I shouted, shaking my head trying to gain perspective.

After a few minutes, The One and our friend Caroline, who was spending the holiday with us, came home. He looked around the kitchen and out into the backyard at the tar-colored pot, slack jawed. “Don’t ask,” I said before he could say anything. “Please, don’t ask.” As we stared at each other the whine of another siren grew louder.

“Don’t tell me…,” he said pointing over his shoulder to the sound, realizing it had my name on it. I nodded my head. “Oh, David” was all he could get out before flashing red lights splashed across the family room walls. I rose to go to the door. “Sit,” he said. “SIT!” I obeyed.

“Think this will end up in the newspaper’s police blotter?” I asked Caroline, looking for some sympathy.

Ever immune to subtle interpersonal cues, she said flatly, “Probably.”

I ran through the kitchen cutting off The One before he got to the door and opened it. A man in a flannel jacket and a bruised fire helmet poked his head in. “Um, is there a fire here?” he asked, unsure he got the right address.

Suddenly self-conscious about what I looked like–after all I was in my Warner Bros. pajamas and a sooty apron–I smoothed my hair. 

“Hi, officer,” I said, smiling. Behind him was a fire truck and several men putting on gear. “Um, is it officer,” I continued trying to sound nonchalant, “or fire marshall?”

“John. It’s John.”

“John,” I replied, emphasizing his name, “this is rather embarrassing, but I kind of messed up my Thanksgiving dessert. Just a bunch of smoke and drama, but no fire.” He looked at The One who was behind me for some kind of assurance. The One nodded.

“I hope I didn’t pull you all away from anything important.”

“Well, some of the guys were just having an early Thanksgiving at the firehouse.” It’s amazing how small a 295-pound man can feel.

“Stay away from the stove, will ya?” he said as he jumped back on the truck. “And happy Thanksgiving.”

“You, too.” I waved off my own personal fire brigade parade.

Exhausted, I curled up on the couch and fell asleep for the rest of the afternoon. I awoke after dark, shivering. The windows were still open; the kitchen still smelled acrid. I avoided The One’s gaze as I quietly made my fallback chocolate pecan pie. When I pulled it from the oven, it was a picture of baking mastery. Forgetting myself, I held it out for him. “Look!” He just nodded. Realizing that the coolness in the room wasn’t coming from just the windows, I slid the pie on a rack, and then I couldn’t help myself.

I took a picture and posted it. (See it in all is glory above.)

David Leite's signature



  1. A dubious distinction. ;)

    The roasting pan thing came about because I had to rush to the airport leaving my aunt to make the gravy for T-day dinner. Lord knows what hellbrew she came up with, but it definitely did not involve pan juices. Ick. Double ick. ;)

  2. You want disaster stories? Well, when I was working on my thesis, I set a couple dozen eggs to boil (for deviled eggs for a party) and went back to the computer. Three hours later, I looked up to see a pall of smoke hanging mere inches over my head, and I had 14 foot ceilings! The eggs weren’t just burnt, they were vaporized. It looked like a couple had exploded before the remainder achieved a gaseous state. ;) I am so ADD, when I get focused, I hear nothing, I smell nothing.

    Then there was a disaster of a non-combustible variety. We have two ovens. It was a couple months since Thanksgiving and the first time I’d needed to use both ovens since the holiday. Like a responsible cook, I checked both ovens before turning them on. In the second oven, the one seldom used, there was the turkey roaster. I took it out and set it on the counter. Then I lifted the lid. Try to imagine pan juices a couple months after the fact without refrigeration. Oy! It was simply alive. Squealing and holding it at full arm’s length, I ran to the back door and flung it outside. Fortunately, it was raining because I am squeamish, and there is no way I could ever have washed that thing out. After about a week of rain, I figured it was safe to bring it back in the house. This was my Mom’s house. She was really annoyed at me for throwing the pan outside. I offered to let her clean it. She decided that the rain would be good for it. ;)

    One tip: when you have cremated a pan with its lid on. DO NOT take the lid off in the house! Heh.

  3. Oh my God! You must forgive my belated comment to this post that is now over one year old, but alas, I could not help myself. I have seen you on television many times, though until today I had not had the pleasure of reading your work! Brilliant! I have been laughing out loud for over an hour. Thank God I do not have my kids this week. They already think I am nuts.

    This story reminds me of my own disastrous Easter about 10 years ago. I was pregnant at the time and one week overdue. I could not remember my password to save my life. There were 10 people waiting at the table for dinner when the firemen came to the door. I gave them dessert to go and sent them on their way. My guests that day still talk about it. Glad I am not the only one! I intend to follow your blog closely! Fantastic work!

