A not-exhaustive list of those who don’t like the kitchen.
The non-cook is out there. We are legion. Oh yes, non-cooks are present and even accounted for. Of course you know we’re there in theory, yet from a distance the individual non-cook is virtually unidentifiable. There is no non-cook model or standard, no particular non-cook manner or mode. Non-cooks don’t follow one exclusive fashion or another—the non-cook cannot be pigeonholed or typecast. There is no non-cook uniform. You’d never be able to pick the non-cook out of a lineup unless you are very observant and able to somehow catch that non-cook look in her eye. Generally, to find the non-cook, you have to look within. Because it’s personal. Individual. In a nutshell, the non-cook is a person who does not consider him- or herself to be a cook.
It’s a feeling. And the non-cook has a right to her feelings.
While the non-cook is often a creature of non-action, prefer- ring to spend all or most or as much as possible of her time not cooking, non-cook status doesn’t depend on the infrequency of the cooking (the zero cooking ideal is difficult to attain for most non-cooks however we strive). While it is true that many a non- cook can’t cook her way out of either a paper or a plastic bag, non-cook status doesn’t depend on lousy-quality food. Non-cook status is a thing of perception. So while the non-cook is often a creature of non-action and non-ability, the non-cook is always a creature of attitude.
Oh the numerous possible aspects of the non-cook! She may be barely conscious or hyper-aware, willing or unwilling, forth- right or elusive. She may claim her status or bury it. The non-cook may be strident or wistful, confirmed or unresolved, in it for the long haul or destined to reform. She may be flippant and fond of cracking wry non-cooking jokes or full of non-cooking guilt and remorse over meals never lovingly prepared, hot stoves never slaved over, dinner parties never hosted, baked goods never placed in care packages and mailed to the loved one far away.
The non-cook may be chatty and outgoing, always out and about talking about not cooking this, not cooking that. The non- cook may be reclusive, doing all of her not cooking on the sly, in the privacy of her own non-stocked, non-equipped, non-working for all intents and purposes kitchen. The non-cook may not even have a coffee maker. Then again, the non-cook may have a professional espresso machine, because just as coffee is its own food group, it orbits its own cooking sun on its own cooking planet with its own gravitational pull and its very own advocates, detractors, schlepps and stars. I just want to note here that your coffee attitude and your cooking attitude are not necessarily correlated.
The non-cook may be a person of great food-related complexity, a teeming bundle of neurotic food-centered fears and anxieties, or a free loader plain and simple, a person of stunning food-related laziness. The non-cook may be a picky eater, a meal skipper, a veg etable dodger. The non-cook may be a health nut, a chronic dieter, a closet eater, a beauty queen or a string bean or a piggy gourmand. Or just a regular gourmand.
Or even a totally normal person, food- consumptionwise. The non-cook comes in all shapes and sizes.
The diversity of the non-cook community and the multifaceted nature of many an individual non-cook is indisputable. Fol- lowing are some basic types of non-cooks:
THE DEFAULT NON-COOK
This type is also known as the Lucky non-cook, the Easygoing non- cook, the Lazy non-cook, the Societal non-cook, and somewhat less flatteringly the Opportunistic non-cook. This type doesn’t give her position as a non-cook a whole lot of thought. Generally speaking, the Default non-cook has someone else to cook for her on a regular, permanent basis, or else the pocketbook and personality for dining out all the time. The Default non-cook takes advantage of life as she finds it. She expects circumstances, roles and situations to support her status as a non-cook. And they do.
The prevalence of the Default non-cook can be in part attributed to a cultural thing. A cultural thing of men not being the ones expected to cook. Even with loads of guys bucking expecta- tion, or in this case bucking lack of expectation and cooking up a storm, even with subcultures in which it is actually the norm for men to cook—even then we’ve got quite a number of lucky ducks who sit back, not cooking without batting an eye.
