I hate to cook.
I didn’t say I CAN’T cook. People who like to cook tend to wrongly lump people who don’t cook together. But really, there are three groups of non-cookers out there.
• People who don’t know how to cook but wish they did.
• People who don’t know how to cook and don’t care to learn (it helps to be wealthy if you fall into this category).
• And the most cursed group of all – people who know how to cook but hate doing it.
That would be me. Not wanting to cook has less to do with a lack of skill than a lack of interest, time and … interest.
I admit to carrying some psychological baggage dating to childhood as the foundation for my cooking aversion, but this doesn’t bother me. I’m too consumed with my daily challenge of feeding myself and my family while avoiding the stove as often as possible.
Good cooks don’t understand people like us – people who have the ability to make a decent meal but would rather not be bothered.
The reverse is not true. Cooking haters regard good-cooks-who-like-to-cook with awe and admiration. We totally understand you. You guys are artists, entranced by the whole organic and creative process. We cooking haters are sometimes lucky enough to be the beneficiaries of your culinary masterpieces.
Just don’t be offended when we don’t reciprocate and invite you over for a meal.
Unlike some non-cooks who view the cooking process with general apathy, cooking haters like me can often point to the source of their refined sense of contempt. Mine springs from childhood.
My mother was, and still is, a fabulous cook.
She not only was the primary household meal maker, but also a full-time working physician at a time when not many women were.
Around 6 p.m. or later, she would walk in from the garage, which opened to the kitchen, demand kisses from her kids, then head straight to the stove. Half an hour to an hour later, a delicious Filipino dish or a juiced-up American dish was on the table.
She often served dinner with a comment about how tired she was and how she had not even had the chance to remove her dress shoes. We occasionally got the lecture about being ungrateful. We ignored this and typically ate without compliment or complaint. The exotic meals we ate nightly weren’t exotic to us. It would be years before we realized how spoiled we were.
My father was, and is, a reasonably good cook himself. But he was more of a casual hobbyist. He made an excellent meat sauce, instilled in us a love for rice and fried eggs for dinner, and experimented with Chinese cooking styles whenever the urge struck.
He knew enough about cooking to offer my mother constructive criticism on just about everything she ever made. His nightly critiques made dinner time a joy.
As soon as my mother determined we could handle a knife without chopping our thumbs off, my sister and I were regularly drafted to help prepare dinner. (My brother was strangely exempt.) Slicing, chopping, mixing, measuring, stirring – you name it, we had to do it.
That’s how I learned to cook.
While I don’t like to cook, I do feel an obligation to make sure my family is reasonably well fed. And regardless of whether a person likes to cook, everyone wants to eat well.
But between the time I come home from work and the time my kids go to bed, I have only three or four hours to spend with them. Most of that time is spoken for. As far as I’m concerned, meal prep is just one more hamster-wheel activity that would fall to the bottom of my to-do list if it weren’t for the small matter of starvation.
My options for dealing with this problem are limited:
a) Eat out/order out. Problem: Not rich enough to afford the good stuff, and not poor enough to justify nightly rounds of Mickey D’s dinner boxes or presto pizzas from Little Caesars.
b) Inspire other people who cook to feed me. In this fantasy, I ingratiate myself to friends and family members who love to cook and regularly offer to feed me and send me home with leftovers for my brood. Problem: I’m not gregarious enough or nice enough to win these kinds of invitations.
c) Cook. Set aside my cooking disdain long enough to actually fix my family a decent meal. Problem: obvious.
d) Stock the freezer and lower my standards. Reduce dinner time fare to frozen family meals, prepackaged entrees and boxed pasta, and encourage my husband to heat/microwave/boil it. Problem: I know what really good food tastes like. This isn’t it.
And yet Option D wins.
I still cook sometimes. Slow cooking in winter, grilling in summer. I’ll pull together sides, slice fruit, set up the rice cooker. I’ll shred lettuce and dice tomatoes for the tacos.
I can be persuaded to make easy-bake and other low-effort desserts on occasion. Anything involving sugar seems to be less of a chore. Weekend breakfasts for the family? Sure, as long as I don’t have to wake up early to do it. And if there’s a special occasion, well, I consider whatever I cook to be part of my gift. Cooking seems worth more then, so I mind less.
As the only person in my family with actual cooking skills, I also find myself in odd predicaments for which the stove is the only solution.
I recently made the mistake of commenting on a Facebook photo of fried eggplant, which my colleague had made for dinner. It looked so good my mouth actually started watering, and I posted a comment saying so. My colleague, mistaking my desire to eat good food with my desire to cook it, subsequently gave me three beautiful eggplants from his garden.
Prior to receiving this gift, no eggplant had ever seen the inside of my house. But thoughtful gifts deserve thoughtful attention. I made eggplant Parmesan a few days later.
More often than not, though, I eat what others prepare and don’t complain. It doesn’t matter if it’s bland and basic. If I want to eat well, I can roll up my sleeves and cook. If I refuse to cook, I will darn well be grateful that someone else is feeding me and sparing me the trouble.
So if I hate to cook so much, why do I spend so much time in the cookbook section of my local library?
Simple. After being served a bowl of cheesy chicken pasta from a bag for the eighth time in eight weeks, my jaw starts to lock up, and I’m struck with a realization: I cannot eat this, ever again.
When my rebellion blows a hole in our family’s limited weeknight dinner menu, I find myself recommitted to the task of finding an easy recipe to fill the void.
So there I was last weekend, standing in front of the cookbook shelves at the library, blocking out all the recipe books that didn’t include the words “quick” or “easy” in the title. At first, I was hopeful. It seemed there was a whole shelf dedicated to low-interest cooks like me.
I browsed through half a dozen of these promising-looking books before my attention was diverted by a clenched, burning sensation below my rib cage. It took a few moments for me to decipher what this sensation was.
The cookbook publishing industry does not publish “quick” and “easy” recipes for people like me. They publish “quick” and “easy” recipes for people who enjoy cooking – people whose pantries resemble a well-stocked mini-mart and who can tell you to the half-quart what size their copper-bottomed pots are.
Why else would their “simple” recipes require a dozen or more ingredients and multiple pots and pans? What else would explain why the listed ingredients need to be chopped, peeled, sliced or trimmed before you even start the clock on a recipe that supposedly requires only 10 minutes of hands-on time?
It seems only people who hate to cook but are reasonably competent at the skill can author the kind of cookbook I’d actually want to buy.
Peg Bracken understood. In 1960, she authored “The I Hate to Cook Book.” Filled with simple, proudly mediocre recipes and hilarious observations about what defines cooking haters as a breed, the cookbook was an instant success. It was reprinted endlessly and enjoyed a 50th anniversary edition in 2010.
Fortunately, I don’t need to buy one because my mother had one sitting on top of her microwave for decades. Her copy dated to 1965 and was already on its 18th printing. I asked her to mail it to me as I prepared to write this article.
Though my mother is completely unsentimental when it comes to anyone’s belongings, I knew she still had it. Despite its battered, yellowing state and taped-up binding, “The I Hate to Cook Book” is the sincerest and funniest tribute to cooking haters everywhere.
In the words of Bracken: “It’s always nice to know you are not alone.”
That makes it a keeper.