Aleksandra Mir

Never boil an avocado, and other handy tips

By Alex Renton, London, August 2009

The How Not To Cookbook
6 Aug 2009
Collective gallery, Edinburgh

A new book offers a fascinating insight into the kitchen mishaps of others. Plus the recipe that Elizabeth David hated.

Cookbooks have become such juggernauts. Where Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson turned out modest volumes with a few line drawings, now they are three-pounder coffee-table tomes, full of TV chefs’ “philosophy” and glossy photographs of food that’s been styled and pimped to look like nothing I could ever achieve in my kitchen.

Too many cookbooks spoil the broth — they may, in fact, intimidate you into giving up the broth idea entirely and settling for a tin of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato. But at an art show at the Edinburgh Festival, I found one that was utterly refreshing. It’s called The How Not To Cookbook — which seems a rather sensible way of looking at the whole business.

The artist Aleksandra Mir asked 1,000 ordinary cooks — they’re all listed in the back — for their tips on how not to mess it up in the kitchen. The results are loosely collected under headings from “Burns” through to “Worms”; they range from the practical “Do not fry with hot oil when naked” and “Do not boil avocado. Turns to soap”, to the intriguing: “Do not wear your wife’s new dress while cooking spaghetti sauce.” And “Do not fry pasta with marmalade”. Some are good ideas really worth a go: I shall definitely try to rescue overcooked pasta by sautéing it.

Some of the best provide a window into people’s lives: “If you are five years old and your elder brother is making you Ready Brek for breakfast, be prepared that instead of milk he might use fabric softener and you might die.” And: “When heating a croissant in the microwave, if you have left it in too long and it has gone hard, do not assume that another three minutes will sort it out. It will not and the fire brigade prefers toast anyway.”

“Do not use a cookbook” is one succinct tip in Aleksandra Mir's book — or at least don’t take them too seriously. Every cook I know has a cookbook recipe they hate above all others: often the rage they feel about them is in direct proportion to the fame of the chef who published it. Gordon Ramsay gets a lot of flak, and there is a notorious recipe for a chocolate nemesis in the first River Café cookbook that is reputed to have induced nervous breakdowns.

Now an archivist at the London Guildhall library has dug up a treasure: the least favourite recipe of Elizabeth David herself. It appeared in a copy of Ulster Fare, a 1945 hardback produced by the Belfast Women’s Institute, which David bought second-hand in 1974. On a Post-it Note attached to it, she wrote: “Italian salad, p50. Sounds just about the most revolting dish ever devised.” And here it is (with thanks to Tim Hayward).

Italian salad

1 pint cold cooked macaroni
½ pint cooked or tinned pears
½ pint grated raw carrot
French dressing to moisten
2 heaped tablespoons minced onion
½ pint cooked or minced string beans

Mix the chopped macaroni and vegetables; moisten with French dressing, flavouring with garlic if liked. Serve on a dish lined with lettuce leaves. Decorate with mayonnaise and minced pimento or chives.

Do you have a most loathed recipe?