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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Apologies, comments are closed.


I'm a college student and here's how I've figured some of this out: 1. what to eat and how to shop? = "The Food Bible" by Judith Wills. Has great advice on healthy food. 2. "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bitman has great recipes that I find more interesting than joy of cooking, although i think "joy" has better directions for basics- like how to hard boil an egg.


I'm surprised no one has mentioned a "For Dummies" book. I have "Vegetarian Cooking for Dummies", and in addition to recipes, it has a whole section on how to cut things and, more importantly, how to grocery shop. It even breaks things down by things to buy every week, every other week, once a month, once every few months, etc. And in the back, there are suggested menus, including holiday menus. I'm not familiar with the "Cooking Basics for Dummies", but if they're available in the UK, you may want to take a look and see if it's helpful. Amazon also lets you peek inside if you plan on ordering it online.


Good Luck B.B from England. I'd suggest getting a basic cookbook and just plunge in. We've all started at the same point you are whether 20 or 60. I think Chicken is the easiest to cook and so many ways to prepare it, soups are easy and lots of basic veggies too. Keep us posted on your progress, it would be fun to see how you are doing.


Thanks for sharing the letter. It was so well written. A joy to read. There are a lot of good suggestions here. First cookbook that comes to mind is "Joy of Cooking" - but now I need to rush home and see if it gives directions for mincing garlic...

I can relate to the frustration. Creaming sugar and butter when baking is not an intuitive thing, but it is an important step and is NEVER written in directions. There must be a resource that explains these "secret steps" to making food


To BB: Advice piece #1: I would start by letting go of the fear. So what if you mess something up? Throw it out and start over, or try to determine what went wrong and fix it. My husband and I have these discussions quite often. He does cook (a little), but he's very intimidated by some very basic things, so I just constantly remind him that if something doesn't come out like he wants, we can always toss it and order out. Granted, this is not the most economical approach, but if you start with inexpensive ingredients, you can do this relatively guilt free, esp if you are cooking for one (since most everything comes packaged for 4+, you can toss out the first try, and still have plenty of ingredients left over for the second try). Advice piece #2: Start with recipes that are basic "assembly" style recipes, meaning that they are more like "dump-ingredients-and-heat" than gastronomic chemistry. For this, I would recommend starting with a soup. Dump a can of tomatoes and a can of black (or other) beans in a pot, add as much spice as you like, blend a bit if you want it smoother, and sample. If you don't like it, add something different- a can of corn, some raw veg, etc. It's the "technique" (as much as opening a can is a tecnhique!), the process, not the specific amounts that matter. Along with this bit of advice, my own personal favorite "assembly"-style cookbook is Moosewood Restaurant Cooks At Home. Almost all the recipes there will turn out great even if you can't follow the exact instructions, or if you add more or less of specific ingredients. Also, IMHO, I would (just for now) stay away from Joy of Cooking, How to Cook Everything, even Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks. I have all of these, and many more like them in my collection, and though they are great resources, they are not for the novice cook. I still come across recipes in Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything that are so convoluted and precise that they frustrate me, and I've been cooking and baking for a very long time. I would compare these to encyclopedias; if you were teaching a person to read, you wouldn't hand them an encyclopedia, you'd give them something shorter, more simple, more clear, where the sentences were concise and not overly wordy. Get these types of cookbooks eventually, but don't necessarily start out with them, IMHO! Also, I have found that one of my non-cooking computer-ish friends really enjoys cooking occasionally now that she has read Shirley Corriher's Cookwise, which is a food science book. If you are interested in what is actually happening to the different ingredients as you cook them, you might enjoy reading food science (not as cookbooks, necessarily, but just as entertainment!). It might spark your interest to try more ambitious cooking eventually!


If you want a no-frills, made-for-people-who-don't cook cook-book - check out the Abs Diet Cookbook. (created by the editor of Men's Health magazine.) Yes, it features "healthy" foods, but it is written for the stereotypical male-who-can't-use-a-kitchen. The recipes tend to use non-cook terminology such as "dump into pot" and "shovel the mixture into the pan". I found it frustrating since I'm used to more traditional recipes, but it is easy to understand...and the food is actually really good, too.


taste everything as you go, all the time. salt and pepper everything as you're cooking, all the time. to make simple food, use the freshest ingredients and the outcome will be far superior and easier than trying to doctor up frozen corn and deli ham luncheon meat slices. fresh means it has more flavour on its own. those are the three most important lessons for a novice cook, i suppose?


Check out kraftfoods.com, its a bunch of really easy and tastey recipes that only have 3 or four things in them. Great for bachelors :D

Try the cookbook, 'A Man, a Can, a Plan: 50 Great Guy Meals Even You Can Make' You can find it on Amazon. It provides pictures of almost all the ingredients you need; very simple. Even has a section dedicated to cooking with beer. A good introduction to cooking. http://www.amazon.com/Man-Can-Plan-Great-Meals/dp/1579546072


I think most people would be surprised what they can do when they open their minds. For example, try really tasting different combinations of simple ingredients to see what appeals to you. You don't need a cookbook to tell you what tastes good to you.


