March 18, 2006

"We're now two generations into a lack of culinary knowledge being passed down from our parents."

Says one cooking teacher. And cookbook writers are dumbing down the recipes, not trusting you to understand words like "sauté" and "simmer." Then there's the guy who emailed General Mills to ask if he could substitute a peach for the eggs in a recipe. And yet three quarters of meals are still prepared at home. Presumably, people are microwaving frozen things, making sandwiches, pouring bowls of cereal, opening bags of chips, and that sort of thing. Is this so wrong? Every other day you get a real meal in a restaurant, and the rest of the time you tide yourself over with sandwiches, cereal, and snack food. And don't forget to eat it in front of the TV. I think "Top Chef" is on.


Jennifer said...

Wrong? I don't think so. But I have two thoughts on this.

I'm no foodie, but processed food blech! For the most part. I actually prefer spaghetti sauce powder mix to the real thing. I know that's weird.

I'm nosy, I'll admit it. And I think I've observed a negative correlation between the amount of fresh food in a person's grocery cart and the amount of fat on their body.

Ok I lied I have one more thought. I learned almost nothing about cooking from my parents and the same goes for most of my friends.

Barry said...

I guess I'm really lucky... I grew up in a multigenerational household with two wonderful cooks (my mother and grandmother) and have been happily cooking since about age five. Maybe it's a Southern thing... dunno.

We are certainly not above eating takeout on a busy weeknight, but I cook every chance I get. I find it relaxing after a long day of work to get into the kitchen, roll my sleeves up, and cook for the family.

(P.S. to Jennifer - I cook most meals from scratch, and use fresh everything, and I'm a fat guy, though I'm slowly exercising it off... I think your theory has merit, though, because many processed foods have way too much fat and way too many carbohydrates.)

Ann Althouse said...

Jennifer: I was going to answer my is-it-wrong question by saying: it depends on whether you're fat. But then I started to think it would also be wrong if you had children.

Baronger said...

I note that most of these the cooking terms are also traditional English and French words. Part of the problem might also be that there are a lot of other cooking traditions from all over the world.

For example if your ethnic tradition does not include things like dredge and stir-fry, these terms will need to be explained.

Though I have seen a bit of it myself, since my German grandmother certainly didn't pass down all of her great cooking to my mom. But then again I'm glad my other grandmother's cooking died out, since she was afraid of spices and had a very bland and overcooked style.

Though I think everybody should have a great basic cookbook. The type that tells you exactly how to fry or boil an egg. These books also take you through a lot of the basic methods.

Ann Althouse said...

And why can't a cookbook have a glossary? It would take less space than verbosely explaining each step.

k said...

I think everyone should have one really basic cookbook - one with a glossary - like "Joy" or Better Homes (the old editions) or even maybe Fannie Farmer. Read up in that, get the terminology down, then you can use any recipe you want and enjoy some success. OTOH, nothing compares to having a competent cook to observe at work in the kitchen; I had my mom, and even sometimes my busy dad, plus aunts and a great-grandmother. I hope I've passed along some techniques and knowledge to my three kids - turns out, they can handle quite a few dishes and aren't afraid to try anything.

Gahrie said...

I'm a single male, and I have my crock pot, or Foreman grill going at least 4 times a week. (and I'm extremely overweight)

Jennifer said...

I was going to answer my is-it-wrong question by saying: it depends on whether you're fat. But then I started to think it would also be wrong if you had children.

Ann, I completely agree with you. Then people wonder why their kids won't eat anything but chicken tenders and cookies! And why they're fat. And dumb. No I'm just kidding.

Of course, my son up and decided to stop eating vegetables one day. So who knows!

CB said...

My wife and I cook virtually every meal from scratch. Neither of us learned much about cooking from our parents and learned everything from cookbooks. The ones we use the most are: Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (absolutely essential AND includes a detailed glossary), the Betty Crocker Bridal Edition (includes a very helpful illustrated section on cooking basics like measuring flour), and the America's Test Kitchen Cookbook (includes recommendations for brands of ingredients, utensils, and small appliances.

bearbee said...

"Is this so wrong?"

Not if you want to enter your later years falling apart.

Balfegor said...

I was astonished, a few years ago, to discover that a fellow student, female, roughly my age, had never cooked so much as a platter of pasta. Even I have my little stable of "real" recipes. But I suppose there are people who don't feel like eating or ordering out every day is throwing away their money. And I suppose I'm fortunate in that rice is my (extremely inexpensive) staple, and if all else fails, it's only a 30 minute wait for my rice-cooker to prepare a full day's portion of rice. But it was still astonishing to me.

Karl said...

We were out on New Year's Eve and were seated next to a particularly vacuous four-some who were dressed and acted like they had never dined at a 4-star establishment. Our estimation was confirmed when one young woman leaned over to the other and said, "Sauté means it's in a sauce."


