Confessions of a Bad Cook in an Era of Foodies

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“The pic was not staged, I’m ashamed to say. It really was dinner.”

The email came from my husband’s cousin’s wife, who I’ve met only a handful of times. I don’t know her well enough to be honest. And, obviously, she doesn’t know me well enough to realize the email was sorely misdirected. The subject? Family recipe book.

My heart sank when I read the first line: Steve and I were thinking it would be a fun to create a recipe book of favorite family dishes. Oh no. I knew what was coming next. She wanted all the women in the family to send three of their favorite recipes that she would then, I’m sure, bind in some cute and homey fashion and distribute them to us as stocking stuffers. Nice idea. And I hate to be a party-pooper. But there’s one big problem here.

In this foodie-happy era that we live in, I am an outcast. The thought of cooking for people other than my own family members, who are used to the slop I put on their plates nightly, makes me break out in a sweat. I remember the first time I had someone over for dinner—my gourmand sister, as a matter of fact—I practically killed her with some fancy garlic mashed potatoes that called for three cloves of garlic, which I mistook to mean three bulbs. That was 18 years ago, and I can practically still taste the garlic. But my culinary skills haven’t advanced much since then.

The funny thing is that on the rare occasions when I do put some effort into cooking, I make the mistake of acting like a seasoned chef. I eyeball ingredients instead of measuring them, exchange one or three ingredients that I don’t have on hand for others, taking wild guesses about how to substitute a spice I’ve never heard of for one that might be in my kitchen cabinet. What I continually fail to grasp, however, is that I’m no hot-shot chef, so these short cuts simply don’t work for me.

I’ve also tried sticking to recipes, though my husband doesn’t believe me. Someone once gave me a cookbook touting 365 ways to prepare chicken; no joke. For reasons I can’t explain, I went straight to the horseradish chicken recipe. I believe I followed the recipe to the letter, but to this day, a dozen years later, my husband still brings up that bad recipe, insisting it was one of my own creations.

I feel most comfortable in the kitchen when I’m ripping open a box or bag and sticking the contents into the microwave or toaster oven. I know that’s anathema to the local, fresh food movement that’s in vogue right now, but you’ve got to admit it’s fairly foolproof. And, of the boxed food I buy, I at least try to pick up ones that say organic on the label. That makes me feel a little less guilty.

Speaking of guilty, I used to worry that my poor culinary skills would rub off on or otherwise adversely affect my children. And I can’t vouch for the long-term effects yet. But my 10-year-old son seems happiest eating ramen noodles, and my 12-year-old daughter has taken to making homemade pies, in which she painstakingly chops fruit into tiny pieces and rolls flour until it forms appealing dough blankets that she presses perfectly into our single pie dish that I “inherited” when someone left it at my house one evening. Go figure.

That’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t resolve my dilemma of contributing to the family cook book. My husband sarcastically suggested that I send her a picture of a dinner we had last week. It was such a doozy that he took a shot of it on his iPhone. Really. See photo. If you’re wondering, it was beans from a can and hotdogs (hormone-free, thank you very much) smothered in cheddar cheese.  One look at this pix and this well-meaning distant relative would know never to ask me to contribute to the family cook book again.



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