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Dec 16, 2013 09:00 AM

Friends who can’t cook but insist on doing it

Do you have friends who love to cook but are terrible at it? We have two couples that we know and socialize with. We’ve been invited over to dinner at both of their homes. They go through great pains to prepare elaborate meals. The problem is that their cooking is bad. Not just meh, but out and out awful. Painful in the same way when you hear a kid learning to play the clarinet and those off key notes just make you wince. We’re polite and eat what we can, but some of the things that have been prepared were nearly inedible. Its bad enough now that when we’re faced with an invitation from either family, our kids say they’re not going and I’m trying to figure out how we can turn the invitation into a group dinner at a restaurant. They’re wonderful friends, but I think they’ve gotten caught up in the mass foodie culture and want to cook but just can’t seem to figure it out. This is despite classes and professional intervention. So we must grin and bear it. So when I read all these threads that ask how can people not cook and eat out all the time or those who complain about how they host guests at home but never get a reciprocal invitation, all I can think is thank your lucky stars they don’t have you over to their home. They may just be really bad cooks.

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    1. Short answer: no. I have friends who don't cook my style of food (say, they use lots of processed stuff), but I eat it every once in a while.

      The only thing that would keep me from eating a true friend's cooking would be if they consistently served things that would make me sick--ignoring a life-threatening allergy or undercooking chicken, etc.

      They've taken classes. They haven't killed themselves or others yet. How bad can their food be? Seriously? Mushy pasta? Ambrosia salad with pineapple jello?

      6 Replies
      1. re: pinehurst

        Thing like battered chicken that is dropped into barely warm oil so that it starts by gently poaching in the oil allowing sufficient time to allow oil to soak completely in and then leaving it on the burner as the oil heats up until its now overcooked so that you get this dark brown crusted piece that's oozing oil all over your plate. Mushy pasta ain't got nothing on this.

        Then there was the time for the baked chicken dish. Guests come over and we notice no cooking going on at all. No cooking odors or mess. Chatting over wine for 1-2 hours. Then they pull a tray out of the oven that has been in a low temperature since the morning. Proper ambient temperature to encourage bacterial growth I imagine. Chicken was desiccated mess and I got one of the worst cases of food poisoning ever. As soon as I got home, I was driving the porcelain bus. I wasn't the only one. Crowded bus during rush hour.

        1. re: Bkeats

          Okay, then they need an intervention with The Truth before they kill/hospitalize a guest. If they're your friends, they need to know.

          "Jack and Diane, you know we love you guys. The last time you made baked chicken, Peter, Paul, Mary and I all got horribly ill. We know you like to experiment with cooking, but you do know that you can't simply "warm" raw chicken. We love you guys, but we don't want to die. How about we handle the main courses next time and you guys cook the veggies?"

          1. re: pinehurst

            ", the Everly Brothers both had to go to the Medicine Show to see Doctor Hook..."

            ( carried away with the musical references.)

          2. re: Bkeats

            THIS. I was just about to ask for examples (because what's a post like this without a little schadenfreude). Thank you.

            1. re: Bkeats

              off-topic, maybe, but if anyone makes a claim that they get the runs from food soon after they eat it in a restaurant, the masses stone them to death. "it's too soon" "it's gotta incubate for a few days" "it's NEVER the restaurant" "It's you".
              but if it's a home cooked meal, it's ok.


              I've had a bad meal or two from a restaurant that gave me the same symptoms as you. And I know I ain't the only one.

              I guess it's cause we gotta name the restaurant to state where we got this food born illness?

              Simple, if I get sick, you suck.

              1. re: Gastronomos

                Err. The driving the porcelain bus metaphor does not coincide with the runs. Lunch came back in the direction from which it came. Usually a tighter correlation to cause and effect in that direction. Different symptom.

          3. How else will they improve? First time I picked up an instrument (I play guitar, drums and harmonica) I wasn't ready for a concert arena. So I'm not keen on the analogy. If you want to get good/better at something, you do it more not less.

            Good friends you say? Enjoy their experiments and encourage friendly improvements. Do you have the impression they want to learn how to be better cooks? Can you help them become better?

            Or, find a way to be honest.

            4 Replies
            1. re: HillJ

              Not everyone can learn to play an instrument competently. If that wasn't true, the childhood experience of taking lessons in the instrument of choice would create a nation full of orchestras and bands instead of the trauma that many people can relate. If playing instruments was so easy, we wouldn't be amazed by anyone's skill at it.

              Don't think we haven't tried to help. They look at me a a fairly competent home cook and ask for advice but no matter what we try to do to help, the train goes off the rails.

              They really want to cook. The group we are part of has some great home cooks. The others are trying to contribute in their way. Great people just not great cooks.

              1. re: Bkeats

                You kinda missed my point about practice. I was trying to convey that it isn't easy to learn anything without practice, A great many people quit learning how to do something well or better than when they started by quitting instead of practicing.

                You're suggesting your friends are tone deaf. I'm suggesting they can learn a better work around.

                You know these nice folks, if it was a couple we knew we'd find a way, a humorous way, to either help them through some basic cooking skills or count on them for the wine.

                1. re: Bkeats

                  If they acknowledge that their cooking is poor and look to you for advice, perhaps you could plan some events where you cook *with* them? That way you could constantly be reminding them of the little things that they might otherwise be doing wrong.

