Aleksandra Mir

The way to good cooking...

By Nola James, Sydney, October 2009

The way to good cooking may be learning what not to do...

My parents never taught me how to cook, they just taught me how not to.

My 50-something father still burns fish fingers, and has done since I was three. Probably earlier.

My mother micro-waved all of the nutrients out of anything I ever ate.

Spaghetti Bolognese only ever contained two ingredients, one that came from a cow, and one that came from a jar.

It is a small wonder that their three children grew beyond four foot tall, let alone their youngest to be a chef and their eldest a food writer.

The middle one never eats. It’s very telling.

I don’t recall any cookbooks from my childhood home that didn’t have Women’s Weekly written on the cover. But I wish they’d had this one, New York based artist Aleksandra Mir’s very clever and very funny How Not To Cookbook—Lessons learned the hard way, a very modern work of art/cookbook produced for the Collective Gallery in Scotland earlier this year.

In a culinary marketplace saturated with “proper” cookbooks it is refreshing to read this tongue-in-cheek, almost confessional, what-not-to-do guide, even if it isn’t a “real” cookbook.

Cooking used to be something we did to feed ourselves. Now, it is something we watch celebrity chefs do on television and before we naively try it at home. “Sure, I can make bombe Alaska, where is that darned ice-cream maker?”

Cooking has become something we have all convinced ourselves we are really, really good at.

Not so much, according to Mir’s book, which holds between its covers the epitome of society’s shameful cooking secrets. Julia Child would turn in her grave.

Part cookbook, part installation art (and free to download I might add), the work is based on the author’s personal history of cooking disasters in conjunction with contributions from over 1000 ordinary home cooks from around the world.

And the world needs this advice.

How could you go past “‘do not use a plastic spoon to stir cheese sauce. It can melt and sometimes people do not notice until after they have eaten it,” for solid culinary advice?

Or one of my favourite excerpts is: “Never EVER try to figure out if you turned on the hotplate by laying your hand on it. The police may wonder why you do not have fingerprints anymore.” Which could be rather useful if you have a penchant for nicking groceries.

Perhaps one day when I have children, I will pass on Mir’s advice for the little ones: “If you are very small or quite young, do not try to use a cooker or frying pan without standing on a stool or chair that brings your head well above the level of a frying pan.”

They don’t teach you that on MasterChef.

Some kitchen errors could happen to anyone. You too could cook a packet of pasta without checking for weevils first, although the How not to cook book advises one to “remember to keep the packaging as to be able to note the brand and inform someone of a serious quarantine issue.” Quite.

While I would assume most might know not to boil and avocado (although I had a housemate who used to freeze them – disastrous) the book also offers useful cooking suggestions among the raw humour that surrounds blatant inability. This is culinary slapstick at its best.

You might be surprised how many of these kitchen “mistakes” you are guilty of – I know I was – and luckily you can share yours with the world in future editions of this book, via the artist’s website.

And if it is nothing else, it is the most entertaining book, artwork, whatever you want to call it, about food available – and for free no less. It is the opposite of glossy food porn, the opposite of mass produced highly advertised food TV, and it is delicious.

What’s your secret cooking disaster?