    1. Jenni, why, I’m blushing. Thank you for the lovely words. And no, my dear, you are NOT the only one who sets off fire sirens. As a friend of mine said as a way of making me feel good, “Think of it this way, you’re hot enough to trigger alarms!”

  4. Blaring smoke alarms terrfies me not only because it means I screwed up but also the fire department might show up by my door. Although they make good eye candy, at my condo, a false alarm means I’m penalized a whopping $250! Lucky you. I don’t have a backyard and can only fling open the balcony door to disperse the smoke. Ergo, I try very hard to not let myself get distract when I’m cooking!

    1. Jane, thank ye gods that it happened in CT and not in our apartment. We live on the 13th floor. The boys of the fire department–whether eye or not–don’t appreciate a false alarm all that way up. And I can’t imagine our neighbors would either!

  5. I am hoping that the prep for the next upcoming Holiday goes off without the near catastrophe that Thanksgiving nearly was. I would say that you behaved admirably, throwing the pot outside was THE only option. Everyone else just overreacted. I would however write down the passcode somewhere. I forgot ours when the alarm went off (tea-smoked duck that got away from me) and had to go to a special class hosted by the alarm company. It takes a while to get over that sort of humiliation. Thanks for the chuckle.

    1. Hi Shelly. Thank you for saying I acted admirably–you’re in the minority! The passcode has not only been written down but memorized–and I’m quizzed daily by The One. But, oh, the class you attended. That is RICH!

  6. The occassional kitchen disaster is a good excuse for laughter I say if one handles it correctly. Despite spending 5 figures on culuinary school and several years of catering experience under my belt and the ability to “hear” when certain foods are done… I incinerate toast on a regular basis. It’s just something I do.

  7. That was a hilarious post and will be passed on to many who will instantly relate. And so beautifully written!

    My favorite kitchen disaster was a birthday cake that I tried to make many years ago in my NYC kitchen–starting later in the evening then I should. My personal belief, proved over and over again, is that any new venture started after 8:00PM involving any sort of technology or machine is doomed.

    And so it was. First I realized that I did not have all my ingredients, twice. Then I couldn’t find my flour sifter. Finally everything was bought, borrowed, measured, and ready to be mixed. Here’s the machine hex: my mixer beaters didn’t fit into the mixer. Nothing that I did helped. Not screw drivers, hammers, or compound-cursing. At this point, I threw everything away, (it was after 11pm) and thought about which bakery I would hit on my way to work in the morning. The following night mentioning the incident to my roommate, I found out that she had loaned out the mixer to a neighbor a couple of days before. Yes, she had. She mixed up the mixers.

    1. Berte, oh, my! Yes, that’s right up there with some of the big disasters. A loaned mixer mix-up. Priceless.

      Oh, thanks for passing on the post, much appreciated.

  8. Oh my, this story had me laughing out loud. I’ll have to share this one with my kids as yet another arrow in my quiver of warnings about the distractions of technology in our daily lives. I’m sure I speak for all your readers when I say that the photo I really wanted to see was one of you fanning the air with your spatula while dressed in your WB jammies……that would have been priceless.

    1. Oui, Chef–don’t for a minute think that pulling out my cellphone for a little in vivo shots of the whole debacle didn’t cross my mind. But common sense–(something I have a deficit in but luckily The One is abundantly blessed with)–won out!

  9. Still laughing about this post. I, too, have had epic fails in the kitchen with tried and true recipes because I was sidetracked by a camera (or some other distraction). Thanks for posting this – it helped us to see the human side.

    1. Joanne, you’re more than welcome. I think there needs to be some pedestal shaking in this business, don’t you? We’ve come to look at our cooking the way we look at those impossibly skinny, gorgeous men and women in magazines: something that we will never attain. Real cooking is messy, fun, dirty, frustrating, and not always so pretty…as you can abundantly see!

  10. Why was I eating while reading this post?? Will snorting squash be as effective as using a neti pot?? We have “iNCLM’s” and demerara sugar in western North Dakota…you need to get out more.

    1. LOL!!! That’s the funniest thing: a squash neti pot cleanse. And I love “iNCLM.” Brilliant. It took me a few minutes to figure out. Molto cleverado of you.

  11. I love you so much I can’t even STAND it! This is incredibly comforting to culinary mortals such as, oh, myself. Next year you’ll be having the whole lucky fire brigade in for Thanksgiving dinner. :)

    1. Katie Girl, I’ve been telling you I’m no cooking god. A lesser culinary deity, perhaps. (Not!) And what a great idea: inviting the firemen over for dinner–or bringing them something. I shall do that.

  12. Ohmygod. Ohmygod. Crying!

    I *adore* the image of you shooing smoke out of the kitchen with a spatula!

