Why Most People Can’t (Or Won’t) Cook

potatocakeI watch a lot of TV cookery programs (though I don’t cook what I see on them), and own a fair few books on food (which I rarely seem to open). I am still amazed by how many people are fearful of cooking and, in contrast to the books and programs we have on offer, seem to be stuck at square one when it comes to putting something on a plate.

I wonder if any of the following contribute to this:

Recipes – Most people won’t attempt to cook unless they can find a recipe to follow. They have to make something with a predefined set of instructions, which was pre-tested by someone else.

I sometimes make things from recipes, but most of my cooking is just a main ingredient and then I improvise what goes with it, and learning from past mistakes. Can’t improvise? Then you haven’t experimented enough (see “Fear of Getting It Wrong” below).

I often buy chicken, oven cook it to the instructions on the pack, and throw in cubed potatoes (tossed in oil) to cook alongside it. I don’t need a “recipe” for potatoes, nor the additional veg I might steam/boil to go with it. And if I’m wondering how to cook that veg, because it isn’t written on the pack/bag, I can just Google for it or experiment and learn from it. These meals are the healthiest I eat. I control the ingredients, treat them simply, and decide how much salt to add.

Heston Blumenthal may produce lofty results, but his initial aim was to learn the little things that make a meal better. By that I mean how to get crispy chicken skin, how to add flavour, and so on. He may produce scarily-brilliant results now, but we could all learn from his early aim: To produce better meals.

Family Cooking – Most recipes and TV programs focus on cooking for 2+ people. This means people don’t attempt to cook, or can’t figure out what/how to cook, when they are on their own. Most of my cooking is solitary: Weekday evenings when I come home from work, or before I go out and I need something to eat. Most shop-bought ingredients are too big for a solitary meal, and so I got used to saving leftovers in the fridge, or cooking for two meals and saving the extra portion for another time. If you’re a singleton, like me, cooking for one should be the norm, not the exception or the reason to buy one of those sad “cooking for one” books.

MasterChef – Ok, to be fair, any TV program that glorifies the grandstanding of cookery. These are decent programs if you are interested in seeing how top chefs work. But for home cooking, they are useless and intimidating. Food porn, at best. I don’t need to know how to make Eggs Benedict in order to have a decent weekend breakfast. I just need to know how to fry/boil/poach eggs, cook bacon until it is crisp, fry mushrooms properly (most have never learned this) until they develop flavour, etc. I can learn more complex recipes later. For now, I need a decent healthy meal without scouring a recipe book for it.

Fear of Getting It Wrong – This is where cooking for yourself is an advantage. The number of things I’ve burned, or which have turned out as total failures, will never be known to most folks. I can hide, or still eat, the results. There is no-one to witness most of my culinary failures and, so long as I learn from each one, they don’t matter. If people bothered to cook for themselves more, they would discover what a great learning environment and safety net it can be. Wondering whether your potato cake mixture needs an egg in it? Wondering whether it’s too sloppy to hold together in the pan? Try it, learn from it and then eat/hide the evidence 🙂

Forgetting We’re Just Feeding Ourselves – People forget that the main reason for making a meal isn’t to impress someone, to show that we’re as good at cooking as some chap off MasterChef, or to be pleased that we now know how to make a white sauce. The main reason for making a meal is to feed ourselves and each other. Full-stop. I don’t just mean nutrition, but also the enjoyment of eating something we prepared and which tastes good. It is the most basic form of self care.

Cooking should be a simple act and a life-long learning experience, and yet we’ve over-complicated it with recipe books, chef’y expectations, TV shows and fear. I’m not a great cook, but I’m willing to throw something in a pan and learn from it. Problem is, that’s not very televisable!