Apparently, a squib in the Telegraph claimed that around 10% of people know fewer than two recipes (so, that’s just one recipe, then), and only 30% know how to make risotto.
That strikes me as a tad unfeasible – 3 times as many people know how to make risotto than know more than one recipe? I’m not buying it, because risotto isn’t really relevant. OK, I can make risotto without having to think about it over-much, though I very rarely do (too much standing involved), and so what? I don’t see that not knowing how to make risotto off the top of one’s head is any sort of a handicap. Something like a beef stew would have been more relevant, and needs more skills than risotto in terms of both preparation and cooking, so would have been a better test of overall ability.
While the idea that the majority of people can’t make risotto bothers me not at all, I have no doubt that a terrifyingly large number of people either have barely marginal cooking skills, or none at all. A friend, for example, finds it amusing that every time he makes an omelette it turns out different – I see it as a total inability to actually pay attention to what is, essentially, a simple task. The only variations are how runny you like it, and whether or not you prefer the bottom browned or just mottled with gold. I’m firmly in the runny and gold camp (when you fold it over, it should be hot enough to heat the filling – or melt it, if it’s cheese – and complete the cooking process, so that it’s moist, not dribbly).
I confess I have an inbuilt advantage, having a natural talent for cooking, starting around the age of ten, making a small dish of shredded roast chicken, mixed with salad cream (hey, it was 1954!), and Colman’s mustard. A couple of years ago I saw Rachel Allen, on TV, making the same thing but using mayo and Dijon mustard. Still waiting for my royalties.
I also have knack for knowing what ingredients will go well with each other. Yesterday I pulled out of the fridge some pre-prepped butternut squash and sweet potato, red onions, and tomatoes, and knocked up this soup. I knew it would be good – and it is – but it surprised me by being very light and slightly fruity. That’s the tomatoes, of course, which were more acidic and assertive than I anticipated, and without them it would have been more earthy, which was what I was expecting).
I didn’t start writing recipes down until the mid eighties, they just lived in my head, but I’d estimate that there’s at least a couple of hundred, about 70 or 80 of which are my own. I can get my head around the fact that many people haven’t a clue about cooking, but I’m at a loss to understand how they can have no interest in learning something so fundamental to their very existence.
The problem is, to a high degree, doting mothers and wives, and men who are content to be waited on (not to mention those who demand it as a right – hopefully a dying breed). Some idiot feminist hack at the Indy got her knickers in a right twist in the run up to Christmas, over the TV ad for Asda, which depicted a woman run off her feet while her family did sod all. Totally unrealistic, she fumed, and depicts women as put-upon drudges – an opinion of which she was very soon disabused by people, including me, posting comments telling her she was an idiot, and that the Asda ad depicted the reality for a great many women, even in the 21st century. For most women, feminism is something that happens to someone else, mainly the chattering classes, not to someone trying to raise three kids and probably hold down a job as well.
I also know an extremely well-off family who, when the time came that people didn’t want to be servants any longer, lost their cook. As, between them, they had the cooking skills of a very dim beaver, you’d think they’d buckle down and learn. Not a bit of it.
Aside from cooking pheasant, badly, they lived on ready meals and, when dinner-parties came round to their turn, got in the caterers. When I arrived on the scene (long story), with my knives and a head full of recipes, I was regarded with amazement (and my knife roll with trepidation, as if I were a jobbing axe-murderer!). Here was a man (working class, too!), who could do something they couldn’t. They should have been bloody ashamed – but they weren’t.
Clearly, then, while the reasons might differ, being unable to cook isn’t a class thing. In the case of the family above, I suspect it was beneath them (nice enough people, but very status-aware), but at heart the reason is the same, no matter who it is, or how it’s dressed up – just can’t be bothered. And there is, even today, as I said above, often an assumption that men should be waited on throughout their lives, and which perpetuates a pattern going back centuries. Quite possibly millennia…
Then, in old age, left alone, thrown upon their own resources and, through sheer inertia, idleness, or “it’s not my job,” old guys don’t have the basic skills to feed themselves adequately, and depend upon lunch clubs, Meals on Wheels, or the pub. I found the number of old people who go to a pub for lunch and a pot of tea surprisingly high.
But here’s the thing – and this is what seriously pisses me off – age is no barrier to learning new skills. Nor, for the most part, is illness or infirmity, as I know from personal experience.** Indeed, learning new skills is an excellent way to keep your brain active and your wits sharp – use it or lose it.
**There are things it stops me doing – learning new stuff isn’t one of them.
I’ve been making my own bread since my late fifties, and in my sixties broke into sausage making, flirted with Japanese cooking (the dire health warnings on sea vegetables were discouraging), mastered digital photography, and Photoshop (the essentials, anyway), and, more recently developed an interest in Spanish cooking. And the learning continues, as I’ve just bought an Xbox 360, and a bunch of games.
Life is one long learning curve, no matter what the subject – there is no age at which it’s acceptable to step off the curve (physical and mental health permitting), and let others take up your slack.
Learn to cook as a child, that skill will stay with you throughout your life. I had to (and, of course, I wanted to – had my meds been better, I might well have gone into catering when I left school), as my father died when I was 12, my mother worked full-time so, as I’d already mastered the basics, I pretty much took over the cooking. My mother, of the “boil the bejesus out of it” generation, was quite surprised to learn that Brussels sprouts were bright green, and actually had taste and texture! And didn’t need boiling for an hour.
When I was a kid in Manchester, my father would take me to the Sunday morning football match, and on the way home, through the misty, frosty, streets, the smells were of roast meat (a poor community though we were – this was Ardwick, 1950, one of the worst slums in the country – a Sunday joint was a matter of pride), roasting potatoes, and sprouts that had been boiled to buggery!
Even if you’re a person who’s been cosseted all your life, and are suddenly thrown upon your own resources through death or divorce, there is still no excuse – if you can read, you can learn to cook. You might never progress beyond following a recipe – Delia Smith has built a career catering for such people, there are many of them, and we can’t all be creative cooks – you won’t starve.
But if you can’t be bothered making the effort at all, you probably deserve to – think of it as Darwinism in action… Even though ready meals will rescue you, I can guarantee you won’t get the same pleasure as you would if you’d cooked for yourself. And eating should be as much – maybe more – about pleasure as it is about refuelling.
And, having rambled on for almost 1,400 words, I still find it hard to believe that 10% of the adult population know just one recipe each. Hell, any fool can fry or boil eggs, or fry bacon, and sausages, or make toast/fry bread. There’s the basis for a couple of recipes. If you can open cans, that’ll give you more, even if it’s only beans, or sardines, on toast. That’s 4 recipes at least, without even taking the time to think about it.