Aleksandra Mir

What's so Funny?

By Aleksandra Mir
Frieze Talks, Frieze Art Fair, London, October 2010

The following text was written for a presentation at What's so Funny? Frieze Talks, Frieze Art Fair, London, October 14, 2010. As I was unable to travel, the text was performed by Pablo Leon De La Barra.

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250 000 years ago, Homo Sapiens began controlling fire and cooking her food. This primordial skill slowly developed and was handed down from generation to generation. And eventually ended up in my grandmother’s hands through her mastery of her kitchen. As if instilled with some genetic code of instinctively knowing what do, her meals came out perfectly every time. But really, she had learned by initially watching her mother, and then from her own years of experience and wisdom and intuition that follows.

She cooked within the limited parameters of her culture, economy and season. She made everything from scratch, preserving vitamins for the winter by handpicking fruit in the summer, making pasta dough, sauces and stocks. She managed soups, salads, meats and desserts. She baked bread, cookies, tarts and birthday cakes. She cooked herself through the Second World War on rations and she fed a large family with her unlimited tricks of the trade, without ever having to consult a written recipe and without any gadgets other than a wooden spoon and a coal oven.

Myself, I am a victim of a broken evolutionary chain. In just one generation—the generation in which my university educated mother went off to work in an office building and the food industry took over the kitchen. This was the generation to whom "culinary experts" on TV started to give advice on how to fold napkins or prepare the most insipidly simple pasta dishes. I know this is not a signal of expanded knowledge, but a sign of the tragic loss of the knowledge previously kept within families, communities and their lands through acts of hand and mouth.

My family shopped for all of its food at the supermarket. And as a result, I was one of those kids who believed that fish was square. And that breakfast and its plastic toy prize needed to be shaken out of a box. And that the tasteless exotic fruit that was imported and flown in from all over the world should be naturally available to me in all seasons. I think I am quite a typical representative of my generation. We have access to everything but we do not understand very much at all.

When I became an adult and started to travel the world, I became exposed to a wealth of international cuisine and enthusiastically sampled all of its flavors. But moving erratically from one food culture to another, Thai one day, Mexican the next (then a fusion of the two) did not teach me much about food. I still consume the pickled ginger on my sushi plate that is meant to cleanse my palate like it was a salad. And even after living in Sicily for 5 years, I can never match the correct pasta shape with the right sauce. Choosing among the wealth of seemingly unlimited possible combinations is completely arbitrary for me. Yet a native Sicilian who still follows traditional skill would never use long pasta with lentils or short pasta with oil and garlic. Would you?

When I am depressed, I perform nutritional experiments on myself such as “Eat junk food in front of the TV to gain 10 kilos”, or " Do not eat anything but rice cakes for one month to drop the above mentioned 10 kilos". And when I actually get down to cooking, it only takes me a few emails to burn my dinner. I might even go as far as to study a cookbook and try to recreate something from it, but even then, the one ingredient that is never mentioned in all of these cookbooks is: EXPERIENCE. What nobody ever tells you out there in the Good Advice Industry is that you have to make the same dish again and again, for many, many years, before you can actually even begin to understand it.

I am tired of celebrity chefs trying to sell my grandmother's wisdom back to me, while lying about how easily I can have it. At the same time, I have found beauty and bravery in these once again seminal attempts of trying, testing, failing and learning from mistakes. So I started The How Not to Cookbook to demonstrate these failures as pure acts of creation. And because I know I am not alone, I have invited everyone else to contribute their own misfires in an act of collective celebration.

1000 people contributed advice to the first edition of the How Not To Cookbook. The small Collective gallery in Edinburgh produced it in 2009. This year, a second worldwide edition came out with Rizzoli in NYC. I would like to thank both publishers for their faith in my project. Everyone is welcome to contribute to future editions.

The How Not To project celebrates the mistake as an art form in itself. The art of having to reinvent the wheel. Like all other art, it is a project that is steeped in trial and error, awkwardness, alienation, embarrassment, humiliation, stupidity, struggle, suffering, pain, bad memory and tragedy. If there is anything funny about it, I would like to make clear that this is not intentional, but an effect of catharsis.

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For the time that is left, I would like to read some examples from the book:

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If you are intending to prepare pasta simply with melted cheese on top it is not advisable to throw mozzarella cheese into boiling water. The cheese will not melt but shrink into a doughy mass resembling old chewing gum.

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If you are looking for an oven alternative to baked frozen pizza because your oven is toxic, do not try to steam the pizza in a pot. It will not taste good.

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Do not stir-fry canned tuna fish. Interestingly enough, it does not stir-fry well.

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Do not use poor-quality fine rice noodles. It could turn your soup into a slimy glop.

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If you are five years old and your older brother is making you Ready Brek Porridge for breakfast, be prepared that instead of milk he might use fabric softener and you might die.

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Never put fish in your freezer in a developing country and go away on vacation for a month not realizing that there will be a power cut while you are gone. The stench of rotten fish will never leave your freezer, no matter how much baking soda or activated charcoal you put in there. You will have to buy a new freezer.

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Do not whip cream too much. The stage which follows whipped is forever unwhipped.

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Do not ask an artist to cook for you when they are busy.

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Do not boil an Avocado. It tastes like soap.

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Do not try to cook when you are stoned. It gives you paranoia.

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Never cook naked. You will get hot fat on your chest and you never know what will happen from behind.

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Do not despair. 9 out of 10 shortbreads will always come out burnt.

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Do not hurl a cast-iron Le Creuet casserole dish out the back door of your house onto the patio after having burned the dinner in the mistaken belief that these things are unbreakable. They are, in fact, breakable. And expensive to replace.

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Take care when lighting a gas oven. You may nearly blow your head off.

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Do not cook a whole egg on a barbeque. Because it transforms into an incandescent bomb that with a touch of the spoon will explode violently in your face, hurting you badly.

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When teaching your children to be ethical consumers, do not enjoy certain products yourself, or you may find a notice about the ethics of consuming on your morning Nescafé, taped to the coffee bottle.

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When you heat up a Pop Tart in the microwave, make sure to take it out of the wrapper. If you do not, you will have a fireworks display in your microwave.

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Do not complicate your Guacamole. The simpler, the better. Use mashed Hass avocados, a bit of chopped onion, some cilantro, one to three chiles, salt, a squeezed lemon to prevent it from going black, and the bone of the avocado will do. Different cultures make their own variations. In Guadalajara, some people add pomegranate; in some regions of Mexico, nopalitos (cactus); in Japan, wasabi, seaweed, soy sauce, and sesame seeds; in Costa Rica, coconut; in Italy, pine nuts, basil, and olive oil; in England, mint. The great lesson of Guacamole is that almost everything can be mixed together but if you want to make politically correct Guacamole, do not try doing it with avocados coming from Israel mixed with cilantro from Palestine, or Mexican avocados with tomatoes grown in the USA by migrant workers. The best way to eat Guacamole is rolled in a taco made of soft, just made corn tortilla, which might be difficult to find. Doritos or flour tortillas are acceptable substitutes. Blue corn tortillas are a sophisticated eccentricity. But do not ever prepare it the USA way, where they add sour cream or Philadelphia Cream Cheese and let it cool down in the refrigerator. Do not add tomatoes; it makes the Guacamole soggy.