The Backpage: The first meal I ever cooked (and other kitchen disasters)

The first meal I ever cooked was mince. Mum used to make mince on toast on a Sunday night, so when I first moved into a flat, I cooked mince.

I did this by tipping a large lump of mince into a saucepan and putting it on the stove. I then waited with knife, fork and toast at the ready to eat my first self-cooked meal.

Half an hour later as I waited for Nick the Greek, who owned the café around the corner, to cook my hamburger it occurred to me that there was more to this cooking business than I’d thought.

I returned to the flat where the odour of burnt mince still hung in the air and decided to quit cooking while I was behind.

I recall one exception when while flatting with two mates I decided, on a whim, to cook chips. I managed to do this without burning down the building and was applauded by my mates who, like me, had been cosseted by their mothers and were barely capable of boiling water.

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Having conquered the art of dropping slices of potato into a pan of hot oil, we abandoned all further culinary exploration and went to the pub.

I was to discover that the art of survival lay in making it unmistakably clear early in any relationship that I did not cook.

My brother, happily married for thirty or more years, has never cooked anything more exotic than toast and fried eggs. When he says he can’t cook, he is not being deceptive, but rather mouthing a simple truth. The man cannot cook and will never learn.

For him, the transformation that takes place betwixt paddock and plate will forever remain one of the universe’s great mysteries. It would be dangerous to encourage him to stand in front of a stove for like myself, he suffers from what our respective wives have diagnosed as a lack of spatial awareness. This manifests itself as an inability to see two or more objects in relation to each other and to yourself.

Put another way, it means that life is a series of collisions with chairs, desks, doors, cups, bottles and assorted objets d’art. It is also known more commonly as terminal clumsiness.

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Given the potential for self harm and general disaster that exists in the kitchen, it is a place that lack of spatial awareness sufferers tend to avoid.

My problem is that I find myself drawn, like a moth to a flame, to the kitchen and my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor and watching my mother as she cooked.

I also exhibited an early fascination with kitchen utensils and once got my foot jammed in a cheese grater at the precise moment my mother went into labor with my sister.

When I was at school, I was greeted each afternoon by the aroma of freshly baked scones and cakes, while evenings were synonymous with the sizzle of the frying pan and roast meat smells seeping from the pale green enamel door of the Kooka gas oven.

My father, as far as I can recall, never cooked a meal in 60 years of marriage. Raised in an age when men worked and looked after the garden and women cooked, cleaned and took care of the children, he was a stranger to the kitchen.

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In my maternal grandparents’ home, the kitchen was the hub of their rambling Queenslander in the inner Brisbane suburb of Red Hill. The table was huge and covered, for reasons unknown, with linoleum. When we visited, which was often, the extended family ate at it, played cards at it and drank endless cups of tea at it.

There was always, it seemed, a group of people gathered around the table. On Sundays my grandmother fried bacon and eggs after morning mass; my grandfather cut slices of fresh bread as thick as the Irish accents that floated around the room.

I travelled overseas once for more than a year and never cooked a single meal and when I returned, moved in with a mate who was even less domesticated than me. Girlfriends came and went and life drifted along, sustained by takeaways, beer, potato chips and cigarettes.

I bought my first house and felt those childhood stirrings of belonging when I stood in the kitchen so I got myself a wok and cooked fried rice and successfully baked a chicken.

Then a girl moved in and I surrendered the kitchen without a fight. I had, in the space of more than 30 years, burnt one saucepan full of mince and cooked one plate of chips, a bowl of fried rice and a chook. It was time for a rest.

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Then the girl moved out and takeaways reappeared and then I got married. Older by then, I found myself reading recipes in newspapers and magazines. I cooked dinner once, but was harangued for “making a mess”, so I retreated again from the kitchen.

Then I got unmarried and lived alone. My own master, I finally began to rattle around the kitchen. First pasta, then curries and stir fries. Simple stuff, but I enjoyed it – although most cooking was carried out to the accompaniment of curses and screams. With spatial unawareness in full flight, bowls were upended, saucepans dropped, fingers seared and ingredients scattered across the floor.

I persevered and most nights can now be seen, remarried, at the bench top preparing dinner for my wife and her two children. I’ve travelled the full circle and arrived back in the kitchen where I sat as a child. I would never have thought it, but you just never know.

How are you in the kitchen: skilled, or “spatially unaware”? What’s your most shameful cooking moment?


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