In my very own generation (that’s Generation X, now undeni- ably adult), I know lots of friends who have husbands who don’t cook. Not much is made of this. Some of these happy men may not even think of themselves as non-cooks unless pressed, because the guy non-cook just doesn’t have the feel and flavor of the lady non-cook. But the non-cook (including the Default non-cook) comes in both genders, of course, and while it’s true that the fe- male non-cook attracts more attention and interest than her male counterpart, it’s only due to silly cultural norms and expectations. The male non-cook must work a little harder to hone his identity. Never mind the gender roles: guys, you can be a non-cook with the absolute very best of us. So acknowledge your status and claim your territory, even if it is the safe grazing ground of the lucky, passive, pampered Default non-cook.
THE EXCUSE TYPE NON-COOK
The Excuse Type non-cook is too busy to cook or too stressed to cook. She just simply doesn’t have time! The Excuse Type non- cook has a small kitchen, a dark kitchen, a poorly ventilated kitchen or a kitchen with bad feng shui. The Excuse Type non- cook lives too far away from the grocery store/farmer’s market/ food co-op/corner store, so naturally the Excuse Type non-cook cannot go shopping. The Excuse Type non-cook cannot find fair- trade environmentally friendly pots and pans or the right size and weight normal pots and pans. The Excuse Type doesn’t have any pots and pans at all. The Excuse Type non-cook wouldn’t know which ones to get, and anyway doesn’t have time to shop for them and plus there’s no space for them in her tiny, dark kitchen. The Excuse Type non-cook has myriad logistical problems, from the infinitesimally small to the obviously insurmountable.
The Excuse Type non-cook would probably remark that these are not excuses, they are reasons. Semantics, perhaps, yet the Ex- cuse Type non-cook should not be confused with the Situational or Temporary non-cook, also known as the On Leave, Back-burn- er, or Temporarily Out of Service actual cook. This person is in a specific situation that creates a reason for not cooking, which will change when life changes, at which point the person will cook. However, if the Excuse Type non-cook’s situation changes, he or she will come up with a new situation to prevent him from cook- ing. Moved from the tiny apartment with the tiny kitchen to the nice house with a big kitchen? Well, you can’t very well cook until the curtains are up on the kitchen window, the one over the sink and also the ones in the breakfast nook, because someone might see you cooking and that would be weird. Curtains are up? Well, now you probably need blinds, too. Blinds installed? It’s really hard to cook without the right kind of fan in the kitchen. Fan up and running? Actually, what you meant was not a different kind of exhaust fan over the stove, but a ceiling fan. For when it gets hot in the kitchen. Because you’re obviously not going to try to make food in a hot kitchen, right? And the not-cooking goes on.
The ingenuity required for excuse shifting is a hallmark of the Excuse Type non-cook. Some may argue that the Excuse Type non-cook is really just an excuse type person. Slander. I think food and cooking have a special effect that can make a generally vigorous, can-do, let-me-at-it sort of person run screaming into the woods with a stack of excuses and replacement excuses in her suitcase. It takes imagination and persistence to be an Excuse Type non-cook, especially with the fast pace of life these days. Rock on!
THE SECRET NON-COOK
Flying below radar, going undercover, or even passing (as a cook, I tell you, as a cook!) in a foodie world, the Secret non-cook keeps the truth of her cooking identity to herself. She bakes cupcakes for her child’s school birthday party because she fears that she will seem insincere if she buys them from the bakery department of the grocery store. Not that she thinks others parents are insincere for doing this, not at all, but the Secret non-cook has a reputation to protect. A case to build. The Secret non-cook is not willing to make a not-cooking stand, issue or policy decision. She is not willing to make a fuss. So the Secret non-cook harbors non-cook feelings and sympathies in a deep and private place. Perhaps bitterness creeps in when working on the red sauce for the pasta (why do I have to do this? why can’t we just use the one from the can?), but the Secret non-cook says nothing and adds a pinch of salt. A non-cook in essence and at bottom, still she does what she has to do—packs a lunch, concocts an elaborate anniversary dinner, watches a cooking show on TV—to get through the day, maintain the marriage or keep the peace. The feigned interest; the secret unwilling participation; the oh-so-private duplicity!
