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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Comments

Hello, I am part of a cooking forum here in the US, and we would be delighted to have any under-informed cook to join us! We post many recipes, and discuss them. There are many active members who would love to help with definitions, procedures - you name it! Here is our address http://thequalitycook.com/phpBB/ Please join us!

Cook what you love. Think of your very favorite dishes, and then set out to learn how to make them! In the process, you will learn skills and techniques that you will use forever. I think one of the most important things though is having good equipment to use. Without a great knife, a nice big cutting board, and good basic ingredients (olive oil or butter, good salt, and fresh ground pepper) cooking isn't nearly as enjoyable. Grab a beer or a glass of wine and just set out to have fun in the kitchen - find some friends and make it an evening! And it wouldn't hurt to take a basic knife skills or basic cooking class! Best of luck to you - enjoy the ride!

Jessica

Sometimes recipes can be intimidating because it requires you to go out and buy a whole lot of ingredients that you don't have on hand. I like to start with one ingredient (usually whatever's on sale or in season) and look up in the Joy of Cooking how to prepare it. Each ingredient (i.e., type of meat or vegetable) has an "about" section that will tell you pretty much every way to prepare it on its own (such as roasting, steaming, boiling, broiling, baking etc.). You can start by just putting a little salt and olive oil or butter, and then move on slowly to adding seasonings and sauces as you get comfortable with them. An all-purpose seasoning (in your supermarket's spice section) is a good place to start. In addition to Joy of Cooking, I also really like Heidi's Cooking 1.0 which gives lots of variations on the same preparation method. Good luck!!

I started cooking when my wife went to work nights. I stumbled on Elise's website, Simply Recipes at www.elise.com/recipes, and through her site, yours :-) I've made a half dozen dishes from her web site, and unlike cook books, I tend to get hers right the first time. Simple, elegant, easy. Perfect for the budding male chef extraordinare.

My first go at cooking as an inexperienced single male was the CROCK POT. Its a wonderful thing. Pretty hard to mess things up when you toss your food in a flip a switch. I started getting more and more creative and have branched way out from there. Excellent tool for a single male of any age...

JRod

Dear BB, Just a few thoughts from an American living in the UK... It's worth noting that written measurements in recipes and cookbooks vary depending on the country. Most American recipes are based on cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, fahrenheit, etc. UK recipes tend to be written in metric. (For example: American recipes might say 'one stick of butter' - this translates to 8 tablespoons or 100 grams) You might find it worthwhile to invest in some 'cups' and 'measuring spoons' as well as a small kitchen scales (all readily available in most asda, tesco, etc) to help you get to grips with correct measurements. There is also a helpful conversion chart on the Waitrose website: http://www.waitrose.com/food_drink/recipes/conversioncharts/index.asp Good luck!

Jackie

I can recommend one book, though it's out of print (but still easily found online): the I Hate the Cook book by Peg Bracken. Very simple recipes, no assumed knowledge, no overly expensive, difficult-to-find ingredients. My partner now likes to cook, and he still uses this book.

You remind me so much of my British father. Like you, he had to learn to cook for himself at around the same age, and not just for himself but for his teenage son too. First of all, my father kept an open mind. Second, he found a small local grocer with a helpful, friendly staff he felt comfortable asking the dumbest of questions. Third, he kept it simple. In the end, he actually learned to enjoy cooking and he became a talented chef of flavorful, healthy creations. Best of luck to you. Cheers!

anna

To reiterate some of the points made above - get a good book - Delia is the queen when it comes to pretty-much fail-safe recipes. Make sure you read the recipe thoroughly before going shopping. Make a list. When you're ready to cook, first sit down with a cup of tea and re-read the recipe - make sure you know what's going to happen and when. Then, get all your ingredients ready - if you need softened butter, for example, get it out of the "beer cold box" an hour in advance. Measure things out and put them in little bowls as if you were a TV chef. Then cook! Build confidence by trying simple dishes first, then move on to more complicated offerings later. A couple of other tips: 1) Shop seasonally - there are books on this such as Nigel Slater's Appetite or Gary Rhodes has something on seasonal food. Alternatively, ask the greengrocer/fishmonger/butcher about what's good and what's in season. 2) Get a good knife and keep it in good condition - go to a specialist shop and ask them 3) Don't be afraid! The more you experiment, the better you'll get. And BB - depending on where you are in Surrey, I'll come out shopping with you one Saturday and help you out!

