Aleksandra Mir

Meals you don't read about

By Daniela Elser
theage.com.au, Melbourne, October 2009

A kitchen klutz has written the last word on foodie failures, writes Daniela Elser.

BURNS, cuts, small fires, inedible dinners and the odd melted microwave. Cookbooks are normally all about what we should be doing in the kitchen, not a celebration of the variety of ways we can create a culinary catastrophe.

Artist Aleksandra Mir's latest project, The How Not To Cookbook, is a collection of tales of everyday kitchen disasters published by Scottish arts group the Collective Gallery. Amassed from 1000 submissions from cooks worldwide, the book recounts "lessons learned the hard way" - the failures and minor injuries sustained from behind the stove.

Mir and collaborator Jenny Richards drew from online contributions and offline legwork, including seeking out entries from retirement homes and community centres. They wanted to produce an "anti-cookbook", each flopped souffle and boiled avocado (yes, really) a counterpoint to the saturation of the illusionary and perfectionist approach of "gastro porn". The entries reveal what happens when experimentation, ambition and ineptitude collide. Exploding microwaves, boiled oysters and why you should never barbecue in a negligee are just the beginning.

The real-life kitchen nightmares are broken into chapters from "Burns" to "Distraction" to "Splatters"; each offering insights into how the simplest of things can go so very wrong.

The picture emerges of the kitchen as a battleground of the sexes: "When cooking with your boyfriend, do not forget to make it clear who is the chef in advance. If not, you might end up fighting and lose your appetite"; "It may seem macho to use a hand-whisk in place of an electric whisk but do not be tempted, especially when the recipe says to whisk for 15 minutes. She will not be impressed and you will look like a fool."

Mir, who lives in Palermo, Sicily, was inspired to start the project after spending a weekend with a family in the countryside, where she made a dish featuring ''cheese lumps'' that was inedible. Meanwhile, her guests tried to keep straight faces. Fortunately, she is brutally honest about her abilities in the kitchen: "I burn everything. I really have a problem with 'waiting time' … There is no learning curve for me in this whatsoever."

Mir suggests that our lack of basic cooking skills, no longer learnt from time in the kitchen with parents and grandparents, is the reason why we can wreak such spectacular havoc even attempting the simplest things

"I have lived in Sicily for five years, where family bonds are still strong and where cooking skills are naturally handed down through generations. Myself, I am a victim of a broken generational chain, where this practical knowledge was simply lost. Corporates like Martha Stewart in the US have built empires to sell back to me the knowledge of my grandmother."

Volume two is on the way and I've sent Mir my suggestion: never, after three glasses of wine, try to show off when finely slicing garlic or you will find yourself with 95/6 fingers. And don't do exactly the same thing a year later or guests will feel nervous whenever they're in the kitchen with you.