Wednesday, 17 April 2013


Today I'm going to tell you about Michelle. This is not her real name. Michelle is just the name I chose as nobody who reads this is called Michelle (I don't think). The person in question is unlikely to read this either, but you never know, so I've changed her name.

Anyway. Michelle and I were friends many moons ago when we were both young mothers. She was an intelligent, educated woman, and came from a rather upper-middle class family. I labour this point because so often when we discuss a situation like this there is a tendency to assume the person in question is compromised by social background/intellect and so on. She wasn't. She was a smart cookie.

But she couldn't fry an egg. When it came to the domestic arts, her skills lay elsewhere. She had a lovely garden, a beautiful home, and her daughter was well-cared for, but not fed well. I don't mean the child was malnourished, but she didn't get gourmet food, let me tell ya. Michelle couldn't cook to save her life.

I learned to cook at a young age, because my mother couldn't, and I like quality food. I had a cookery teacher at school who was a genius. She had a motley bunch of 11-year-olds and she turned us ALL into very competent cooks using traditional French techniques. I combined what I learned in school, with my own experiments at home, and then married a man whose mother couldn't cook, and made him a very happy man.

Michelle's husband was not a happy man. She admitted as much, and she asked me to help her out. Give her some recipes. That was how it began.

They never turned out right. Not once. She didn't outright accuse me of giving her bad recipes, but after a few times, both of us were wondering what the hell was going on.

Of course, as you can guess, we figured out what was wrong - she wasn't following the instructions.

You would think that an intelligent person could do that, but I am here to tell you many years later, after repeated experiences with this, that it happens all the time. I've even watched my kids do it, as they've been learning. They skip a bit, either deliberately (oh, that can't matter, surely?) or they just read it wrong.

So, let's look at two ways this goes wrong.

1. Unintentionally. Often in measurements, but just as often in the directions. Careless reading. My daughter once tried to make custard with water instead of milk. The word MILK was right in front of her, but for some reason, she used water. Obviously, this doesn't work, but at that point in time there was no "obvious" going on. The thinking part of her brain had gone on holiday.

It could be a whole line that gets missed: "Remove pan from heat." "Cover with tight-fitting lid." "Add more liquid if necessary." "Turn after ten minutes." and so on.

One way or another carelessness causes errors.

2. Intentionally. These are harder to explain. The recipe says "Stir constantly" but you decide you're too busy, so it sticks/goes lumpy/burns and you wonder why? The recipe calls for 4 eggs but you only have two, so the quiche doesn't set, and you wonder why? The instructions say "Use parchment" so you use foil, and have to peel it off bit by bit.

But my favourite has to be the substitutions that aren't. This was Michelle's particular area of genius. The recipe called for diced tomatoes, she'd use diced carrots. The recipe said sour cream, she'd use milk. On one spectacular occasion, after berating me for her lasagne being crunchy, she openly admitted to using meat without sauce.

Then at the other extreme, she could never judge how long to cook something for, so NOW she'd follow the recipe TO THE LETTER. The recipe said cook for approximately 15 minutes, but she'd take it out when the timer rang, whether it was done or not.

Which is all rather funny, except that even after we'd discussed it, and we knew what the problem was, she carried on doing it. Time, after time, after time.

I was actually there to witness the pastry disaster. I am not a particularly good pastry maker, but what I make is usable, and edible. Hers was neither. I was actually standing behind her telling her what to do, and she was ignoring me. When it failed to roll out (because it was too dry, and falling to bits) she actually started kneading it. The end result, it goes without saying, was packaging material. I hoped she'd learn from this, as we went through it afterwards, but she just could not seem to take on board the idea that you have to follow the instructions to get the intended result.

Years later I watched a TV show about really bad DIY, where people were ignoring instructions, that reminded me of Michelle. These (mostly) men were told to use a screwdriver, so they'd use a hammer. They were told to cut a hole with a reciprocating saw, so they'd poke a rough one with any old pointy thing, they were told to measure proportions of a compound, and they'd do it by eye, they were told to brace something and not bother, they'd be told to ensure a surface was dry, and ignore that....and so on. The end result was always bad. But they could never see where they were going wrong. So this phenomenon is not confined to cooking. I've also seen it with gardeners.

It's special kind of stupid. What goes on in their heads? Do they think they are saving time?

When I go to recipe sites these days they almost always allow review comments. You can ALWAYS find comments about it not being very good/not turning out right AND they often admit to doing something different. Which almost certainly means a lot of other critics aren't admitting it.

Maybe you are reading this thinking, "Yeah, I don't follow it exactly, but it's OK. Everyone does it. That's not why mine doesn't turn out right, the recipe is bad." Now, I'm not saying this never happens, but if other people are getting good results, and you're not, SOMETHING ISN'T RIGHT. There are more of you out there than are willing to admit it, are you one of them?

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