Monday, March 20, 2006

The Real Reason Why There Are Too Few Cooks in the Kitchen

"Using your right hand, pick up a fork. Use the fork to beat two eggs in a small bowl until lightly mixed."

If Bonnie Slontnick's half-hearted prediction comes true, cookbook editors will soon replace the recipe instruction, "beat two eggs until lightly mixed," with this one.

Over the past two generations, cookbook editors like Slontick, have been "dumbing down" recipes with "simple instructions and lots of step-by-step illustrations." This is a response to a culinary illiteracy that grows with each succeeding generation.

The culprit is, according to a Washington Post article from today's Sacramento Bee ("Too Few Cooks in the Kitchen," by Candy Sagon), that no one is learning how to cook these days.

Mothers and home economics classes kept our nations culinary IQ at a high level for past generations. A lifetime of classes at Mom's culinary college with backing from the middle school home ec teacher, meant that students understood the subtle differences between terms like "simmer" and "braise."

Today, the top food manufacturers, like Kraft Foods and Pillsbury, avoid these terms because no one understands them.

Who's to blame? Working moms, says a Betty Crocker survey and culinary educators like Richard Ruben. Chef-instructor Ruben was named the 2003 “Cooking Teacher of the Year” by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

People are singing up for cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City because culinary knowledge was not passed to the next generation, said Ruben in the article.

I agree. Despite the ever growing number of cooking programs on the Food Network, Discovery Channel and PBS, we've created a generation or two of culinary illiterates.

But I'm not ready to completely blame the educational system. Yes, home ec, along with scores of shop classes have been diluted in the past 25 years. Home ec is now just part of a jumbled syllabus in what's called "family and consumer education."

I'm from a generation of boys who recall the countless shop safety lectures by teachers in faded blue lab coats. Although I don't see myself as "mechanically inclined," I don't wear loose clothing around power tools. And I know the difference between a rip saw and a crosscut saw.

I would've enjoyed leaning to cook in high school. But those were the days when girls took cooking and sewing classes and boys rebuild Chevy 357 engines in auto shop.

I believe the problem lies with the family and our eating habits -- all driven by modern food technology. I can personally attest that it's more convenient to walk in the front door and pop frozen burritos into the microwave.

Few cook from scratch any longer. That includes homes, restaurants and the military services.

Why simmer pinto beans (“cook in a liquid that’s just hot enough that tiny buddles break the surface”) or braise a chuck roast (“to cook meat by searing in fat, then simmering in a covered dish in a small amount of moisture”) when frozen burritos heat up quickly without the mess.

Food shows are there primarily for entertainment value. Viewers love to watch Emeril "Bam" his way across the kitchen and talk to himself ("I said to myself, self!"). And have you ever noticed how many Food Network shows are sponsored by frozen convenience products?

The real reason for our culinary illiteracy? It because we don’t need to cook.

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