First could you show me how to boil water?: A hungry Jim Shelley finds he cannot cope - or cook - with the high-flown advice dished out by the men and women on the box
Monday 03 May 1993
Cookery's too difficult. It's too messy and time-consuming. When I try it, it gets me down. I get angry and irritable. I get frustrated and depressed. I get hungry.
The solution, I felt, (as I feel with most things) was television.
Cookery programmes, suddenly, were everywhere: Hot Chefs, Food & Drink, Foodwise, Get Stuffed, Fast Feasts . . . late night and early morning, all afternoon. Cookery celebrities abound: Rusty Lee, Anton Mosimann, Keith Floyd, Sophie Grigson and the Queen of Cookery, Delia Smith, who returns tomorrow, with Summer with Delia (BBC 2, 8.30pm).
I put my pinny on (they all had them) and watched everything.
The first problem with cookery programmes is the presenters. Some are just cretinous (Hot Chef Gary Rhodes, the grating Sarah Brown on Foodwise). Others are just incomprehensible (Anton Mosimann, Hot Chef Rosamund Grant, anyone on Masterchef): you needed 25 years' experience just to decipher what they were saying. 'Clarify the butter', 'de-vein the shrimp', 'devil the duck's legs'.
The presenters know too much. They know everything. They think the viewer will know everything, too. 'I've already started,' said Rosamund Grant. 'Put in any vegetables you like: yams, potatoes, cassava, breadfruits, pumpkins, turnips . . .' Which were best? I didn't want to improvise. What were breadfruits?
'First, make a batter. Then . . .' This was easy for her to say. Batter? I wanted to be told how to turn the oven on. 'Put in a bit more oil, some flour . . .' they said, tipping in various amounts. I wanted details: how many drops? How many grains?
The presenters just aren't helpful. 'Don't cook it in a bowl like this one,' said Sarah Brown, filling up the wrong bowl.
'I'm putting in a cup and a half,' said the pumpkin woman on Eat Your Greens. 'It's an American cup,' pointed out the presenter, Sophie Grigson, not helping.
'Normally it's a lime,' said the okra expert, putting in lemon juice.
I was confused. What was 'a well-fed cake'? A 'traditional pumpkin'? How did it differ from a radical one? What did it mean when Delia Smith said: 'The salt cod should not be very salty'? When Sophie, making squash risotto, said: 'You must never, ever wash the risotto rice'? What would happen if you did? What was a squash?
The presenters not only knew everything, they also had everything. Their kitchens were lovely and spacious. They had more kitchen equipment than I had ever seen.
But I was raring to go, eager to learn. I went out and bought bowls and baking trays, pie pans and earthenware cooking pots. I bought whisks and blenders and spatulas. I bought a pastry cutter, truffle cutters, paring knives, palette knives, a melon baller, a cake piper. I bought lemon zesters. I bought oven gloves. Instructed to bone the chicken, I went out and asked for a boner. I had dreams of basting, braising and battering, of perfecting my folding, mastering my mixing.
Cookery on television is like The Krypton Factor. It's all about ratios, consistencies, constructing lattice-top pie crusts, assembling cakes. One recipe required six egg whites at room temperature. I spent hours wondering which room had the best temperature. Delia Smith made a cake that required extensive origami expertise (putting pleats in the tin foil, cutting holes in the paper covering a cream cake). 'Pierce in three equidistant places,' Delia breathed. I didn't have a set-square.
Delia said my burnt butter had to be 'hazelnut brown'. Was chestnut brown good enough? Panic set in. I scoured the shops and bought a hazelnut, just to be certain I had the right shade.
'You can make a hot roux with cold milk or a cold roux with hot milk.' I was lost. Which was better? What was a roux?
Doing everything right was practically impossible. They jumped ahead, they missed things. They offered ominous warnings, threats to the innocent novice. 'If your filo pastry gets brittle, it's a disaster.' I passed this on to all my friends. 'Otherwise, you can get lumps.' Where would I get lumps? 'It's absolutely vital it's defrosted'. Why? What would happen otherwise?
I began to feel inadequate and persecuted. Paranoid.
The presenters, of course, cheated. They jumped ahead. Pastry cups appeared from nowhere ('Some I prepared earlier') to be filled with foie gras, filo triangles stuffed with apricot and prezzemolo, which were magically already immaculate.
Apart from Delia, the presenters all had helpers, assistants or (on Hot Chefs) slaves. I wanted someone to tidy up for me, to prepare the prune and blackberry sauce while I cooked my goose, having already (manfully) 'stuffed its neck cavity with horsemeat'. I wondered if I could get someone on a youth training scheme.
The next problem is the recipes they do. My hope that I could learn how to roast a chicken or make roast potatoes that were the right shape, serve some stew - that, basically, I could learn to make something that I could eat - was immediately dashed.
While I wanted to get the fish fingers right, or do things with baked potatoes, they wanted me to make orange and apple surprise, stuffed grape leaves or 'a platter of savoury mouthfuls' made of roquefort-stuffed prawns. They were trying to persuade me to make chestnut souffle and sesame rice wheels, and to decorate things with olive flowers. I was overjoyed to see bread and butter pudding on Hot Chefs but couldn't face constructing a bain-marie. Their idea of egg on toast was eggs served on 'toastpoints'.
Hot Chef Gary Rhodes insisted on fresh vanilla, not vanilla essence (which I was quite happy with). This took me two weeks to find.
While Get Stuffed may show you how to make something horrendous out of sardines, curry powder, eggs, kidney beans and white wine, 2am is not really the time for such delicacies. The other television cooks are busy using things such as Bing cherries or 'young spinach leaves' (mine looked adolescent). Obviously no one has told them that Londis does not sell snow peas or fresh, wild Venezuelan nutmeg.
Looking at Delia Smith was all very well (lovely, really), but I couldn't understand a word she was saying. The others were completely bonkers. I couldn't cope with the pressure, the dinner-party pressure. They expected me to spend a week soaking my fruit, marinating my mullet, pickling my walnuts. I thought the idea was to make things to eat.
I could not relate to Sophie Grigson (she of the alarming ear-rings) at all. When she said things such as 'There's a comforting satisfaction to be had from a safely stored crop of garlic,' I had no idea what she was on about. And her attitude to onions, frankly, bordered on the fetishistic. 'So delicious,' she sighed, adding cryptically, '. . .in cookery. I've often found,' she purred, 'that size and flavour don't often go hand in hand.'
By now, I was right off my food. It was all too demoralising. Nothing goes wrong on television. In my kitchen, my nerves were in shreds, my bank balance was destroyed and there just were not enough hours in the day to make everything they expected of me. I couldn't even follow it on video, in slow-motion or freeze-frame.
No one appreciated my efforts or the food I made. Even I didn't. My apple pies looked like sandcastles someone had trodden in. My custard curdled, my souffle sank, my butter burnt, my syllabub separated. My medallions of mushrooms looked like swastikas. I couldn't get the pleats in my tin foil right. I could not clarify my butter, de-vein my shrimps or devil my duck's legs. My aspic solidified (what is aspic?) and my tarragon eggs were, therefore, ruined. I was becoming overly reliant on regular intakes of liquid glucose (Delia's drug).
To cap it all, I was expected not only to eat my greens, according to Channel 4, but also to grow the bloody things, too.
I became tired and emotional and ended up shouting at the television set: 'I haven't got six pairs of hands, you know.'
I had regressed. Together, the television cooks had patronised and humiliated me, shattered my confidence, until I could no longer go on. I reached for the toaster.
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