The Backpage: The first meal I ever cooked (and other kitchen disasters) 25



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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.

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.

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.

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.

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?











Mike O'Connor

Mike O’Connor is a Brisbane-based motoring writer, travel writer and columnist. He’s driven hundreds of different cars, travelled widely and mingled with famous people, none of whom, he confesses, can remember meeting him.

  1. My husband is a wonderful cook – now. This came about because he wanted to stay alive. When first ‘batching’ he lived on Coke and Peanuts and wondered about the pain in his stomach. Going to the doctor he was questioned about his diet. On revealing what he ate the doctor was direct. Continue eating like this and you will die. He went and bought a Betty Crocker cookbook and a star ws born. He makes wonderful cheesecakes and Slices and I of course don’t fight him for the kitchen.

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    • My brother lived on ice cream. We went to visit him and he had kept all the containers, which were stacked up in the kitchen. Mother was sure he would die

  2. I remember cooking tomato soup, the recipe said to add sago to thicken it, I added the desired amount and went about other tasks, the soup still thin added more, went and set the table, soup still thin, added more sago. Guests arrive to a first course of tomato flavoured sago pudding. Next time I invited those same guests they wanted to be assured it was my husband, a great cook, who would be cooking.

  3. I was 17 when I married and my mum was a chef, she had done all the cooking , I can remember ringing her for a recipe, she said one teaspoon of oil, i though she said a bottle of oil, needless to say it was not edible 🙂

  4. It was embarrassing when the fire brigade arrived when the chips caught fire. I’m always rescuing minor mishaps, but generally class myself as a good cook.

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    • My son did that, went to get the hose and it was too short, lol. No major damage but we did get a new stove and a freshly painted house

    • Our ceiling needed repairing from smoke discolouration. From memory, the walls washed clean. It was nearly forty years ago.

  5. The family always said that my uncle couldn’t even boil an egg without burning the water 🙂
    My own main catastrophe was when cooking soup in a pressure cooker and the pressure control valve stuck. Pressure built up and the emergency pressure relief valve opened – a kitchen ceiling painted with vegetable soup. I was not popular!

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  6. My worst disaster wasn’t food, I was boiling baby Teats and dummies and let them boil dry, wow nothing like the smell of burnt rubber all through the house. Mike I hope you never stop writing for sas.

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  7. I made syrup dumplings out of a CWA cooking book our mum gave to us girls when we got married.didnt know most recipes were for big families.the syrup dumplings lifted the lid of the saucepan and the syrup was all on the stove .what a mess.

  8. Mine was melting crystallized honey. Melting underneath and built up pressure and exploded. Honey dripping of the ceiling. What a mess. Took ages to clean up.

  9. AT 17 and newly married I grilled the chops on only one side and served them up!! ( I was never allowed to cook t home) qed.

  10. When i was about 13yrs old i relished the thought of mum letting me bake some biscuits, away i went carefully reading and using the ingredients listed for coconut biscuits from the trusty Edmonds cook book. Alas they were inedible as i had mistaken wallpaper glue for coconut( they both looked the same and why it was in the cupboard next to the coconut i have no idea), i still get reminded of this today, Hence my motto is “i have a kitchen because it came with the house”

  11. Great article and well written. I have never enjoyed cooking and have no idea how I managed to be a pastoral station, shearers and short order cook over the years. Have held several quiet funerals for culinary disasters over time. Am a passable cook but not a good one, still don’t enjoy it. Quite the adventuress though – each year I manage to feed the extended family for Christmas and the scary thing is, they come back the next year. Gluttons for punishment perhaps?

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