The weirdest questions I've ever been asked as a culinary agony aunt

Solving SA's cooking conundrums can be a fascinating job

09 July 2020 - 10:35
Got a cooking query? Our food editor can help.
Got a cooking query? Our food editor can help.
Image: 123RF/milkos

“Can I have a recipe for moist chocolate cake?” the caller would ask, rolling the ‘ois’ bit off her tongue so it really did sound terribly wet. Experience had taught me what to expect next and it would often go something like this: “I’ve never baked before and have been accepted to supply a  local home industry with cakes so it must be an easy recipe.” 

I’m describing a day in my life as a culinary agony aunt, a career that kicked off when I worked on the Angela Day helpline in the 1990s.

This service was said to have been started by then editor of The Star newspaper Harvey Tyson in the '60s. Apparently he got tired of his secretary answering all the queries from “pesky” housewives and employed someone to do the job instead.

Each morning the Angela Day team of two would answer around 120 calls and though we were ostensibly a cookery helpline, people sought advice on all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

We got queries about the removal of stains, lots of them, like how to get rid of smelly dog urine on carpets, blood on mattresses and, a favourite, grease stains on clothes.

Etiquette was a popular topic, especially rules around weddings — are there any today? — like who pays for what.

I’ll never forget the time a lady phoned me in distress because she’d been given a bunch of red and white carnations

Others were impossible to categorise. I’ll never forget the time a lady phoned me in distress because she’d been given a bunch of red and white carnations. She said the colours were an indication she was going to die soon and asked how I could help.

The most common calls were around baking, especially recipes that had flopped and, surprisingly, baking at different altitudes. A classic was the call from a woman asking how she should adjust her recipes now that she’d moved from the first to the sixth floor in her block of flats.

We were called upon to help rescue burnt offerings — you can’t — or save a stew or soup that was too salty — you add a large potato, chopped with skin on, to the pot and simmer for 30 minutes; the hard part is fishing out all those pieces of potato before you serve the dish.

When I moved to the Sunday Times, I continued to offer my services as a culinary agony aunt through my "Grill Hills" column. Ingrained from years of offering advice, many solutions I can just roll off the tip of my tongue, others require more research and seeking out professional advice, but I relish helping readers out.

Like fashion, food trends have changed and today many home cooks seek my help in substituting ingredients for healthier options, or to figure out why a particular recipe they found online didn’t work.

I still get the odd strange query, but so far none has been as memorable as the time a woman called into a live radio show to ask very matter-of-factly how she could remove a gentian violet stain from her nipples.

Without hesitating, I told her she should dip them in neat gin, pouring it into a wine glass so it would be easy to swivel around — it really works like a charm. Next minute, we got a complaint saying the lady wasn’t told she couldn’t drink the gin afterwards!


I’d love to hear about your kitchen capers and answer your cookery questions — yes, even those about stains. Send an e-mail to with Grill Hills in the subject line. If your query is selected, I'll answer it in an online article.