Until recently, I have had a non-cooking husband. When I’ve had to be away from the family, he’s coped with the things I leave in the freezer, simple meals, takeaway and salad. (Everyone can make a salad.) There was a lot of scrambled egg sandwiches – mostly with burned eggs. The kids would all cringe when they saw his "cooking" coming. After a while, they offered to cook just so he wouldn’t. He didn’t use recipes, and thought that cooking was either something you were good at, or bad at, and that he was simply bad at it. It was hard to argue with him, standing there looking at another ruined pot of food with the smoke detector blaring, but I managed.
I won’t post the whole nature of my arguments, nor his defences. They were mostly rooted in my firm belief that anyone who uses ? every day at work is totally smart enough to learn to cook if they care, and that he should care, because he’s a adult male in his 40’s, who should be as able as his wife to care for himself and others. He did not need to become a chef, I said – but it is way past time for him to learn the basics of following a recipe. I put it in engineering terms. The same way he has learned to write and work electrical schematics, wire stuff and calculate sound waves, design circuit boards… making a decent mac and cheese, I maintained, was nothing in the face of the mathematical stuff he breezes through.
Besides, I said. It’s not fair. We’re in this together. Dude should be able to put dinner on the table now and again.
Joe set about learning. He got some recipes, and he started trying. The first few weeks were nuts. Joe made a fabulous black bean espresso chili. It was delicious, but it took him about ten hours, and the kitchen looked like he’d been fending off a pack of wild dogs while stirring. Then one night day he made tian and socca, and made breadsticks. From scratch! Yes, it took about nine hours, but he’s new.
(My favourite thing about that picture is that Joe had to look up not just how to do all this, but how to set the table properly. He made it look just like the instructions, so despite us only having one course, no soup, no desert and no salad, all the utensils are there for it. Just in case someone busted in with a cake I guess. Mercy, he’s charming.)
He bought a pasta making attachment for our mixer, and that was like the power tool of cooking for him.
It turns out that Joe is an amazing cook. He’s not an inventive one, or one that has enough experience to trust his instincts, but he can totally do what the recipe says, and make great stuff. I’m feeling super proud of him.
There was one thing that made this possible… while he was learning to follow the recipes, he’d find them missing information. Joe would be in the kitchen and he’d shout out "What does it mean if it says to dice?" or "What’s al dente? It says to make this al dente…" or "What the hell is the difference supposed to be between braise and boil? Don’t I just put this ^&*(^!! in a pot?" "Do we have a crepe pan?" "Do you think a tart is the same as a pie?" "Is this searing – or sauteing?" "What’s a simmer? Should there be bubbles?" Straightaway, we realized that Joe was going to need either a more patient wife, or a reference book. He tried looking things up on line, but every site had a different definition, and he couldn’t have confidence in that. We set about getting him a proper book, a great one, and now he goes through the recipe, looks up everything he needs to know, reads about it, and then goes back to the recipe. He’s looking way less stuff up every time. He’s gaining skills.
I realized when I was reading the comments last night from yesterday’s post, and some people made a connection between recipes and patterns, that it was a great way of saying simply what I was trying to say in that really long post. Recipes don’t tell you how to saute. They might say to do it, but you have to go find out to make the recipe work. Similarly, patterns might tell you to perform a technique, but not how to do it. You need separate skills to make the pattern work – just like a recipe. Great way to explain. The book we got Joe is How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. (There’s a version for carnivores too.) It’s got actual detailed instructions and diagrams on how to chop an onion, and how you’re supposed to identify a tart pan.
I thought you might want to know my favourite knitting books that do the same thing.
There are definitely others, but these are the ones that I know to be accurate and helpful, and that I turn to again and again when I come to the knitters version of an instruction like "blanch for three minutes" or "caramelize the onions." Solid books all, and they keep me from having the knitterly smoke detector go off.
(Most of the time. Sometimes I’m still me, despite everyone’s best efforts.)