In polite company, they are known as single people who are intelligent and motivated, but through lack of interest or time simply have no luck with cooking. In not-so-polite company, they are affectionately known as can openers, freezer freaks or just plain kitchen clods.
They serve frozen pizzas at dinner parties, keep the smoke detector companies in business and have been known to dispel the notion that if you can read you can cook. Men and women alike, their habits are often the butt of jokes but rarely the subject of cooking columns.
"I can slice bagels," offers Bob Peck, administrative aide for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who adds that his one and only venture in the kitchen used to be ratatouille, but he's even given that up because his friends berated him so much for its preparation frequency.
For the single person who isn't a cook, breakfast is an easy meal to make, as it simply requires opening a carton of yogurt, pouring milk into a bowl of cereal, or grabbing a piece of fruit. Lunch is a cinch, too, since a sandwich is easy to prepare, especially if you buy it. But dinner is the tricky part.
Often repetition is the technique used by single noncooks. They memorize a few simple preparations or recipes and stick to them night after night. Margaret Totten, administrative aide for Rep. Willis D. Gradison Jr. (R-Ohio), eats peanut butter and jelly on english muffins practically every night. Totten, who says she likes to eat "in about 10 minutes" after she gets home from work, sometimes alternates the english muffin sandwich with a cheeseburger.
Joe Mattivi, corporate sales manager for Europ Assistance Worldwide Services Inc., eats spaghetti every other night. Sometimes, he divulges, he varies the recipe -- using linguine instead of spaghetti.
Often the noncook's repertoire will come from a few recipe cards, perhaps donated by concerned relatives or friends who laboriously spell out step-by-step directions for simple recipes such as scrambled eggs.
But some single noncooks don't believe in cookbooks. Mattivi says everything he makes from one turns out "runny" no matter what it is, and Bruce Adams, a recently married research consultant from Bethesda, contends that "cookbooks are for cooks. I'm just an eater."
As a bachelor, Adams tackled the preparation problem with the ubiquitous recipe cards. He had six file cards containing his notes on recipes that he had watched a friend or relative prepare. His copy of "The Joy of Cooking" sat in a drawer while he rotated fixing the six recipes (oyster stew, baked potato, roast beef, quiche, baked chicken and green beans) with Stouffer's frozen dinners.
"I have to see things done," he says. "I had people come over and cook six dishes and I wrote down exactly what they did. That, along with Stouffer's, and I was well fed." He never varied the recipes "because they might blow up."
Adams says that when he got married, his wife banished his recipe cards from the kitchen, presumably to start him on a more varied eating schedule. Instead, he adds ironically, the two of them have been living on peanut butter, fast food and frozen dinners. (Which just goes to show that getting married doesn't necessarily solve the problem.)
For other single noncooks, however, purchasing a cookbook becomes part of a periodic "special project" during which learning to cook is attacked with fervor. Often, however, in their zeal and enthusiasm, single noncooks get in over their heads, experimenting with recipes that require a bit more kitchen know-how than they are ready to handle.
One such single noncook, who has not yet mastered the correct placement of silverware on the dining room table, decided to prepare chocolate mousse after buying "The Silver Palate Cookbook." The recipe called for four egg yolks and eight egg whites, beaten. And that's what he used. He boiled eight eggs, removed the yolks and beat the whites. It was only after the electric mixer began spewing bits of cooked egg whites around the kitchen that he began to suspect something was awry.
Unfamiliarity with ingredients or recipe jargon can lead to all sorts of kitchen mishaps. There are stories like the one attorney Richard Swan tells, about the time he used 2 1/2 cups of cornstarch instead of confectioners' sugar in a muffin recipe. "To me it was white and powdery," Swan says in defense.
Or there is the classic saga of Chicken Hiroshima, a dish created by attorney Larry Cohn (then unmarried), in his attempt to master the technique of baked chicken. A woman in his apartment building gave Cohn the simple directions, instructing him to store the chicken in the freezer until he decided to prepare it. When the time came to cook the chicken, he followed the instructions carefully, only to end up with unsatisfactory results. Fuming, he questioned his neighbor about her apparent faulty directions. But what Cohn had neglected to do was defrost the bird. "Nobody ever told me anything about thawing," he maintains.
Shaken but determined, he decided to tackle the chicken again, this time storing it in the refrigerator. While it was cooking, Cohn's neighbor knocked on the door, concerned about a horrible stench coming from his apartment. 'I followed your instructions perfectly, I took it right out of the refrigerator and cooked it,' he recalls telling her. Cohn had taken it right out of the refrigerator, all right, only it had been in there for three weeks.
Sometimes these brazen attempts by beginner cooks can do permanent "damage." Attorney John Lindburg says he has a developed a "fear of the oven" after a series of episodes with unlit pilot lights, gaseous fumes, an uncontrollable smoke detector and a grease fire. (As for the grease fire, Lindburg threw water on it, a no-no when it comes to putting out such fires, but after all, "it was a fish," he contends.)
Then there are the noncooks who view the kitchen experience with cynicism. One Washington journalist says she "screwed up the unscrewable" by putting a frozen pizza in the oven without taking the plastic off. "I don't remember anything in the instructions that said 'take the plastic off,' so I think it's all a plot to get people to ruin their pizzas and have to buy more," she said.
And then there are those like Totten, who never puts herself in a position to have a kitchen disaster. When she entertains, says Totten, her guests do the cooking.
Here are some quick, easy recipes to get all single cooks (including the ones who know how to beat egg whites) out of the ramen rut: BRUCE ADAMS' MOTHER'S OYSTER STEW (2 servings)
3 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 stalks celery, chopped
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups milk plus more if necessary
1 pint oysters, drained of their liquor
Bread crumbs for sprinkling
Melt butter in a large skillet. Add celery and saute' until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add flour, salt and pepper and stir until flour is dissolved and mixture resembles a liquidy paste. Add milk slowly, stirring constantly, and cook over medium heat until thick, about 5 minutes. Pour in drained oysters. Cook about 3 to 5 minutes until edges of oysters crinkle. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. JEFF SHOTLAND'S SESAME-SWISS CHICKEN (1 serving)
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 skinless, boneless chicken breast half
Flour for dredging
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons white wine
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 slice swiss cheese
Heat sesame and vegetable oils in a 6- or 8-inch skillet. Coat the chicken lightly with flour, shaking off excess. Saute' the chicken breast in the oil for about 2 minutes. Add lemon juice, white wine and garlic and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Turn chicken breast and saute' on other side for about 1 minute. Add sesame seeds. Continue cooking for another minute or 2 until chicken is almost cooked. Lower heat, place swiss cheese over chicken and cover. Cook until cheese is melted, about 1 to 2 minutes. Serve with sesame sauce. HOT PEPPER PASTA (1 serving)
2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or more to taste
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/4 pound spaghetti or other pasta
Mix together all ingredients except spaghetti (the sauce is not cooked). Boil water and cook spaghetti until done. Drain. Toss pasta with sauce and serve. GINGERED LAMB CHOPS (1 serving)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 1/2 teaspoons honey
1/4 teaspoon ginger
Salt and pepper to taste
2 lamb chops
In a bowl, combine vegetable oil, lemon juice, honey and ginger. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.
Place lamb chops in a shallow casserole dish and cover with sauce. Marinate for 30 minutes.
Remove chops and arrange on a rack in a broiler pan. Broil 6 to 8 minutes on each side. Baste occasionally with marinade. Serve immediately.
Adapted from "Especially for Him," by Hal Burbach (WRC Publishing, $7.95)