David said...

Typical example of east coast cloister kept reporters not knowing anything west of Manhatten. 35 years ago for most of the country haute cusine was pigs in a blanket, jello salad or water chestnuts wrapped in bacon.

My parents got married knowing how to make rice and hotdogs. Then come Julia Child and they learned how to cook. They need to dumb down the recipies because more people are interested in cooking, without having gone to the CIA. If you spread out information you need to bring it down to the language people use.

No one who took 8th grade home-ech (sp?)knew the difference between saute and simmer either. If you were lucky you knew how to thicken gravy or make a white sauce.

David said...

hmmm, 45 years ago. I guess I am a little older than i remember

reader_iam said...

Funny, between 40 and 35 years ago I was learning the rudiments of cooking ... in Indiana and Illinois, where I can assure you that even my teeny-town, farm-raised mom and grandma etc. on one side and forced-to-drop-out-at-8th grade grandma on the other side absolutely knew the difference between simmer and saute, among other things.

And the first time I EVER had either pigs in a blanket OR water chestnuts wrapped in bacon was in the later '70s ... a good half decade AFTER we moved to the East Coast.

Beware of broad-brush extrapolation ... and speak for yourself.

reader_iam said...

And why can't a cookbook have a glossary? It would take less space than verbosely explaining each step.

That's funny, and I'm with you. I find that as time goes on, given a choice of using a recipe from one of my longer, more detailed cookbooks or a recipe from one that "cuts to the chase," I'm much more likely to go with the latter. If someone didn't know many cooking terms, though, maybe it would be too inconvenient to flip back and forth between the recipe and a glossary.

My first cookbook for "kids" (which, looking at it now, seems more complicated than those marketed to primary-graders today) did indeed have a glossary, as did a couple of others I got after "graduating" from that one. I don't think that was unusual then, but maybe so?

reader_iam said...

I imagine generations will survive, if not as healthily, on modern-day (non-) cooking habits, and will figure it out if forced to by circumstance.

That said, I think it's unfortunate that there's not more "real" cooking going on. For one thing, I think nutrition becomes more real if it's mixed with hands-on cooking and kids can actually see the various components that go into what they eat. At least, that seems to be true of my child.

And isn't this part of a bigger trend, really? It strikes me that cooking is just one of a number of practical and "handy" skills that are no longer being handed down as much. I'm thinking of building, repairing, mending, wiring, auto-maintenance, basic plumbing and so on ... all of those things that kids of my generation (well, not not even a significant portion of them, come to think of it) and previous ones spent a lot of time learning-by-helping their parents.

I wonder if there's less appreciation of "things" and skills because there is less knowledge of what it takes to produce items or perform certain types of work.

I also wonder if there isn't just a bit of tie-in to what seems to be a relatively deplorable lack of practical math skills. Looking back, I think an awful lot of what was taught in school was reinforced through the "math" and "science" of cooking, building things, and so forth. To a degree, manipulatives are supposed to fill that gap, but I think it could be more fun to learn fractions by cutting up pies or pans of brownies than breaking apart plastic rods into component parts. Kids also learn very quickly why it's important to measure accurately if the birdhouse, or whatever, being built doesn't go together properly.

All of that said, I'm sure there have been people throughout the ages lamenting how the generations following them have lost essential skills and really can't fend for themselves properly.

Yet here we all are.

The Drill SGT said...

I'm continually amazed that folks thatI think are otherwise intellligent fully functioning adults and parents can't even cook boiling water. An old GF is now a 48 y/o other with 3 daughters and dosn't know how to cook, mch less give her children some basic survival skills.

My wife and I split the cooking duties. She plans weekdays and does about half of them. I plan and cook weekends. Part of the reason I married her was that she enjoyed cooking and wine as much I did. Sure wasn't her day job as lawyer :)

Schools should consider bringing back some basic home econ material for both sexes. Survival skills. Shopping and basic food prep. A very wealthy local district manages to teach "Peace Studies", they ought t be able to manage funding a basic cooking and shopping and check book class.

Jim H said...

Whether choosing not to cook is a good idea can also depend upon where you are. Here in the heartland suburbs, most of the restaurant food has been processed, fried, and maybe slathered in mayonnaise. (Yum!) In New York City, however, there are all kinds of corner delis and carry-out restaurants that serve tasty and reasonably-priced dishes. (The junk food is even more delicious.)

Gaius Arbo said...

Look, passing cooking down through the generations might not be a good thing. Consider my Mom. She perfected the technique of blackening long before Paul Prudhomme came along.

Sadly, she perfected it on oatmeal.

On the other hand, with absolutely no cooking lessons from anyone, I am a very, very good cook.

Finn Kristiansen said...

