Aleksandra Mir

Lessons on how not to cook

By Shonali Muthalaly, Dehli, January 2010

Browse through The How Not To Cookbook… and learn from others' kitchen disasters.

It seemed logical. I wanted to re-heat a boiled egg. So, I peeled off the shell, popped it in the microwave, and headed to my room to slather on lipstick. (If Nigella Lawson can do it, so can I!) Then came the explosion.

Expecting to find a bevy of bomb-brandishing bandits rifling through my refrigerator, I rushed into the kitchen armed with a gleaming eyelash curler. (Oh, so what would you have done if you had nothing but a make up kit for protection? Held up a fluffy pink brush and yelled — surrender or I'll highlight your cheekbones with Cheeky Peach?) Fortunately, I did not have to spend all afternoon giving a hairy burglar luscious lashes. The noise was from the ‘eggsplosion' (self-satisfied chuckle), and my lunch was evenly coated all over the insides of a microwave. And, that's how I learnt not to reheat boiled eggs.

The problem with recipes is that writers assume cooking techniques come naturally to everyone. That we all live in this idealised world — replete with kitchen scenes shot in soft focus at sunset — where we dabble at our grandmother's knees lisping and learning how to expertly sauté, sift and stir fry.

Thanks to the Internet, we now know that the world is actually full of cursing, wounded, accident-prone kitchen blunderers, most of whom have no problem with letting all of us learn from their mistakes. They're on blogs, food forums and recipe discussions. While a lot of their mistakes are funny (as other people's disasters often are), they're also a valuable guide. Rules on What Not To Do In The Kitchen are just as important as those snotty de rigueur ‘What To Do' lists.

The How Not To Cookbook Book — Lessons learned the hard way spells this out. Funded by The National Lottery through the Scottish Arts Council and the Esmee Fairburn Trust, U.K., it was commissioned by The Collective, an organisation promoting contemporary art and culture. Rather highbrow for stories of burnt toast? It gets better. The project was done by artist Aleksandra Mir, who maintains that kitchen confessions are a form of art. She believes that by making guilty failures public, people create subversive, original art, instead of simply “aspiring to obvious and repetitive results”.

The project invited 1,000 people from around the world to give advice on how not to cook. Not surprisingly, the results are fascinating as well as surprisingly educative. They range from simple instructions such as “don't stop stirring risotto if you want it creamy” to more emotional ones such as “do not cut vegetables with a very sharp knife when answering stupid questions”.

Practical tips? “Do not put marshmallows in your omelette even if there is nothing else in the house to eat.”

Then, there are lessons clearly learnt in painful ways — such as “Do not make Deep Fried Bounty Bars if you have drunk 3 glasses of wine. There is a high risk of serious injury from hot fat and melted chocolate.”

If you are one of those people who needs to experiment in the kitchen, it's advisable to first learn about the potential there is for disaster — even if all you're working with is one puny leaf, as this young scientist discovered. “Do not microwave one leaf of kale on ‘high' for five minutes. It will catch fire, break the microwave glass rotating plate, scorch the inside of the microwave permanently and fill the kitchen with smoke.”

Popular food forum Chowhound features a string of similar confessions. There's the cook who sautéed meat in green washing up liquid by accident. A girl who baked her band-aid into a cake. And, a student whose pan turned into a fireball when he fell asleep while making French fries at midnight. He threw the flaming pan of the window into the snow, terrifying his landlady who saw it sail past.

Just imagining her expression makes me feel better about that dratted exploding egg.

Earlier, you had to live and learn. Now, all you have to do is browse. Learning from other people's disasters is infinitely less painful.