The Secret non-cook is probably rarely outed or exposed against her will, though perhaps there is some history of the Secret non- cook revealing herself with a mix of anger and relief in the course of a terrible soap opera–style domestic dispute, as in: “I’m tired of pretending. It’s time you realized who I really am. I’m not a cook, OK? I never gave a damn about the professional cooking range and I never wanted that subscription to Cooks Magazine. It was all a lie!”
It may seem innocent and inconsequential enough, but food- and cooking-related pretending and fibbing can really gum up the works. Concealment and deception can gum up the works even worse, or permanently. With the Secret non-cook, it isn’t just one little isolated obfuscation, like pretending to care which blender blends best or drumming up interest in which kind of cheese, Parmesan or Romano, is better in the pesto. Or maybe a combintion? Or maybe it doesn’t need cheese at all! With the Secret non- cook, it’s more on the scale of a double life. Granted, it’s an inner double life and not quite grounds for breakup the way a double lifestyle extramarital affair would be. The Secret non-cook doesn’t have a secret bank account, secret e-mail address or a second cell phone, but she is still presenting herself as something she is not. And that something she is not is a cook.
Perhaps this type lurks only in my imagination as part of a secret underworld of not cooking, a mysterious, invisible, uncounted number augmenting the ranks of the non-cooks, like a secret sleeper non-cook army primed to start rejecting the kitchen when they get fed up with their own tragic, ill-conceived deceit. Or maybe it’s not my imagination. Maybe there’s a Secret non-cook reading this right now, pretending to be baffled or confused by the improbable notion of the Secret non-cook, but actually knowing just absolutely exactly what I’m talking about.
THE UPTIGHT NON-COOK
The Uptight non-cook, also known more generously as the Fastidious or Neatnick non-cook, knows that when the not not-cooking begins, things get messy. Pots get burned so that you can never ever get them really clean again. Stains take up residence on your clothing. Sauce gets on the backsplash. The Uptight non-cook also knows that things get disorderly. Dishes pile up in the sink; ingredients get snatched out of the cabinets and left loitering on the counter; the lids of things do not get screwed back on, the closures are not closed, the bags are not resealed. The Uptight non-cook does not do well with ambiguity. Will the kitchen ever return to order? The Uptight non-cook is far from sure. For the Uptight non-cook, mixing things is not really comfortable. Like should go with like. For example, she likes the dry ingredients to stay next to one another, sealed up in their containers, in the cupboard. She does not like to have them mingling with ingredients from other categories, an activity also known as cooking. The Uptight non- cook does not want to mess up her kitchen.
Although I did not think about it at the time, looking back I believe that two women I knew in my 20s were repressed Uptight non-cooks. One of them was a homemaker in St. Paul, Minne- sota, the stepmother of my college boyfriend, and the other was a homemaker in exurban New Jersey, the mother of a man I dated for a couple of years before we each chose similar domestic lives but not with each other. Both of these women were sharp, smart, immaculate and formidable. Both were exacting. Both were to- tally in charge, presiding over spotless homes and especially spot- less kitchens. In New Jersey, the kitchen was not only spotless but also white. It was a spotless white kitchen, as in white tile, white countertops and white linoleum on the floor, white so that she could immediately detect and eradicate anything not white. That kind of white.
