A Letter from an Unwilling Cook

The letter that triggered hundreds of reader comments - from a 60 year old Englishman who had never cooked a meal in his life.

A Letter from an Unwilling Cook

I love reading the emails you send me. I usually keep them to myself, but occasionally I come across one that I'm inclined to share. I had one of these come through my in-box a few days ago...

Hello Heidi,
I spotted your site as a Google banner, so that's how I arrived here.

Why should I, a 60 year old Englishman who has never cooked a meal in his life (I'm not proud of that) be looking at a Cooking site?

I am newly single, and facing having to care for myself. I've mastered the big white box (washing machine), discovered that 'food' can also go in the beer cold box, that frozen dinners can be made in the little white microwave-box, but.... I have a box left over. I think it's called a cooker?

My problem is that "Cookbooks" are written by extremely competent, very enthusiastic cooks. This is no good at all to duffers like me, who actually don't want to cook, but will have to. Apart from cookbooks intended for students (wall-to-wall pasta!), I haven't found one that firstly takes me round the shop telling me what (and what NOT!) to buy; exactly how much water to put in a pan; what I should be doing while the cooking-box-thingy warms up; how much of what herbs/spices to add ("season to taste" is NO help!); how do you prepare, for instance, "minced garlic"/etc.; and so on. The problem is that there is too much assumed knowledge on the part of the writer, as well as a supposed enthusiasm on the part of the reader. This reader has no enthusiasm whatsoever!!

There is a class of reader out there who cannot cook, who must cook, but who don't really want to cook. So why bother with deadbeat people like this? Out of pity, I guess!

And why am I writing to you? I like the clear way you present what seem to be simple, interesting recipes, your enthusiasm, your contacts, your willingness to take on board what others say, and I hope that you have some compassion for those of us starving on ghastly tv dinners...!

There is a need for a small group of recipes for the "don't-wanna-but-gotta-cook" people who nevertheless want to do things correctly. These recipes will take the unwilling novice by the hand, lead them round the supermarket/deli buying simple produce (no 'tef flour'/'kuchai'/etc!), then stand them in the kitchen, and tell them everything they need to do... every single, solitary action! Maybe we will go on to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable (but don't hold your breath!)? But we will be grateful :)

If this strikes a chord with you, maybe you would give it some consideration? Simple, easy-to-prepare fresh food that even I can make... aaah!

Sincere best wishes,
B.B. - Surrey, England

So...I thought I would open up the discussion to all of you.
What advice do you have for a 60-year old Englishman who has never cooked a meal in his life? Someone who is likely overwhelmed, lacking much (any?) enthusiasm, someone who could clearly use some inspiration and advice. Where does someone like this start? - He's certainly not the only one feeling this way.

photo from istockphoto.com

And update to this post can be found here - congratulations Barry!

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There is no Food Network in the UK but there is UKTV food if he has digital or SKY TV. I would also recommend buying one of the Delia collections of books, possibly How To Cook. Nigel Slater is a very readable cook but does rely a lot on vague measurements which may not be what you need when starting out. I don't think you can go wrong with a roast chicken - buy a small chicken, rub with butter, salt, pepper, squeeze over some lemon juice and roast at about 200 degrees for 20mins per 500g plus another half an hour. Check it is cooked through by piercing the thickest part of the thigh and checking that the juices run clear. You'll have a great meal plus leftover meat for a curry or sandwiches, and can very simply make stock for soups. Good luck!


The cookbook I started with was the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook. The front & back flaps have handy info that includes a basic pantry list to help you with the start up grocery shopping. The sections are easy to follow: meat, vegetables, soups, ect. In the front of each section is a basic overview for chopping, cutting, preping, cooking methods, tempatures, and times. In editions 1995 to present there are recipies marked "easy." They take minimal ingredients, and very few steps. It makes it almost painless. Almost. Soups, stews, and chilis are a good place to start. It usually involves throwing some stuff you chopped up in a big pot on the stove top in the afternoon, and dinner a few hours later. In the meantime enjoy some well deserved brew from the "beer cold box", watch a game, walk by the stove top occasionally to make sure nothing has caught fire, grap another brew and wait it out. Not a bad way to spend Sunday afternoon. In the end you'll have dinner for that night and, if you make a large enough batch, leftovers for lunch and dinner during the week.


I would agree with Victoria - Delia's latest 'How to Cook' series comes the closest to really detailed step-by-step instructions. Unfortunately, there is no Food Network in the UK, and Joy of Cooking is hard to find here. The other advice I would have is to taste everything all the time. Too few home cooks do this, expecting it to all be OK in the end. Taste as you go, even if it's just to understand what it tastes like at that stage of the recipe. Taste a rare steak, a medium one and a well done one - keep putting it back into the pan until it's done the way yo like it. Developing a good palate will make it so much easier to just throw some things in a pan - you can taste and adjust things to the way you like later on.


