Who can't cook?
A supermarket chain over here in Britain once advertised itself as being ''caring and sharing,'' which is descriptive of our long-term family arrangements with regard to food. My wife did the ''caring'' and I did the ''sharing'' and was quite content that it should be so, for I have always regarded cooking in the same light as Winston Churchill regarded Soviet Russia - ''a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.''
About a year ago, however, circumstances demanded that I should take over the catering in our household, while carrying out my normal work. One year later, I report myself neither sadder nor wiser, but definitely better informed. Indeed, I am inclined retrospectively to follow the Chinese custom and name it the ''Year of the Hot Stove,'' for such it seems to have been.
Now I should not like anyone to think that I came to the task of cooking entirely without experience. Not so. Years ago, when the world and I were young, as a seaman in a destroyer we had what was called ''mess catering.'' Under this arrangement each seamen's ''mess'' did its own cooking for the members while the official Navy cook commanded a galley wherein he provided the basics and essentials for us to perform, i.e., pans, hot water, and criticism.
Every day, two of us took it in turns to prepare food for the 14 others. No one was excused, least of all for the derisory excuse that ''I can't cook!'' Seamen in the Royal Navy, we were informed with some asperity by the Admiralty, can do anything. Like all propaganda at that time, it was strictly and fundamentally untrue.
So at the beginning of last year, I arrived at the starting point with fading memories of how to take, say, 64 eggs and, maybe, 20 pounds of flour, and, perhaps, around 60 pounds of meat (unidentified) and finish up with a ''straight bake.'' (At sea, any food you couldn't recognize when it was cooked was called a ''straight bake.'') It was thought to make for harmony in the mess. In fact, I recall that, after one meal made partly by me, a fellow seaman observed thoughtfully that after eating my food the U-boat menace no longer loomed so large in his mind.
Well, you know how it is: When you become aware of a subject of no previous interest you discover what a lot of it there is about. I hadn't really noticed all the cooking programs on TV, for instance, but I quickly managed to transfer my dislike for political broadcasts and ''Dallas'' to the well-groomed and smiling - ever smiling - TV cooks. What is more, coming new to their viewers, in my opinion they cheated. They would chop up a mess of pottage and then ''in order to save time'' produce the end product already cooked. Very suspicious, I decided, and turned to the cookbooks, only to find out how difficult it is for the beginner to divide a meal for four, into one for two, when ingredients are as imprecise as ''one moderately sized onion.''
Now I was not unaware of the changing world of food since the days when I had cooked. Convenience foods, blister-packed foods, precooked foods, fast foods, and all the rest. Then there was the eruption of every manner of foreign food. Curiously, I discovered that there was no precooked roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which is the basis of our imperial past. I assume that the food companies felt that heresy in cooking can only go so far before a counterreformation sets in.
I normally have a lot of writing work to do and I early transferred my base of operations to the kitchen while waiting for things to boil, bake, or fry. I was encouraged to do this by having read many years before that Margaret Mitchell wrote much of ''Gone With the Wind'' in the kitchen while nursing a baby and stirring food. I am quite certain of this, for I remember thinking at the time that to do this she must have had three hands, and you don't forget significant little pointers like that.
As I soldiered on I was greatly afflicted by advice from all quarters. Some of the advisors were of that body of people who have a special recipe which they claim to have invented and over which ''you can't go wrong!'' They were wrong. I could.
As time went by and the basic problem, which was to get everything to the finishing line at the same time, became apparent, my admiration grew for those maligned generals who managed to get everything on to the beaches on D-Day, at the right place at the right time. The analogy in cooking is irrefutable, and when things do not turn out according to the timetable one gets a little sorry for oneself.
But it is a truism that someone is always worse off than you are and I came across a lively correspondence in The Times which cheered me up. It was all about how the Roman Army guarding Hadrian's Wall was fed. The archaeologists disputing the diet certainly gave no quarter to each other, but then academics never do. But what I noticed was that they all missed the point. They didn't mention the Roman Army cooks. Now I personally would not want to be the cook when the Sixth Legion arrived on a cold November evening fresh from harrying Picts and Scots up and down the wall, and demanding its chow.
Across the centuries I have thought very sympathetically of those cooks. Food arrangements in those parts of England aren't very good even today.