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June 20, 2007 / Tony

The sorry state of American cooks

I ran across the article about a year ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  Here’s the link

What the article talks about is how mass-market recipe writers (like those writing recipes on the back of a Duncan Hines cake box) have been forced to dumb down their language so the average American cook can execute the recipe.  Words like dredge, saute, fold, and simmer are now off limits because they are incomprehensible to a majority of Americans.  This phenomenon has even reached the editors of the “Joy of Cooking.”  Apparently, this simplification is necessary due to incidents like this:

“At a conference last December, Stephen W. Sanger, chairman and chief executive of General Mills Inc., noted the sad state of culinary affairs and described the kind of e-mails and calls the company gets asking for cooking advice: the person who didn’t have any eggs for baking and asked if a peach would do instead, for example; and the man who railed about the fire that resulted when he thought he was following instructions to grease the bottom of the pan — the outside of the pan.”

The article lists a couple of possible reasons for this decline in culinary knowledge.  1)  Individuals learn much less about cooking at home because of the greater prevalence of women working outside of the home.  2) Home economics classes are not what they were 20 years ago, if they even still exist.   Both theories are plausible and probable but I think there is a deeper cause that was glossed over by the article. 

It seems incomprehensible to me that we are having a discussion about the decline of culinary skills in this country while we are talking about the inability to make recipes on the back of a cake mix box.  If we are having that discussion, haven’t we already thrown in the towel?  Isn’t it obvious that someone who would resort to making a cake like that probably doesn’t know what he or she is doing in the kitchen?  If someone is already using convenience foods as the basis of their culinary repertiore, is it really at all surprising that there is a lack of culinary knowledge? 

I answer these questions with a resounding no.  I believe it is the prevalence of convenience foods in our society that has led to the decline of culinary skills and knowledge.  Does one really need to know how to cook in order to bake a frozen pizza, assemble a cake mix, or bake cookie dough already prepared for you?  Of course not, these things take only the most rudimentary of culinary skills.  So what I think has happened is that our society has lost its ability to cook because it doesn’t really have to anymore.  Yes, the article says that 3/4 of meals are made at home still but how many of those meals are really homemade?  From scratch?  From a family recipe?  That doesn’t contain some disgusting cream of something condensed soup?  I go back to my original point-convenience foods have decimated the average American’s ability to really cook.  The push to make things easier in the home kitchen has created cooks that can only cook easy things.  Hence, they have become dependent upon those convenience foods for their sustenance.  And that may be even sadder than the fact that they don’t understand cooking at all. 

Is there an answer to this?  I don’t know.  How does one create a cultural shift of that magnitude?  Where people will stop buying packaged macaroni and cheese and discover that just a little bit of effort will result in a far superior dish?  Where Shake and Bake is replaced by homemade breadcrumbs seasoned the way each individual likes?  Where people will absolutely refuse to buy TV dinners of any kind?  I really don’t know.  The answer lies somewhere in getting Americans to slow down a little bit to take some time to care about their food and exposing them to what they can do in their own kitchens with just a little investment and effort.  Hopefully, it will happen because there is nothing like a family recipe passed down through the generations to bind people together.  Sharing food, especially food made from the heart and scratch, is a wonderful way to create a shared identity.  I don’t think the same thing can be said for Kraft Microwavable Easy Mac, at least I hope not.

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