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

I'll second the Cooking for Engineers website. It's fantastic for beginners, explains cooking terms, has step by step photos of simple recipes. He can't go wrong with it!

Shannon

My advice? Come see us! My sister and I love to cook, and have lots of friends who want to love it too, but aren't quite there yet. We're trying (slowly, but surely) to put together some helpful tips and guidelines for cooking, rather than just recipes. B.B. asked some wonderfully specific questions (how much water to put in the pan) that I'll try to do a post on soon!

My boyfriend used to be one of these men, younger of course, but of the military mindset. His fridge was for beer and Chinese leftovers and the supermarket a very scary place he did not wish to explore. I love to cook and knew that if he lost his fear he would share my love of making food, not just eating it. If i had a complicated ingredient I thought he'd have trouble identifying I got him a picture online and printed it out so he wouldn't bring home parsley instead of dill. Incorporating things I knew he had around the house (a jar of salsa or bottle of beer) helped him to see that ingredients for cooking are everywhere. This bachelor or newly single male is much the same. They want to eat good food but have no idea how to get to that point and aren't really sure its worth the effort to begin with. My guy and I now cook together and he even makes meals on his own now . He's proud of his ability to tell when eggs are cooked and chicken ready to be be eaten. Knowledge I've held since I was a child in my mother's kitchen were not passed to him. I often thought he'd get mad and tell me to stop treating him like a child but I was surprised to find he had no idea I was giving him information I thought he should already know.

Being from Puerto Rican decent, and married to an Italian we both would recommend starting with a 'soffrito'. Depending on where you are from the ingredients may vary. In it's simpliest form it can be garlic and/or onions sauted in olive oil -- period. Then add your chicken or steak, or just veggies (like tomatoes and aspargus). To me, nothing accompanies more types of food (meat or vegetables) than garlic and oil. Good luck.

Cinthia

for bb- I just got married 2 1/2 years ago. I had never cooked anything before my marriage. In the beginning the only things I could cook with confidence was rice and cornbread. Now I love to cook and am one of those people who eats at a restaurant and then says, "I can make this." and then does! I have to admit I'm proud of myself. For me cooking was totally a journey, finding out what I liked, finding out what methods suit me best, discovering which flavors go together, discovering what my husband liked. All I can say is the more you do it the easier it will get. It's easy to give up, especially in the beginning, when you've worked so hard and then your dish is burnt or the flavors are off. But trial and error truly does pay off in the kitchen, it's how you acquire an instinct after a while. It also helped me to cook with someone knowledgeable. My husbands grandma taught me how to bake a cake, and that lesson was priceless. A friend, and longtime cook, would have me prep foods for her, (chop, dice, mix, etc), while she explained what she was doing. Cooking with someone is the best way to learn the little tricks and secrets they don't go into in the cook books. As for myself I've learned that I'm not to good at cooking on the stove. My timing is off, and it leads to burnt food. But I'm really good with baking, casseroles, broiling and the crock pot. You don't have to be good at everything. I've also learned it's best not to substitute items, when you're trying out a new recipe, and especially when you're a novice and don't know what goes together, ( I made some foul food in the beginning). Do what you feel comfortable with and maybe incorporate just a few new ingredients or one new method at a time. ok, I'm done, -Annabelle

Annabelle

There is a television program from BBC which we receive in Israel featuring Delia Smith and each show covers a very basic aspect of cooking, like soups, stews, pulses, potatoes. Becvause the "language"will be familiar to you and the ingredients it will probably be very helpful for you. Good luck!!

Dennie Raviv

I reccommend buying an electric rice cooker. It requires no attending once the rice is put in, and turns out fluffy steamed rice every time. You can experiment with different kinds: white, brown, long-grain, short-grain, jasmine, basmati, sticky, and the process is the same for all of them. Then you can add a steamed vegetable and a fried egg, or a piece of fish, or a piece of chicken, and you will always have a good meal available. Also really handy: frozen raw shrimp. They defrost in ten minutes in a bowl of room-temperature water, and cook easily and quickly. The magazine Cook's Illustrated once had an insert that clearly explained what standard recipe instructions mean (one cup of flower, sifted versus one cup sifted flour, for example). Try to find the magazine at a library, or subscribe to www.cooksillustrated.com. The $20 a year is well worth it.