Somehow, I remember meals but I don’t remember any cook- ing. I remember matching flatware and silverware, but I don’t remember any food. Well, maybe I remember cold cuts in Minnesota and crudités in New Jersey. There was food, I know there was food—family gatherings and therefore food—but it did not seem to have been cooked. Certainly the kitchens never got warm. I think what was going on with both of these early mother-in- law figures (vastly unlike my actual mother-in-law, who is cozy and darling, a little haphazard and a willing, nurturing cook) was that they were by nature Uptight non-cooks who did not want to mess up their kitchens, but they had taken on homemaking roles which included by custom the cooking. Since their husbands had easily slipped into roles as Default non-cooks (see above) and claimed those roles steadfastly, the women’s roles as cooks were even more cemented. Plus, these women were both sort of control freaks. They wanted to run their houses down to the last cheese ball in Minnesota and last bagel in New Jersey. Remember, they were the ones in charge. When it came to a choice between ex- pressing themselves as Uptight non-cooks or staying in control of what came out of the kitchen, I think repression of their non-cook natures came naturally. What paths they ultimately cut for them- selves I do not know, but both of these ladies were powerful, and it would not surprise me if some greater will to something eventually trumped even the will to repression.
THE NERVOUS & FEARFUL NON-COOK
The Nervous & Fearful non-cook cannot ignore the safety issues of the kitchen. The scalding water, the kitchen matches, the explosive quality of the gas fueling the gas oven, the open flame, the razor-edged can openers and food processor attachments, the sharp knives, the sharpening stone to make them even sharper. All of these things may seem commonplace to most, even to most non-cooks, but for the Nervous & Fearful non-cook, these things are active hazards. The Nervous & Fearful non-cook cannot stop thinking that things can go wrong. Terribly wrong: I’m talking about the kitchen fires, the kitchen accidents and the kitchen injuries. The Nervous & Fearful non-cook knows that the kitchen is a messed up, dangerous place.
Yes, it is treacherous and fearsome to enter the kitchen. Caution is a perfectly good reason to avoid something. Better safe than sorry. I am the last one to marginalize the Nervous & Fearful non-cook.
THE NO CONFIDENCE NON-COOK
Also known as the Believe I Can’t Cook non-cook or the No Try non-cook. This type is convinced, for whatever reason, legitimate or otherwise, that she lacks the ability to cook. Unwilling to be a bad cook, the No Confidence non-cook takes a different and often lonely road. The No Confidence non-cook is worried, perhaps, about potential eaters. Or maybe more than worried. Maybe downright concerned. Often for the No Confidence non-cook there are cooking related failures lurking in the past, and a dread that more lie in wait in the future. And so she will try no more. The No Confidence non-cook has a stubborn streak, yet the No Confidence non-cook doesn’t necessarily want to be this way. She may prefer cooking-related self-esteem. She may yearn to try in spite of herself. The No Confidence non-cook may even, amazingly, wish she were a cook. But only a good cook. An effortlessly good cook. A cook like, say, her husband, who is one of those naturally confident, whip it right up, no need for a recipe kind of cooks. And who’s to say she can’t be? Who’s to say she isn’t on the brink of transformation? The No Confidence non-cook is to say, of course, because it is her privilege to believe what she chooses and behave accordingly.
I have to say that the No Confidence non-cook is close to my heart. Or maybe it makes more sense to say that there is a No Confidence non-cook inhabiting a big place in my heart, taking up a lot of psycho/emotional real estate, trespassing on the abandoned property of the cook who might in a different life have inhabited the place. If I drop my generalized non-cook bluster, there is a shy, complex No Confidence non-cook there, hiding out, knowing that packing my kids’ lunch boxes is the closest I will ever come to mastering any kind of food preparation. I have all these feelings and emotions, all these vulnerabilities and hesitations around cooking. I am a little bit of a basket case! The basket is filled with all the things I cannot cook. All the things I don’t like to eat are in there, too.
THE NO COOK NON-COOK
A streamlined, simple non-cook type. It’s the no thank you, not my bowl of soup, I’ll pass on the cooking kind of non-cook. It’s the I don’t enjoy cooking stance, also known, more emphatically and less politely as the I can’t stand to cook or I hate to cook posture. The more brassy No Cook non-cook is the sort who is willing to rewrite and claim that old widespread joke (sometimes attributed to “King of the one liners” Henny Youngman), to say it loud and proud: The only thing I’ll make for dinner is reservations.