    And the iNeedConstantLoveMachine! Oh, what hath Steve Jobs wrought?! :o )

  13. I was laughing earlier over your article, David, now I’m giggling uncontrollably at every other post here… XD I’m recalling the Chinese New Year eve when, 45 minutes after Mum and I had loaded the oven with three different cake mixtures (it’s traditional to bake up a storm for New Year visitors), I flipped on the oven light to check if all was going right… and shorted the oven. Yes. Shorted the oven. When the cakes were three-quarters risen. I stared open-mouthed at Mum, who had gone a shade of grey that I had never seen before, and I seriously thought of packing my bags and leaving the country for good for the shame of it all. Instead, she began to giggle hysterically, and after she recovered, said “Leave the oven door shut–the residual heat should take care of it… ” Well, the guests were treated to U-shaped slices of cake, and were regaled with this tale by Mum ad nauseum… :[

    1. Ling, that’s hysterical. I once had an oven that decided to go into cleaning mode instead of preheat. And there was a pan in there. Needless to say, the pan was ruined, but the oven was damn clean!

  14. You had me at “marvelosity” and by the end I had laughing tears on my cheeks! I can relate on all counts, David. Wishing you a joyous, delicious–and less eventful–Christmas and New Years!

  15. My number one kitchen rule is don’t fry bacon naked. I’m now changing it to don’t blog while baking, particularly if you are naked, best to be clothed when the John shows up from the Fire Department. Thank goodness y’all were OK!

    1. Robin, laughing my butt off! So funny you mention frying bacon naked. We’re starting a new column called “Never Cook Naked and Other Kitchen Wisdom.” It’s a help column by the inimitable Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarborough. (The title comes from, well, experience.)

      Yep, we’re all okay. In the future, I think I’ll have The One take the pictures. Maybe that’s what my friends do. I never even thought to ask.

  16. Oh, honey! At least you got a good story to tell and there wasn’t *actually* a fire.

    I made a sort of mini-Thanksgiving once for a small group back in the days when I didn’t really cook much and hadn’t even come close to figuring out the timing part of things. I actually had to serve the meal in stages, but not in a logical four-course meal kind of way. The turkey? Was last. About 90 minutes after we’d eaten everything else because we were so hungry! heh

  17. Oh how this resonates, considering I just had a major kitchen disaster of my own on Monday afternoon making a cheesecake … flames … smoke … all three fire alarms going in my apartment … Luckily I avoided the fire dept. but oh! how embarrassing. I feel for you. (And I did once, many years ago, set off my building’s fire alarm when a cake overflowed … no fire, just smoke, but a truck came and I felt so. terribly. awful.)

    1. Ah, my comrade in baking arms, nicole. I feel for you, too. But the thing is we mop up the slop, chisel off the baked-on crud, and scrub the pots until they glisten. Then we get back in there and do it all over again. I may be a pessimist in life, but a PollyAnna in the kitchen. Tomorrow is another day….

  18. David,

    I applaud your honesty and self-deprecating good humor. Good lesson to us all. Number one rule of cooking: Pay attention.

    Happy Holidays!

    1. Thanks, Sharon. Well, too often we have the idea that food people, or foodists as I call them, never make a wrong move in the kitchen. Pshaw!! If you saw the number of fumbles and bumbles we both make you’d die laughing. But it’s the joy that comes in the perserverance at the stove and the honesty with friends–and readers–at the table about what happened is what matters most.

  19. LMAO. Confucius say “He who cooks and blogs ends up with burned buns.”

    I once decided to boil down cheap balsamic vinegar to try to make it resemble the glorious, expensive stuff, and made the mistake of leaving the room. Oops! What seemed like moments later, the house was filled with acrid smoke. Luckily, no flames or fire alarms. Later my date showed up (he who I’d “chosen” a few weeks before on the Internet) and made a crack about some people getting too old to do things like cooking. That was the last meal I served to the “chosen”–he was history.


    1. My Dearest Martha in KS, finally! Someone fesses up to her own kitchen disaster. Sorry to hear about it. But the good thing is you were able to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, in your love life. One snarky comment from The Chosen and he was gone. Smart. A joyous holiday season to you, too.

  20. Oh, David, I’m glad this ended with you being okay, and that this year it wasn’t “The Day the House Ate Thanksgiving.” I do think you can safely say you’d win in “The Blog Botching of a Holiday Meal” catagory. You should have an annual gathering of tales from other bloggers who’ve had similar emergencies due to photo-tweets/blog-entries gone wrong to see who’d win (Win? Really? …win?) the category. At the very least, you all can commiserate…and share it all with us readers.