Try the book "Help! My Apartment has a Kitchen" -- it is for a beginner. Not glorious, but it will get you on your way. Then, move on to "Joy" and Food Network.

jan

I actually teach people just like Mr. BB! I start from a basic grocery store tour, go to how to make a shoping list while planning a menu, and then we take the groceries home and prep them for meals later in the week. After two sessions they really catch on! It's great to see the lightbulb click on. And we do emailing and calling in-between to see what they're doing right and wrong as they branch out. It's fun! Otherwise, my advice is that frozen vegetables aren't necessarily evil. They get a bad rap. And "semi-homemade" is really the way to go if you are a reluctant cook but still want good taste and nutrition. Mix fresh ingredients w/ prepared ingredients. Also, the more you cook, the more confident you will become, and the tips and techniques of the pros will begin to make more sense. So roll up your sleeves and dive right in!

chefasata

I like stir-fried cooking..it's easy and quick. Almost anything can be stir-fried. A little onion (optional) makes it yum. Adding water seems to be your problem..about that, just take a sec to get the feel of the stuff you are cooking, soft;;;;hard?! Aso depends on how you would like it turn out, in the sense ...are you into crispy veggies and chicken or mashy? Hope it helps

nowsheen

Oh, Sweetie! I wish you could spend a few afternoons with me in the kitchen! I learned by being in the kitchen with my dear Mom who was a fearless farmwife and mother of 10. There is no substitute for standing alongside someone who is enthusiastic about cooking and getting your hands in there. There are no mistakes in the kitchen...it is just sometimes easier to eat the results than others.

Delia Smith - she makes no presumptions about ability or enthusiasm. Nice recepies as well. Saturday Kitchen and whatever it's called on ITV, the Anthony Worall Thompson one. Everything is well explained and they are good for answering questions. Best of all they are over before Football Focus. The biggest problem with cooking for one is what to buy, and feeding just yourself not your compost heap. Have a look at The Greengrocer's Cookbook by Gregg Wallace, the bald chappie off Masterchef, he started on a stall in Peckham and now grows good quality veg for restaurants. It's very straight forward. Have a look at this site they might be close to you, if not, they might help www.warbornefarm.co.uk best of luck

mark

My advice is... my Nigella Lawson's "How to Eat" recommended by many other commenters. Open the book at the roast chicken recipe. Buy a whole chicken at the supermarket and a roasting pan for your oven (and salt, pepper, olive oil and a lemon), then just follow her instructions. She gives great easy to follow rules for cooking times based on weight of the chicken. Once you can cook roast chicken everything kind of flows from there, and if you live alone, it is great to have tasty leftovers in the fridge. Plus, the smell of a chicken roasting in the oven (sorry to the vegetarians) is one of the most comforting smells in the whole world and will make you feel like a great cook!