Kate

A few years ago, I knew nothing about cooking except reading the cooking time written on the pasta bag. I was affraid of the oven, and had no will to cook whatsoever. Now I even write my own food blog! How did I change? I had a friend who forced me to participate: she was making an olive and ham cake, and made me do it so that I could see how easy it was. Then I made it again and again because my friends kept telling me it was so good... Then I decided I would try something else, and little by little I got hooked to cooking. So here's my advice: learn with a friend, and cook for friends (cooking for one self is not so fun...)

Mr 60yr old Englishman, Can I suggest you go to your local supermarket and find out from the store manager when they hold cooking demonstrations. Try to attend a few, not only will you see up close how to cook, the products being used will be available close at hand and you can ask as many questions as you like. You might meet some others like yourself and possibly put them on the track to success also. Have fun.

Bri

I second the suggestions of A Man, A Can, A Plan, and Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book.

Hi! To be honest (and not patronizing...), I would suggest getting a children's cookbook. They tend to have very good, satisfying recipes, but are really good at spelling out all of those specific techniques (such as mincing, putting water in the pan, etc) that you are unfamiliar with, B.B.. Dorling Kindersley has a good one. Beyond that, just trust yourself! YOU CAN SEASON TO TASTE!!! Just season a little and then TASTE it. The best things come out of "mistakes"! best, Hannah

Hannah

Mr BB in Surrey, you need Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries. He will take you from the market through the cooking process and something to do with the leftovers. His reading will make you hungry for his simple day by day recipes giving you the needed enthusiasm to begin. Think of yourself as a new bride lucky enough not to subject another to your learning experiences !

Jan

i think starting with one of your favourite dishes is always a good thing. you know whats in it and its something you like to eat. so you dont really mind doing this funny thing called cooking. a got a few friends cooking like this. and - yep! - they dont eat no cornflakes for lunch any more. give it a go! *m

There are several books out there that are "5 ingredients or less" style. Also any of the recommended books both in and out of print may be found used and very reasonably priced through www.abebooks.com Also basic chops, bangers, chicken and meat joint cooking are easy to master and a good place to start. Casseroles with quality purchased components are healthy and easy to master. Like lasagne with quality bottled sauce and the no boil noodles make it a good starting dish to learn. And watch lots of cooking shows. That's how I learned to branch out from the regular Sunday joint/chicken type cooking. Actually watching some one do it makes a world of difference. Debbie in Canada

Debbie

Nigella Lawson's How to Eat is invaluable even if used only for her pantry list and instructions on what you should have in your kitchen at all times.

I haven't read thru the replies so don't know if this has already been suggested but how about joining a community kitchen? A small group of people with common tastes get together to cook meals that they can then take home and freeze to eat later. You get to socialize, learn something about cooking and get good food in the end. The fact that you are even inclined to cook for yourself says alot. My husband (who is only 41 so maybe there is hope yet) can go in a grocery store and not see anything there to eat except maybe in the deli department.

Terri

Dear Englishman, I wanted to add one more possible cookbook for a reluctant beginner. There are more than one of these books, I think the name is " The 4 ingredient Cookbook. " The recipes are, obviously super simple, not gourmet at all, but a starting place to develop some confidence. Like, how hard can combining 4 things be? I hope you may find as you start your reluctant journey that a whole new fun world can open up. Someone suggested a cooking class, which is a great idea. Hope things go well for you. Kay

kay

One that I really liked is Marion Cunningham's "Cooking with Children." (1) It takes you step by step and (2) it teaches how to cook Real Food (as opposed to some of the odd recipes you find in kids' cookbooks). If he'd rather not read something with that title, then he could try her "Learning to Cook," which is geared towards adults who have never cooked Also step by step, also real food. (There's a review of the second book in Epicurious)

Well I don't have much advice as far as cookbooks, but perhaps enlist the services of a friend to help you with this. Someone who lives in your area will be good because they will know where to shop and what the resources are in your area. You'll want to stock your cupboard with the basics. There are lists everywhere, I see two off the bat here and here. Once you get stocked up on a few basics, menu planning is the best tip I can offer. That way you know what you need to purchase for the coming week or so and you're not simply floundering about in the grocery store.

Janet

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