If it doesn’t already say it in the Bible, it should: beware of “friends” bearing cookbooks.
And if one of those cookbooks says Fun With Cooking, featuring a scowling child underneath, complete with a hair part that looks to have been dragged back by a heavy instrument – but with matching hair ribbons still in place – head for the hills. Or at least the closest fast-food restaurant that will put you off wanting to eat for the rest of your life.
I had a friend like that once. Before he knew me, I pretended I could cook. We had an old wood-fuelled stove that even I could cook a cup of tea on, and once, lumps that looked like scones.
Let’s call this “friend” Geoff Lewis. My elaborate deception fell in a heap probably the second time we met.
I had bravely made some soup on the fuel stove, thinking how could I possibly go wrong when it only involved lobbing cut up vegetables into a pot bigger than said vegetables filled with water? After a couple of hours, when it started to look and smell like sock soup, I remembered something from somewhere about using yoghurt to thicken soup and make it more, well, soup-like. So I did. The only problem was I only had fruits of the forest flavour.
Geoff Lewis is still laughing.
After I decided not to harm him irrevocably for making fun of my inability to cook, we used to laugh about it. Well, he did when he told everyone he knew.
It was then he decided cookbooks would be my saviour. My mother had already tried a decade or so earlier when she gave me the Woman’s Weekly Cookbook for Idiots. It was probably not its official name, but given the size of the typeface (huge) and more steps to the recipes than you’d need to get to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it seemed apt.
She gave it to me as an engagement gift, I remember, and when that engagement didn’t engage, she sensibly blamed it on my inability to cook. Soon afterwards, she started buying me other sorts of books – mostly to do with rich, sickly men who didn’t like eating out.
Geoff Lewis also thought the right cookbook would be the answer to all sins. He kept telling me about books he couldn’t find anywhere. It was called Suppers for Simpletons. To research this story thoroughly, I googled that title only to discover that it actually does exist, but even more distressingly, it was sold out.
So Geoff opted for Humiliating Book No 2: Fun with Cooking – Easy Recipes for Beginners by Mae Blacker Freeman, published in New York as recently as 1947.
The front of the book is decorated in a vibrant red – probably the bloodshed making the really hard recipes, I thought. But then I opened it.
What a treat.
From the opening page, I could relate to it. Yes, Creepy Kid was still in there, but she was so helpful. Like, before you even think about cooking something, wash your hands well and clean your nails. Who knew? The next step was to put on your apron. (I wonder if the salad will still cook as well if you don’t have your apron on?)
And then there were the recipes.
I clearly needed sustenance to continue, so I opted to cook myself a drink first. Chocolate milkshake (page 10).
“One cup cold milk, one tablespoon chocolate syrup. Put everything into a clean jar that has a tight screw cap. Shake well until frothy. Pour into glass and serve. One or two spoonfuls of ice cream added just before you do the shaking makes the milkshake taste especially good.”
Who knew this book would turn out to be such a cracker.
Page 12, for example, offers the ultimate guide on how to cuddle eggs. Sounds messy but fun. Seems to be a typo in the recipe – it says coddle.
There are some recipes in this book I know will become favourites – and that I will be able to cook superbly because I now know to do so you need to clean your nails and wear an apron. Then you can rule the world.
But this has to be the favourite so far – even though it looks a little complicated with its five ingredients and long-ish list of instructions. OK, here goes nothing. (You know it’s one of those hard recipes when it doesn’t even give you amounts for the ingredients.)
Mickey Mouse Salad
Ingredients: canned pear (1/2), lettuce leaf, raisins (2), Maraschino cherry (1), pecans (2).
Method: wash lettuce leaf well and shake off water. Then lay it on a plate. Lay half the pear on the lettuce leaf, round side up. Cut a Maraschino cherry into four quarters (good luck with that) and lay one of these pieces against the small end of the pear. Then put two raisin eyes and two pecan ears to finish Mickey Mouse’s face.
How good is this recipe? You’ll have to make it heaps of times to use up all the ingredients, one Maraschino cherry at a time.