Monday, March 20, 2006

The Dumbing Down of Cooks

Both Kate of Accidental Hedonist and Elise of Simply Recipes wrote about and linked to this article in the Washington Post. The articles, as well as their respective comments, are well thought-out and informative. Basically, publishers and food companies feel that today's average cooks can't tell an egg from a peach and are thinking about removing terms such as "dredge" or "fold" from cooking instructions.

I've often said that if a depression or other life-altering incident were to happen in today's world, thousands (including my daughter) would starve to death. To catch, kill, skin and cook a rabbit or squirrel is simply beyond their abilities. If it's not in a box at the grocery store or on a menu somewhere, they're sunk. I realize this is a sweeping generalization, and doesn't hold true to all people everywhere. But for many people the lack of knowledge to feed themselves goes way beyond knowing how to braise or deglaze.

From the article:

"We're now two generations into a lack of culinary knowledge being passed down from our parents," said Richard Ruben, a New York cooking teacher ...

and he's right. My mother never allowed me to be in the kitchen while she cooked as I was just "in the way". Everything I've learned over the years either came from a cookbook or from experience (read "failure").

I can't remember Great-Aunt Della ever owning a cookbook. And I doubt she knew she was "deglazing the pan" when she scraped up all the good bits of chicken on the bottom of the skillet while making her gravy. She (and I) cook by smell, feel, taste and memory. The cookie dough just "felt" right to her, but she couldn't tell you how many cups of flour it had in it. And that old hen would taste much better stewed than roasted. Experience was her teacher, as it has been for countless others. I'm sure that her mother taught her much as a young girl. That's how most people used to learn how to cook. Terms just were not that important, the final product was the destination.

That's the true sorrow here. The fact that the more experienced in the family aren't teaching the less experienced the nuances of cooking (whatever the term). Anyone can pick up a cookbook and learn to cook from that - I did. What's missing is the loving hand guiding us through the most basic of tasks, like beating an egg with a fork prior to adding it to your dough. Experience, my friends, is always the best teacher. Cookbooks are useful for branching out - trying something new and out of the ordinary. (Like this Iowan trying to make the perfect jambalaya or enchiladas.) But nothing can replace your mother showing you why it's important to dust the counter with flour before rolling out that pie crust.

Publishers and food companies can use whatever fancy terms they want for basic cooking. It's still just scraping up the good bits for making your gravy.


Veeno said...

What a great blog! I agree with you and only hope that my wife and I teach our children well, in the kitchen.

Sally said...

Veeno -

Thank you so much for the nice comment. Do stop in again.


Ivonne said...


You wouldn't have been able to see this but I actually stood and clapped when I finished reading your post.

Your review of the article is right on. And you are so right when you say that it's not the words we use in cooking that make the difference.

It's funny when I read that most Americans are two generations into not being shown how to cook by their parents.

My family hasn't experienced that yet. My mother and grandmother showed me how to make all the basics. Since then I've expanded and learned other things.

Brava, Sally!

Sally said...

Oh, Ivonne, we are so much the poorer by not having our mothers and grandmothers teaching us the basics. I really appreciate your comments. You are a true artist, and I'm truly honored having you comment to me.