You might need some enthusiasm but the advice I have given to friends who wanted to expand their skills was to start one spice at a time. Don't buy lots of ingredients you know nothing about and try to learn to use them all. By one item and keep using it in different ways until you learn where you like it and where you don't, how much you like/don't. Even 'simple' items like salt and pepper - start with them, get to know them, and then add one more. It is also a way to build your kitchen without blowing your money on lots of items all at once.

Brenda Schroeder

I would also recommend watching Alton Brown's show on the Food Network. He has a cookbook out called "I'm Just Here For The Food" and although I have not yet read it, from the reviews on Amazon.com, it is apparently appropriate for the novice cook. It "won the 2002 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Cookbook in the Reference category, was one of the bestselling cookbooks of 2002 and has sold over 300,000 copies to date. It was also chosen by Amazon.com as one of the top 50 books of 2002 by both editors and readers". The quote is from the Food Network site. I have always found Mr. Brown to be informative with regards to not only the origins of the food in question, but explains things in a fashion that even my "uncook", as my husband calls himself, feels able to make the day's highlighted food. Good luck and along with the other folks who commented, I foresee an interesting future as well as a possible new hobby to enjoy!


More often than not, you don't even need to do much more than be creative with pre-made or pre-boxed stuff. One of my favorite quick fix things to make is nothing more than Rice-a-Roni with bits of cooked chicken. All you need to do is cook the chicken in some olive oil or butter or whatever you liek until it's lightly brown, then set it aside in a bowl. Then proceed to follow the box directions, and once you get to where you simmer the Roni, add the chicken back in. It may not be restaurant quality stuff, but it's still really good. I also do a similar dish with boxed vegetable soup mix (same direction as for the Rice-a-Roni, really). Just be creative. Just because you "can't cook," doesn't mean you can't be creative with what you have available. Eventually you'll become confident enough to try more complicated dishes.


Dear Englishman, My blog is a place where I have been putting my recipes mainly so that I can access them from anywhere - but also for my friends. I have a lovely cousin Bill, and I am encouraging him to cook, so all the easy recipes on my site that are tagged "For Bill" are easy and especially marked for a beginning cook. Since you live in England, you can watch Nigel Slater and Delia Smith on television, and I would recommend you find out when they are on and check them out. You should also go to the bookstore and look at the following books (after Heidi's): Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course Volumes 1 - 3 in 1 Volume. This is the basic cookbook for every British kitchen. It might look a little intimidating, but it is the English "Joy of Cooking" and should be in the kitchen of every Englishman (woman) who wants to, needs to, learn to cook. I would suggest you get this book for sure and then ONE of the following: Nigel Slater's Real Food (NOT Real Fast Food). This is a book about the food you really want to eat, not fancy restaurant-chef kind of food. In other words, real food. Nigella Lawson's How to Eat. It's fun to read and easy to follow if you pick the right stuff. And you can keep reading, and cooking, and eating. Neil Perry's The Food I Love. This book I don't own (but I'll probably order it now). I have seen it here in Barnes & Noble in the States, and it looks like a good book for a beginner and judging from the comments on the Amazon.co.uk site a lot of people who use the book feel that way so I think it is especially worth checking out. There is also a Jamie Oliver book that I have never seen over here - My Guide to Making You a Better Cook, so I can't recommend it except to say it might be worth looking at. It is supposed to be a book for people who are learning to cook, so while you're poking about the bookstore, check it out too. Having said all that, reading the comments on Amazon about any cookbook you want to buy gives you some insight into who is profitably using the book - and sometimes tips on what recipes are particularly good and easy. Also, never forget B4D (breakfast for dinner). Good luck and happy eating. You might be in for quite a lovely adventure. I hope so. Sincerely, Victoria


I second the Cooking for Engineers recommendation as well as the Food Network... especially Alton Brown. He breaks down in detail how to make even "simple" foods like pancakes. If you don't get the Food Network, their website is also a great resource with instructions, videos and recipes: http://www.foodtv.com. The first cookbook that really inspired me to learn to cook was How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. I think it's a great choice for beginners.


I'm with Pat. Joy Of Cooking is great. get an older used copy if you can, pre-1997 (the 1997 revamp wasn't so good IMHO) remember that you can do this!


Guess we all have to start somewhere and I started a long time ago; but for a 'novice' a good very basic book is the "Joy of Cooking". It won't be long before he has moved way beyond 'tv dinners'!


