Aleksandra Mir

The How Not to Cookbook

By Sara Bir, New York, June 2010

When Sicily-based artist Aleksandra Mir asked a thousand people for advice on how not to cook, she didn’t get a thousand cooking tips. She got a thousand micro-stories of cooking disasters, old wives’ tales, and family relationships, and that’s what makes Mir’s The How Not to Cookbook so irresistible.

I was one of those thousand people, via some sort of announcement on a writing or cooking website a few years ago; I hardly remember. But, as a firm believer that mistakes are the best way we learn, I eagerly typed up a few sentences regarding one of my favorite cooking debacles and submitted it. Contributors were promised a hardcopy of the resulting book, which I assumed would never happen, since I’ve been involved with enough such projects to know that less than half make it to completion. And I promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Then we moved, and then we moved again. And then, last week, my husband returned from a walk around the neighborhood with a battered parcel. “I passed by the old house and saw the girl who lives there, so I asked if she had any mail for us,” he said. Yes. Yes, she did. The parcel was my copy of The How Not to Cookbook. They'd put the street address down instead of the zip code, and instead of a street address, there was nothing (the result of what I imagine to be a flawed printout of an online address form). Also lacking was any mention of the state of Oregon.

Yet the postal service tracked the former residence of the Sara Bir on the address label down, and I was heartily impressed with their diligence. The longest holdup of the book was not its travels across the sea from Edinburgh, but the distance of several blocks. What a strange world we are in.

It was worth the wait. Mir divided the un-tips into sections, such as "Drugs", "Gadgets", "Lasagna", "Orientalism", and "Worms". It's a browser's heaven; I am going to keep this thing on my coffee table for months.

Some tips offer distinct scenarios:

"When you have accidentally added washing-up liquid to your salad instead of oil, do not attempt to wash it out and serve it to your children. They will be able to tell the difference. Even the teenagers."
"Do not keep baking soda, corn flour, or any white powder for that matter, in unlabelled containers as you might think it is icing sugar and decorate cakes with it."

Some are more like writing prompts, or fill-in-the-blanks, letting you, the reader, imagine exactly how that disaster came to be, or maybe even what the disaster was in the first place:

"Do not use a wooden spoon in the blender."
"Apparently putting things in water does not count as marinating."
"Do not forget that your pasta is cooking."
"NEVER ever use a knife with wet hands."

Some offer very clear admissions of ineptitude:

"If you want a cheese sauce, do not put cheese cubes and water in a bowl and microwave them."
"When frying veggies, do not put the veggies in at the same time as the oil."

Some, perhaps due to the book's global nature (contributors ranged from Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, France, Italk, the U.K., and the U.S.A.), are perplexing to American brains:

"Do not forget to flay the hare before roasting it. In contrast to freshly butchered poultry the skin is not singed off."
"Do not serve unsalted butter to British guests."
"Do not eat raw almonds, unless you take the skin off." (I happily eat skin-on raw almonds every day! Yum!)

And some are playful, randy, and hopefully not firsthand:

"Never start cooking before you have a glass of wine. But do not start cooking when you are already having a second glass."
"Do not wear your wife’s new dress while cooking spaghetti sauce."
"Do not choke the chicken after having chopped hot peppers."

My own entry involves beets and a blender. Enough said.

Mir is an artist whose works often take the form of social processes that are open for anyone who wishes to give work meaning. So, as an artist, to her the collaboration is just as meaningful as the end product. We thousand disparate cooking people, who range from actual chefs like me to people who habitually boil pots dry, are now linked through cultures and continents via our admissions of stupidity. It’s a splendid reminder that almost any semi-capable person who eats also cooks. To eat, we must cook, and to cook, we must learn, and the learning never stops.