There was the following sentence in New York Times’ article (February 28) titled “What you learn at 40s.”:

"Victor Hugo supposedly called 40 “the old age of youth.” - - The conventional wisdom is that you’re still reasonably young, but that everything is declining: health, fertility, the certainty that you will one day read “Hamlet” and know how to cook leeks. Among my peers there’s a now-or-never mood: We still have time for a second act, but we’d better get moving on it." http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/01/opinion/sunday/what-you-learn-in-your-40s.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=0

What does the line -“Read Hamlet and know how to cook leeks” mean? Is “Know how to cook leeks” an idiom, for instance, to mean to get 'the worldly knowledge'?

Readers English Japanese Dictionary at hand carries “eat the leek” and “not worth a leek” as idioms, but don’t include “know how to cook leeks.”

  • 1
    Yoichi dude - almost always, when you ask a question, the answer is: "You (Yoichi) are correct; the example you give is just stupid and badly written." It's just that simple man. Heh! You need to accept the general fact that, today, almost all English is incredibly badly written especially among professional writers, because they always try to reach for humorous, over-written, often slangy forms that 'wittily' extend something, but are actually just stupid. It's meant to be two separate phrases.
    – Fattie
    May 21, 2014 at 8:45
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    "cooking leeks" is an example of something an old person would do. it's that simple - surprising nobody pointed this out. ie, young people play video games and get drunk; old people do "sophisticated" things like haute cuisine, reading, etc.
    – Fattie
    May 21, 2014 at 8:46

4 Answers 4


I'm pretty sure there’s no connection intended between the literary and culinary achievements. I think you are misparsing this as

the certainty that you will someday read Hamlet and [as a result] know how to cook leeks

when in fact it is supposed to be parsed as

the certainty that you will someday read Hamlet and [that you will also someday] know how to cook leeks.

  • I took it ‘the imprerative + and’ form. If there is no connection between Hamlet and cooking leeks, it makes more sence, though it seems to me too late-development choice for women at 40s. Mar 2, 2014 at 2:21
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    @YoichiOishi Well, I read Hamlet when I was 12, but I never cooked a leek until I was 59! Mar 2, 2014 at 2:43
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    @YoichiOishi - I didn't start cooking leeks until my late 30s. In the US, I was constantly asked by the cashiers what they were. Then the same with fennel, until recently. I was even asked once why I would want to cook with those! Mar 2, 2014 at 19:39
  • I have never cooked leeks, but I did recently have raw fennel. Amazing!
    – nxx
    Mar 13, 2014 at 21:09

Once you click on the link and read the article it's pretty clear why the author chose to combine the reading of Hamlet with the knowledge of cooking leeks.

Entering middle age in Paris — the world’s epicenter of existentialism — isn’t terribly helpful. With their signature blend of subtlety and pessimism, the French carve up midlife into the “crisis of the 40s,” the “crisis of the 50s” and the “noonday demon” (described by one French writer as “when a man in his 50s falls in love with the babysitter”).

Victor Hugo supposedly called 40 “the old age of youth.” In Paris, it’s when waiters start calling you “Madame” without an ironic wink. [...]

The American author is celebrating her 44th birthday in Paris, the capital of France. France is famous for its fashion, its art, and for its cuisine. One of the most famous dishes being the classic Vichyssoise, which is a fancy title for 'cold leek and potato soup'. A dish that the writer may have tasted in many a restaurant as a young woman but had never cooked for herself or her family. How does a seemingly tough and bland vegetable produce such a delicate and flavoursome soup? Is probably a question many young women have asked themselves when faced with the vegetable for the first time.

The author argues that the certainty that one day we will be confident enough to cook this long stalk and read Hamlet for pleasure, rather than for school homework declines as we pass our mid-forties. Time is running out, but it's not too late.

EDIT Thanks to @LessPop_MoreFizz for the precision.

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    Brilliant! And I chuckled at the irony. @StoneyB wrote: "I read Hamlet when I was 12, but I never cooked a leek until I was 59!" As for me, I was cooking vichyssoise at 16, but didn't see a Shakespeare play until I reached 50. Seems the author is right – what an odd world we live it.
    – J.R.
    Mar 2, 2014 at 10:41
  • I cooked vichyssoise in my twenties but I've never seen Hamlet performed, but I did go and see Macbeth, in London once, (fringe theatre) and it was a very memorable experience. I still have two years to go before viewing the play, Hamlet. It's never too late, as they say!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 2, 2014 at 10:49
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    You had it until that last 'Graf. The author is arguing that "the certainty you will someday" do these things declines in your 40's. Mar 2, 2014 at 15:37
  • @LessPop_MoreFizz you're right, the author is saying the over 40s generation are running out of time to do these things. Well spotted, I'll make the necessary adjustments. However, the OP wanted to know if "read Hamlet and know how to cook leeks" were an idiom, or a typical phrase. It's not, but it might catch on.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 2, 2014 at 16:41
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    @YoichiOishi the very first time I cooked leek, I wasn't very successful, there was still dirt and soil trapped in the inner leaves and I didn't discard the tough greener ones. A bit like artichokes, you have to be ruthless and strip them down. The leeks that I buy in the open fruit and veg market are quite large and leafy. I would have accepted StoneyB's answer myself. He answered your question, I provided a bit of cultural background :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 2, 2014 at 23:40

I think the author could have used any expression that would be interpreted as “something I'll get around to one day...” (for example, making a quilt, teaching yourself how to play the guitar, or mastering a flip turn in the swimming pool – any generic “unfinished business” activity). In the song Time, Pink Floyd expressed talked about half-written poems or outlines, singing:

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

It doesn't appear to be an established idiom. I had never heard it before. When I Googled "know how to cook leeks", I found all of 28 hits on the internet; Google books only returned six hits for "how to cook leeks".

  • Now, suddenly, we're up to 21,500 results for "know how to cook leeks"! Once you actually go to page ten, though, the number drops to 33...
    – wchargin
    Mar 2, 2014 at 6:18
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    @WChargin. It looks like as though almost half of EL&U users rushed to Google to check up “know how to cook leeks” in vain. Mar 2, 2014 at 6:53
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    @WChargin - Always take the hit count on Page 1 with a very large grain of salt :^) (Google reported tens of thousands of hits on my first page, too.)
    – J.R.
    Mar 2, 2014 at 10:32
  • Yep. On the other hand sometimes it underestimates them on the last page: doing a search for "PHP" yields 25 billion results, but jumping to the last page (page 39) takes that number down to 390. Obviously there's far more pages on PHP than that. Also interesting that they limit it to 39 pages anyway, so it doesn't matter if there's a trillion hits - you won't see them.
    – wchargin
    Mar 2, 2014 at 16:28

This parses badly because the future tense is taken to be implied in the second half of the conjunction. Changing "know" to "will know" would make clear that knowing how to cook happens at some time in the future, not necessarily at the time Hamlet is read:

... everything is declining: ... the certainty that you will one day read “Hamlet” and will know how to cook leeks

It still looks strange; certainty of one has nothing to do with certainty of the other.

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