When I started cooking, my adventures were often funded by my parents and I frequently tried to cook meals that were a little more than I could handle - at least, in time to have dinner on the table at 6:30pm. In fact, one of the first meals I ever cooked was duck a l'orange, complete with whole roast duck and a home-made orange sauce. Still, I found myself merely following recipes often found online, which I didn't find particularly difficult to read, though I did have some basic sense of what went on in a kitchen. A few years later was when I really began to grow as an "at home" chef. For me, I try to cook things I like or that I think I would like. I suggest picking a simple dish (or two) that you like and trying prepare it. While B.B. laments about pasta, that was one of the first places I started. If you have ground beef in tomato sauce, try Italian sausage to do something new. If tomato sauce bores you, try a store-bought pesto. Try simple meals with simple flavors. This requires some creativity on the cook's part, but I find that browsing through cookbooks can help with the inspiration, even if you never read an entire recipe. Though Heidi is a vegetarian (I think?!) and may not agree with me here, I think that a great place to start with cooking is chicken breast. It is easy to cook and easy to season. For cooking, my rules of thumb have always been that it should feel firmer than when it was raw and, if you must cut it to check, there shouldn't be any pink. I think that after B.B. cooks a few chicken breasts, he'll get the feeling for when it is done. The seasoning is where the creativity and imagination of the budding "at home" chef can really blossom. Do you like pineapples? Get some pineapple juice and marinade (i.e., soak) the breast in it overnight (no metal containers). Not quite the flavor? Try adding some soy sauce, garlic, or ginger. Going a different way, try some Worcestershire sauce and sesame oil. At this point, the flavor you will taste is entirely dependent on your imagination. I am also a fan of the incredibly generic "stir fry." Pick a few green-ish vegetables you like (e.g., broccoli, greenbeans, onions, asparagus) and toss them in a hot skillet with some oil. Be careful and add some liquid (maybe water, maybe soy sauce, maybe pineapple juice) and cover until they start to appear more cooked. Toss in some chicken that you cooked in a previous pan and you have a meal! Just try to plan complimentary flavors. So, while this reply is much longer than expected, this is very much how my love of cooking got started. I am rather inexperienced when compared to many, but I think I have learned a couple things: cook foods you enjoy or expect to enjoy and start simple and later add layers of complexity.


Just mess about. The best food comes from not thinking. The way i taught myself how to cook was: "ok what do i like - chicken.... okay what goes with chicken?" If you burn it, you burn it! Cooking classes are so much fun too. Meet people, burn things with them. I remember my friend tried to make popcorn in a saucepan in cooking class one day. Even now it still makes me laugh. Food is fun, even when its terrible. pepper is your friend :D


Join a cooking class. Not only will you learn to cook, but will also meet people


http://www.cookingforengineers.com is a site with step by step photos and instructions that seem to be geared more toward the male thinking process. Also his country gave us the queen of basic cookery, Delia Smith. I can't believe that her books and tv programmes haven't been of any assistance to him. Really, it sounds like he needs someone to teach him how to do a shop and how to make basic things. He should look for some cookery classes in his area.


I agree, we who find cooking comes naturally take so much for granted. Sometime ago I posted a recipe for pitta bread on my blog. Recently I was contacted by a young teenager in Asia who wanted to make them. For the past week she has emailed me every day with a different question on the process. It really has made me realise there are people out there who require very detailed instructions. When the instructions say "pull off a piece of dough and flatten out" I know what it means but some people want to know "how big a piece, how flat " Making pitta bread is probably ambitious for a young person starting out but I admire her willingness to try


watch the food network (or any cooking show that interests you). Pick one host that you like & watch his/her show on a regular basis. By picking one host, you'll get to know their style/terminology quicker. After a while, you'll understand what they're talking about & feel adventurous enough to try a recipe or two. (the network or show will probably also have their own website where you can get additional recipes & tips). Good luck!


Just have olive oil, salt and pepper and you're set. Sprinkle on vegetables, fish, steak, anything... then put it in the oven (have to experiment or look up how long for each thing) but that's it! Good luck!


Depending on learning style, finding a junior-mentor could be one approach in acquiring basic kitchen skills. In '93 I had a Peace-Corp friend in Russia... he was similarly limited in the kitchen and the market situation was an added stress... I said he could come over and eat as often as he liked as long as he came over a couple of hours before he hoped to eat and help and/or watch... The day I left Russia he came over with all the ingredients prepped for an omelet breakfast... I was impressed by his new skills, really enjoyed that "Last Breakfast" and discovered kitchens do make for the best parties and friends!


Eggs can be easy to prepare. And they can be different every single time. Omlettes, scrambled, boiled .... The supermarket can be a fascinating place for the novice and also for those pressed for time. Having frozen veggies in your freezer means you can steam and have them, or put them in a soup, or in a curry [heated from a pre-packaged bottle], or in a salad, or thrown in with rice in the cooker. Oil, butter, salt, sugar and pepper are the mighty five. You will be surprised how many ingredients taste fantastic just by the use of salt, sugar or pepper. Keep it simple, food tastes better raw[except meat of course!], half-cooked, steamed, roasted ... instead of lengthy and elaborate preparations :)


When I first started cooking...the biggest successes were soup. Easy but can pack big flavor.


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