I faced this problem as a 30-something woman. I could cook basics but I was utterly bored and had no idea how to progress. I *knew* I could do better than stirring a sauce through a pasta. I ended up asking a friend who is a great cook to come and show me all the basics of kitchen management: how to keep a store cupboard, how to plan food, how to relax about following recipes etc. We've nicknamed it "How to Cook Like a Grown Up" and I've gone from someone who regarded food as fuel, as your correspondent does, to someone who actually enjoys cooking. We're planning to draw it up as a book - a modern guide to kitchen managing - but the tips I'd offer are: - try a book like 'New to Cooking' by Leslie Waters ISBN 1841728292. Even if you don't like the recipes, the front section details how to stock a store cupboard and the key items you need (like wooden spoons etc). So take that part of the book as a guide and don't worry about the rest. Although the rest breaks the recipes down by skills e.g. the section on roasting explains what it is, offers tips on how to do it and then some basic recipes. - I actually find Delia a bit too 'Nanny Knows Best' so if you don't like her, don't feel like you're a failure. Just ignore her. Alternatively, if you want someone like that, she's great. - always invest in a hand blender. You can get a decent philips one from Argos for about a tenner. - When you think about a meal, start by deciding on your carb. Do you want rice, pasta or potatoes? Then narrow it down: do you want something quick because you're going back out, or slow? Do you have left over veg to use up? - Soup is great. Leek and potato is a good one to start with. This is where that blender comes in. Once you are confident making soup, you will always be able to make youself something hot and filling inside 20 minutes. - Jamie Oliver's new book assumes you already have skills so isn't ideal for true beginners. - There's a book called Comfort Food which you can get in Next. That has a 'lazy risotto' recipe which I adore (although that does mean tracking down risotto rice). - Nigella is a goddess. she's the kind of cook who says "use a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes" instead of "skin and chop 400g of tomatoes" - she knows people are busy. - make use of the local library. It's free and normally has a shelf or two of cookbooks. Borrow the books people suggest here and make notes. I have a big A4 spiral bound book I keep my notes in. (You can use the UK's inter library loan to get that Waters book after I've returned it, if your local service doesn't have it.)

I also recommend Cooking For Engineers. They use a visual cue system that tells you exactly what to do, and in which order to do it, with precise measurements. In addition, the recipes are usually tasty :)

Richard

Heidi, you need to encourage the BB's of this world. Over here in the UK (I must live within 20 miles of him) the stats show that 69% of all food purchased in this country is precooked - ready to heat and eat - (lobster newburgh in a plastic bag - ugh) It is so bad that it is becoming difficult to find basic ingredients (unless you have a very large bank account) and even when you do thery are in small packets. Of course, going to a health food shop you can find really raw stuff, grains and pulses etc, and they are the one hope for finding things. Me: also a 60+ yr old male; I do a lot of cooking and I love all your recipes - much of the time I have to think about substitute ingredients - You used something last week that I had never heard of - (quinoa) and could not find a source for over here (I couldn't have afforded it anyway) but a mixture of 1 * sunflower seed, 3 * buckwheat seeds and 2 * wild rice worked nicely.= just needed to cook the sunflowers for quite a while and the buckwheat not so much. Encourage BB to experiment, its only food after all and if its a stcky goo, then dry, shape and bake it and use it as paperweights. Keep up the good work! JohnB

JohnB

3 years ago I also could not cook almost anything, maybe just rice with tuna from can and frozen vegetables, still not knowing how much water or salt I need. I thought kitchen is a big waste of time. When I started dating a guy that was cooking for me almost every day, I just felt ashamed. I HAD to cook, and I started to LIKE to cook. Now I am crazy about new recipes :) Cook for somebody, and it will become fun. Start with close friends first, that will be happy with unsuccessful experiments. It is fun to invite people and have cosy dinners together, you could also do cooking parties - just get some easy and fun recipes. Nobody ever did that in your environment before? You can be the first! A great occasion to socialize, to make everyone happy, and start to enjoy cooking. Cooking classes should be fun as well, I want to do that too.

My suggestion?? Order in! A Personal Chef that is! Personal Chefs have been in business for nearly 15 yrs in the USA and run in England too. Me, personally, I run a national network in Australia. What does a PC do? We ask you what you would like for dinner. We personalise that menu to your tastes. We shop for the groceries. Then we spend a day in your kitchen, preparing those groceries into two weeks of yummy food that you just have to reheat or finish off with a slap of cream or similar. Easy Peasy for the cook who doesn't want or have time to cook. That's my suggestion anyway. And I cant nab business cos this is for some poor hungry chap in England and I'm in Sydney. sigh. Anyway, love your site, I check in almost daily and drool every time. You are welcome in my home any day! Next trip, eh! Culinary Regards, Maggie T The Gourmet Saint

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