Typically, the No Cook non-cook has little to contribute to conversation about cooking. She would rather talk about some- thing else. The No Cook non-cook probably doesn’t know a good cooking tip or trick and almost surely doesn’t know a good recipe. Do not tell the No Cook non-cook that anyone can cook. Definitely do not tell the No Cook non-cook that if you can read a recipe you can cook. Who said anything about cooking? Who asked? The No Cook non-cook isn’t interested, and doesn’t feel like she has to have a reason. This is a proud, select group to which only unapologetic non-cooks belong. The No Cook non-cook is the star of the non-cook world. This type is a kind of ideal that more conflicted, less direct, guiltier, less confident non-cooks look at with awe, longing, and secret envy.
I think with enormous fondness of my paternal grandmother—we all call her Gram—as being a natural style, very self-accepting No Cook non-cook. I realize that for her kids—my father and my uncle—Gram’s identity as a non-cook may feel uncomfortable, and the way she communicated, or failed to communicate, how to enjoy food may have left them with some issues to unravel and deal with. And maybe she was less comfortable with or different in her attitude toward cooking when they were children—but by the time I was conscious of Gram as a non-cook, she was in her 70s and her duties as a food provider to a visiting grandchild were not taxing.
At this point, Gram’s is an evolved stance. She is very, very old—102 as I write this, and she has done many things in her life: earned a college degree and then a master’s degree in social work, raised two sons, played a crucial role in running the family business her husband (my grandfather) started, committed time to volunteer work and philanthropy, and acted as role model to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. So what if there are things she didn’t do? Big so what if she didn’t do much in the way of cooking.
Once I was visiting Gram at her apartment and we had sat down to eat breakfast. She was in her 80s at the time. Everything was laid out: a bowl of cereal for each of us, a glass of orange juice for each of us, a dish of canned peaches for each of us and a small pitcher of milk. Gram put her copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the side and got herself settled in her chair. Was she ready to eat? She was ready. She picked up her glass of orange juice. She dumped it into her bowl of cereal. We both looked into the bowl. The orange juice was still there. Gram twisted her mouth a bit, shrugged and picked up her spoon. “It’s all going to the same place,” she said.
This list of non-cook types is by no means exhaustive. Sub- type, mixed type, double types and lots of completely other types of non-cooks are out there staying out of their kitchens. I know there’s a little piece or gigantic piece of me lurking in each of the types I describe, plus other dangerously nitty-gritty, largely self- explanatory non-cook modes such as the Depressive/Disconnect- ed non-cook (What’s the point of cooking at all?), the Misguided Food Provider/Low Food Standards/Resourceful Gone Wrong non-cook (Let’s have this half eaten pie from two weeks ago that I found in the back of the refrigerator for dinner tonight!) and, of course, the No Eat non-cook (not to be taken absolutely literally, this type was first described to me by my friend Daphne, who was trying to explain why she doesn’t like to cook. “Well,” she told me, “if you don’t care about eating those things, you don’t have any interest in cooking them….” By “those things,” I understand that she sort of meant “most things.”).
But no matter the type, or how complex a profile the non-cook may have, if you dig in you will discover that two basic states of not cooking are at the root of all non-cook behavior: There’s the can’t-cook style and there’s the won’t-cook style. Here, questions about what it really means to be unable and what it really means to be unwilling naturally rise like a doomed-to-fall soufflé. Further, there are those who even feel that the sum of the non-cook’s not cooking boils down to won’t-style non-cook attitude, with can’t-style a mere ingredient to complicate the issue, or maybe to spice things up. As in: “of course you can, you just won’t!” This seems to be an awfully radical idea. Let’s just say that chicken/egg scenarios of can’t and therefore won’t and won’t and therefore can’t are common, and that sometimes it’s almost impossible to tell one chicken, or one egg, from the other.