Chris Mantle ANutr, Senior Food and Health Development Worker, is our guest blogger this week. Chris is a member of our cooking skills study group and runs regular cooking courses for Edinburgh Community Food. Chris gives his thoughts on the benefits of not always being the perfect cook when running community cooking courses.
‘Having grown up – essentially an 80’s child – on a diet of frozen burgers, oven chips and peas, proper cooking seemed like an impenetrable dark art. On the rare occasions I saw a cookery programme on the telly it all looked very precise, with funny little spoons for measuring things, scales for weighing, enormous sharp knives and mathematically precise timings and temperatures. My grandmother’s kitchen was no more inviting and seemed to be from a bygone era. It had various implements which looked medieval and warlike: meat pulverisers, a mincing machine, carvers, machetes, an antique tin opener that had to be hammered into the tin and, sometimes, a terrifying enamel bowl full of blood and offal. Between the telly programmes and my Nan’s intimidating kitchen I was really put off cooking. My own abilities extended no further than baked beans on toast, burgers and oven chips but this kept me well enough fed so why bother with the rest of it?
This changed when I left home for university. It was, of course, the love and guidance (exasperation, more like) of a good woman plus suddenly having to pay for my own shopping that got me over my recalcitrance. Fast forward twenty-odd years and everything is different: I cook from scratch most days and I’m not scared of it or of experimenting, nor – and I think this is important – am I worried about making a mess of things. I would never claim to be a good cook but I enjoy the process and usually (not always) enjoy the grub I’ve made.
I think one of the important things that community cooking courses do is break down this notion that cooking is an off-putting science requiring a wealth of arcane knowledge, incredible precision and forensic knife skills. Who hasn’t watched participants gingerly sprinkle minute amounts of cumin into a teaspoon as if it’s radioactive, before nervously asking: is that too much? Or people painstakingly chopping veg into identical and perfect tiny little pieces? Or who has been told: I tried to make that chicken curry last night but couldn’t as I didn’t have any chicken?
In our cooking groups we discuss things like adapting recipes and ingredients to what’s available. No chicken? No problem: here are other ideas. Or: what can we make out of the random ingredients from the back of the cupboard? Chopping? Any old how will do (as long as it’s safe!). Or with spices: always encouraging participants with a ‘don’t be shy, it’s not arsenic!’
But I also think that making mistakes, yes mistakes, is important. At the start I let the group know: “Yes, I like cooking and I do it most days. But I’m no chef, I just like doing it. I make mistakes, I burn my food and sometimes it’s just not very nice. And that’s fine….” OK, so TV chefs never make mistakes (apart from in hygiene but that’s another blog…). The rest of us are, however, human and have no need of or desire to be a perfectionist. Part of putting a group at ease is being not only approachable and welcoming but also human and fallible. Most weeks I’ll forget some core ingredient: I’ve left the meat in the fridge at work; I’ve brought an empty spice jar; the recipes are still sitting in the photocopier. The challenge for the group – generally after a chuckle or eye roll at my expense – is how do we adapt? Because at home when we cook more often than not adapt we must.
And then there’s the rice. Having had a rice cooker for years I have completely lost the ability of cooking rice without either burning it or turning it into porridge. There has been more than one apology to the group!
The message is: cook, experiment, make mistakes, muck-up sometimes but mostly: don’t worry and have fun! What’s important is that we don’t get hung up on precise measurements, following recipes to the letter, missing out ingredients or completely messing-up from time to time. Being an amateur isn’t an excuse to avoid cooking: it’s a reason to relax and enjoy ourselves.’