I second the book "How to Cook Everything" I also agree with cooking classes...I went to one recently for college students who were new to cooking and saw that people 40 years out of college outnumbered the youngsters. You are not alone sir, consider buying some very basic books like "How to Boil Water" and you might soon be hosting dinner parties! Good Luck!


I can't offer advice, but your letter helped my to find this website, and I am with you in every word... And yes, cooking for engineers does seem to make more sense than most cookbooks I know. You aren't the only one on this journey...


As others have said, get a basic, all purpose cookbook--one that I haven't seen mentioned yet is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. He also has a column in the New York Times called The Minimalist, which now includes video instructions based on the column. Donna Hay's Off the Shelf has great pictures and helps with how to stock a pantry. Learn basic cooking terms. It looks like this site, Reluctant Gourmet, is aimed at people who don't know where to start. It also has tips on how to choose cookware. Epicurious has also added video clips that demonstrate cooking techniques. Getting the visual can really help explain what that paragraph describing how to chop an onion really means. Think about what you like to eat. That's the best way to get excited about cooking. If you have a favorite food, look for a recipe for that and give it a try. Know that much of cooking is forgiving, that if you mess up a little it won't ruin things, that eating the part that isn't burned is probably going to better than the tv dinners anyway, so you have nothing to lose.

I like Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything." He has it sorted by ingredient (example, you look up chicken and he lists recipes for chicken three different ways). The recipes are easy and made with ingredients that you usually have at home already.


I have 2 sons who had no interest in cooking when they lived at home but now, living on their own they need to cook for themselves. I encouraged them to buy a slow cooker and to start off with that. I told them they can cook a roast with onions, carrots and potatoes or make a soup with chicken or chunks of sirloin steak and a bag of frozen veggies, fresh garlic, some sea salt and pepper...to taste [I just had to add that :)]. The possibilities are endless with a slow cooker. The great thing about the slow cooker is you can throw everything in it before you go to work and your meal is ready when you walk in the door. Your whole house will smell delicious. You can buy a slow cooker at any department store and the food at every grocery store. I apologize if this is a repeat suggestion but there are so many great comments I did not have the time to read them all. Best of luck to B.B.. With a little practice he'll be cooking away in no time at all. S

I don't know much about basic cooking sites, as I've been cooking for years now, but the best place to look up unfamiliar terms is probably the food dictionary at www.epicurious.com. It give simple and clear definitions of many cooking terms. The dictionary is based on The New Food Lover's Companion 3rd Edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst, which is also an amazing reference. Not only does it define over 6000 cooking terms, but it also has 30 appendices, covering everything from the differences between American, British, and French measurements/terms to how to decide what oven temperature to use. Other than that, www.wikipedia.com can be a useful source as well, especially when looking up unfamiliar ingredients. The Epicurious food dictionary can be accessed from the main page (click on "dictionaries" near the top), and I'm sure the Food Lover's Companion can be found in some bookstores (I purchased mine from Amazon).


What do you like to eat? If you start with something you like, you will be more motivated. Also, you know what it should taste / look like, so this will help you know what the results should be. Look at cookbooks for kids. The Farm Journal, a United States publication, has a wonderful cookbook called "Let's Start to Cook". You could probably find a copy on ebay. It isn't too cute, and covers the basics quite well. Believe in yourself--you can do this!


Dear BB, one of the most important lessons I ever learned was from my mother (I will never admit to her that she was right, however!). That lesson was this - take some time each weekend to plan out meals that you can readily buy ingredients for in one grocery trip. For example, if you are planning to eat mostly sandwiches for lunch, rice as a side dish for dinner 3 times that week, asparagus with 2 dinners, and hot tea thruout the week... Then I make a list on 2 pieces of paper. One paper has Sunday thru Saturday listed - and my ideas for meals. (Sunday: brunch will be scrambled eggs and toast, dinner will be rice with....etc) The SECOND paper is a grocery list of items I ONLY need for the meals that week. This skill helped me a lot because when I first started cooking I found all the items at the grocery store overwhelming. But I also found that by making that list both my budget AND my kitchen benefit from this. So I tape the list of possible meals for the week to my refrigerator, and when I am hungry I know I can pick from anything on that list... I know the ingredients are already in the kitchen, too. Many a bad meal is made in haste when someone is hungry... HOPE THIS HELPS and Good Luck! You may find that after time passes you will take more interest in food and cooking... that's how it started with me!

I love "Cooks Illustrated" magazine in the US and a book by one of the authors, Pam Anderson - "How to Cook without a Book." I don't know if they print in the UK but I used to order books from Amazon UK for US delivery all the time for college classes, and the magazine's been serialized into large hardcover books for each of at least the last two years. It's the simplest cookbook I've ever seen, probably way too simple for any 'real' chef but it pulled me from "terrified of cooking" to "ah, I can probably cook it and not botch it too badly" in just a little while. Also got me thinking about how food goes together. I second Alton Brown's cookbook. It's a bit more advanced-level but fun to read even when you're not cooking. He's a genius.


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