                  It might also be worth providing them with a set of really detailed recipes -- possibly one of the Cooks Illustrated books -- and suggesting they work the recipes exactly as written. If you do this and spend time during a 'cooking together' afternoon going over the recipes and making sure they see what needs to be done in advance, it might help.

                  When I'm cooking elaborate meals, I create little spreadsheets in advance of everything I need to do, including timings, and including things like when to switch the oven on and what temperatures to set it at, so I can follow my flow, rather than trying to figure out how to cook 5 recipes at the same time. They might benefit from something like that, as well.

                  Otherwise, I think the best you can do is eat the stuff that probably won't kill you, and push the stuff that will around on your plate but don't eat it. Or just make them the friends with whom you go hiking or bowling or to the movies -- anything but dinner at home.

                  1. re: Jacquilynne

                    We do this often. I have a friend who is learning to cook and we cook together. We make it fun with a theme. Typically it is for a movie night so we choose the menu based around the movie. We have "caught" lots of potential mistakes this way, like not putting the cooked chicken back on the raw chicken plate.

              2. Professional intervention? I'm trying to picture this---a squadron of white-coated interventionists with a bullhorn: "Put down that spatula NOW!"

                1 Reply
                1. re: mwhitmore

                  One friend works in the food industry but not as a cook (obviously). A chef friend once came over and tried to help out but no amount of tips, pointers, hints, or direction stuck.

                2. The ability to cook is is part training, part genetically determined. So let's ask this another way, if your friend was born without a leg would you make belittling online comments about his tennis skills?

                  In the larger scheme of life food is just not that important. The corporate takeover of the American government and the subsequent impoverishment of the American people is important. The unceasing, tragic conflicts in the Middle East and Africa are important. The rise of China as a global power is important.

                  Despite what people with empty lives try to turn it into, food is not scientific discovery or theological enlightenment, it's not a signifier of how smart, or cultured, or worthwhile you are as a person. Food is just dead animals and plants pulled out of the ground combined with heat.

                  You have two choices. You can either smile and clean your plate or you can stop being friends.

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: Big Eater

                    <You have two choices. You can either smile and clean your plate or you can stop being friends>

                    You've got to be kidding. The OP already indicated that they are great friends and want to continue getting together with them. They have also indicated that their skills are bad enough to make people ill. The question being posed is how to continue the former, without being subjected to the late.

                    And yes it is important in the larger scheme in life. With out friendship and realtionships. what the hell is the point of being here.

                    1. re: mike0989

                      Agreed that relationships are important, but a big part of successful relationships is adjusting your expectations to the shortcomings of your friends. And if they were really "great" friends she wouldn't be complaining.

                      Let's all think back to Ruth Reichl's first memoir and how her mother's cooking actually did give people food poisoning. Yet people still came to dinner and Ruth herself seems to have come out OK. So you see it is possible to eat other people's dreadful meals and not be an everloving bore about it.

                      The bottom line is that cooking talent is partly or wholly genetic and these people clearly did not get the gene. There's nothing anyone can do to improve their food....

                      Therefore, the OP can either behave like a friend and eat their horrible food and stop gossiping about them, or she can decline their invitations and let the chips fall where they may.

                      1. re: Big Eater

                        I would NEVER advise someone to go to someone's house in order to have fun and get food poisoning.

                        That's an awful, awful time.

                        1. re: Big Eater

                          Though both my husband and I are not picky eaters, we have one couple who we're good friends with who aren't good at cooking but the worst part is that they are slovenly as well. I don't mean "untidy" I mean there are opened jars of salsa and marinara sauce sitting on their counters for weeks (waiting to be served to us), all flour and other baking ingredients left open for mice and bugs. I have been sick more than once from eating over there so please don't wag your finger at the author of this article for being a "bad friend". I simply don't eat over there. We hang out but I always say I've already eaten. Problem solved!

                          1. re: SuzannaK

                            So how do you deal with it if say, on a Tuesday, your friend calls you and invites you to come for dinner on Saturday? You can't have already eaten 4 days in advance. It seems that that is the solution this OP is looking for. The dinner invite comes, she loves the friend but the dinner is unbearable.

                            I think you can try to tactfully 're-direct' it for a while ("You guys host us all the time, it's our turn" or "I hate you doing so much work, how about we potluck?" or "We want to take you out to thank you for all the dinners") but eventually you have to let the friends know, lest they unknowingly food poison someone else. Though feelings may be hurt initially, I would really think they would want to know it's not good.

                      2. re: Big Eater

                        Yeah your suggestion is a bit extreme.

                        1. re: Big Eater

                          If the cost of a friendship is deliberately poisoning myself, I know which one I'll choose.

                          1. re: Big Eater

                            "food is not scientific discovery"

                            Actually, of course it is. It just happened so long ago in human history than Nobel Prizes were not given to the great scientists (many of them female, I'd bet) who discovered and cultivated most of our foods. You should read Nicolai Vavilov. Food is right there behind air and water as a basic human requirement for physical survival. None of the global geo-politics you reference can happen unless people are breathing, drinking, and eating.

                            1. re: Big Eater

                              "or theological enlightenment"

                              Yet Jesus' first public miracle was turning water into wine at a friend's wedding, and his final get-together with his friends was a meal. Not to even mention multiplying loaves and fishes.

                              Food is as basic as it gets.