Aleksandra Mir

The How Not to Cookbook

By Penny Pleasance
nyjournalofbooks.com, New York, September 2010

In her memoir, 'My Life in France', Julia Child wrote, “One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”

In The How Not to Cookbook, Aleksandra Mir has taken the “grin and bear it” part to a whole new level. Instead of a coffee table book, think of this as a kitchen counter book—something that you will dip into for solace and a few laughs the next time you burn the rice—or worse at your next dinner party.

Begun as a blog, How Not to Cookbook is a compilation of a thousand tips from real cooks around the world who have shared their worst mistakes and best advice in the kitchen. Some are quirky (“Do not cut your vegetables at the same time as cooking.”), some are earnest (“Do not use a dull knife. Never. Ever.”), and some make you wonder how the person who wrote in survived the meal (“Why has no one cooked 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.”)

The advice is dished out according to subject matter, offering lessons on everything from burns to wurst. There are also a handful of country categories including Germany, Scotland, Sicily, Spain, Switzerland, and the USA (you have to wonder why France isn’t represented—are they really that good at cooking?).

The best way to use this book is to skim through the table of contents until something catches your eye. Take for example, the section entitled “Menstruation.”

There you will discover that it is a universal truth that you should never, ever make mayonnaise when you have your period—“it will not set. If you really want to have a go, though, make sure that all the ingredients are at the same temperature. That way you will have more chance of succeeding.” Um, that’s good advice for any time you make mayonnaise.

No matter how experienced a cook you are, mistakes happen. The How Not to Cookbook proves that there is no end to disasters awaiting us in the kitchen, but that laughter is always the best way to fix them.

Reviewer Penny Pleasance studied cooking under Henri Lévi at his New York cooking school, La Cuisine Sans Peur and has also studied cooking in Brussels and Tuscany. She has lived or worked in New York, London, Brussels, and Strasbourg, France, and has been a cooking enthusiast since she picked up her mother’s copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1978.