    1. Susan, I love “The Blog Botching of a Holiday Meal” category and the idea of a collection of culinary disasters. But you know what I find very interesting? Many people have said they can relate, but do you see one commenter offering up his or her failure? I don’t. So, come on, people, am I alone in this? None of you have had any kind of holiday disaster–this year or in times gone by?!!

      1. Okay, okay, I’ll fess up. My last disaster was similar to yours except I didn’t need the fire department! I blackened and fused green beans to the pan in which they were cooking. It did smoke up the kitchen a bit and lingered lightly in the air through dinner (who has time to wash all kitchen surfaces during dinner prep?) But, the worst it did was to infiltrate its stink into the nearby dishes that absorb odors…like the mashed potatoes and the gravy, which happened to be on the stove at the same time. I fortunately had made a turkey stock to augment the turkey drippings so I could make lots of gravy, so I remade the gravy with just the extra stock, then I dug out some instant potatoes that I use when making bread, and replaced the fresh with those. Not ideal, but it got us through, and at least I had replacements! I’ll never bad-mouth instant potatoes ever again!

        1. Okay, if we’re really confessing here–I used Stove Top Stuffing. The One loves the flavor (a childhood thing). But I sautéed onions, garlic, celery, added 1 pound of fresh Italian pork sausage, caramelized apples, and homemade chicken stock. (Of course, if any of my guests read tis, I’m screwed.) I refused to make that insipid green bean casserole with mushroom soup, so I made my own version from scratch. It was marvie.

  21. Oh, how I loved reading this post. Hate to admit it but I was in tears laughing uncontrollably thanks to your mishaps and misery. And what’s more is that every single one of us can fully identify with your happenings. Your writing, though, transported me into your home as a movie, where I was able to witness every single second of your cooking and the comedy of errors. Thank you for a good read and laughter especially after having going through so much stress at work!

    1. Sofia, glad you liked the post, and that you can relate. I don’t mind your getting a chuckle out of my misfortune. In the end, that’s what comedy is: laughing at the foibles and misadventures of others. (I only wish it weren’t me who is always having the snafus.)

      1. Oh David… no worries. Thankfully I also know how to laugh at my own (almost daily) mishaps in the kitchen. Well that and English expressions!

        Let’s see, while still a student at Pratt I made a Spanish tortilla that ended up in the sink as I was flipping it. (My dear loving husband LOVES bringing this one up often.) Smoke alarm? We are best friends, and a typical sound in our household. Boiling water from shrimp overflowing and ending up all the way on the floor? Yep! Burnt cakes (because I forgot about them in the oven?) Check! Then in terms of expressions (as I cover my face in shame), the one I still hear from my husband’s family over and over, was when I proudly announcing to the whole family how the “cock” we had back home at my parents’ house in Portugal for Christmas was the VERY BEST one I ever had. Not realizing what I was saying, everyone looked at each other and started laughing, then my DEAR husband went on to exclaim: “Well that says a lot about me” (feel free to edit or not post!)

        1. Sofia, some folks may have a wee problem with your comment, but I think it’s not only hysterical, but quite touching. Having grown up in an immigrant family, I heard many a wrong phrase. What makes it so dear is the innocence of the speaker and he or she strives to sound colloquial and conversational. That made my day, Sofia.

  22. Throwing the burning pot out into the back yard is a well-tested and acceptable safety response. Hope you and your kitchen have recovered, at least in time for the next set of holiday baking…

    1. leduesorelle, yes, indeed, we have all recovered. The kitchen is aired out, and we all laugh about it. I’m still avoiding driving by the local fire house, though.

  23. Oh, David. Before your write something like this you really should warn those of us that may be, hum, how to put this delicately–bladder challenged–to pull on your Tenas so you don’t leave a puddle as you laugh yourself into a stupor. (I laughed so hard tears ran down my legs.)

    Chilly reception indeed–amazing how righteous the other half can get when you make the wee-est of miscalculations.

    Loved it!

    Oh, the pictures are nice too -;)

    1. TenaPieri, that is hysterical. And just for you, I have created a badge just for you that I shall place upon any post that I think might be moisture inducing. (The only thing is I didn’t think people would have such a response to this!)

      Oh, and regarding The One, I understand his stance. You have to realize I’m often Lucy to his Ricky. I’ve been is a hell of a lot of predicaments that I could have avoid had I 1.) more common sense and 2.) a better sense of a.) tact, b.) balance, c.) my limitations.

      Glad you liked the photos.

  24. I feel for you! Ah, you poor thing! I know it will be better next year. Thank you for the delightful tale…….love the pictures!

    1. You’re quite welcome, Debbie. I’ve recovered, The One has recovered, and the house no longer smells like a meth lab. (NOT that I know what a meth lab smells like!)

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