Balfegor said...
And I suppose I'm fortunate in that rice is my (extremely inexpensive) staple...

Balfegor, what do you eat with that rice? Do you put sauce on it, or some type of stir fry? Meat or veggies on the side? Just curious.

I think people should cook their own food, and from scratch on occasion, if only to have a better understanding of the environment, and how corporate methods my deviate from healthier practices.

Also, too many very young, and in urban areas, remain clueless as to the origins of their food and this comes from the use of packaged goods and quickie junk foods.

lindsey said...

I'm convinced this is part of why Americans are so fat. I know that in my own case I'd eat healthier if I felt confident cooking. I've been planning to take some cooking lessons but it's been at the bottom of the list for awhile.

David said...

Thanks RJ. I guess your ma taught better than madison public schools did.

boy, i r certainly put in my place. Kause of course your experiences speak fer everyone too

reader_iam said...


My experiences don't speak for everyone else's.

I don't think my post was phrased in a way to imply that that they did. Its point was as against the idea that any one experience could--and as against the idea that any analysis that lumps together vast tracts of a large country could possibly be on target in any meaningful analysis.

As always, I could and can be wrong. And often have been.

From what point of view do you start when you brandish a brush, of whatever breadth?

Aspasia M. said...

I actually prefer spaghetti sauce powder mix to the real thing.

Jennifer! eeek! I wish I could cook up some real sauce for you. My Italian-American father taught me to make the best marinara sauce ever.

Aside from loving to cook, my Dad was trained as a food chemist. So when he taught me how to cook, he'd also explain the chemical reactions. Mom taught us kids how to do the baking - pie crust, and such.

I think it's important for parents to teach kids how to cook. Eating out can be both expensive and unhealthy.

My high school offered an international foods cooking class. It was a great course. In Junior High school we also had a general cooking class all of the kids had to take. We learned general cooking skills in that course. I learned how to make raspberry crepes and apple cinnamon crepes in that class. Yum.

Did anyone watch that BBC comedy called _Chef_? It's a fun show for foodies.

Albatross said...

A healthy "faugh" to this comment thread. I cook a lot at home; my wife doesn't. So what? Who else would even care what we do at home with our culinary duties? Do we have to politicize homecooking, too?

chuck b. said...

I'm not following the link; would I be wrong to surmise [someone thinks] we should feel guilty and ashamed we don't know how (or don't care) to sauté and simmer? Feh.

There's so much tasty, nutritious stuff we can make with snack food, or pre-packaged, food components; unless it pleasures you to cook old school, there's no *need* to do so.

It pleasures me to cook sometimes, but my favorite meal right now is a tuna salad sandwich I make w/ canned tuna, some mayo, some mustard, diced roasted red pepper (in a jar, delivered by Safeway) and cayenne pepper spread between two slices of toasted sprouty wheat bread.

I give my cat the little flecks of tuna I don't use.

Kathy said...

Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (absolutely essential AND includes a detailed glossary)

Wonderful book! I knew nothing about cooking before I bought it. Bittman gives you the info you need to feel confident adjusting recipes on your own, and although he includes sophisticated recipes from a variety of culinary traditions, he keeps them simple. I bought it because he has a section on fruit and a section on vegetables in which he lists each one, with info on how to select and prepare it. I still love that section, but I use the rest of it too. It's really my only cookbook that I still keep around, and my copy is falling apart.

I didn't start cooking from scratch until we had kids. Then we needed to cut costs, and I also wanted food that was more nutritious, without all the extra salt, sugar, preservatives, etc. Now, I don't buy box mixes or frozen foods (of the already-prepared variety) at all, and I'm very happy.

I don't think cooking from scratch makes you a better person. But it sure is less expensive than the alternative, and it *can* be a lot better for you (depending on what and how you cook, of course). I would also argue that it tastes better, particularly since you can season and otherwise prepare the food to suit your own preferences.

bearbee said...

"I don't think cooking from scratch makes you a better person."

Perhaps not a better person but one that is more healthy considering all the *crap* that is in processed foods both those listed as ingredients (various chemical additives, sweetners, rancid fats, etc) and those pollutants that enter through the handling and the processing system itself.......

David said...

As I am unaware of any real research on the subject, my observations are certainly as valid as any in the article.

And mine are based on my parents going from non cookers to teaching french cooking (in Madison) and my Grandmother who taught Home-ech. Plus cooking and teaching my children to cook, as well as many dinners with friends and countless potlucks

Plus, I would hope, a certain amount of rational logic - any subject that spreads out over a larger area is going to mean that the pool of involved people will have less knowledge and experience.

I remember when fine dining in Madison was the Cuba Club. 45 years gives you a certain amount of time to compare things againsts.

45 years ago we had the Joy of Cooking and Betty Crocker (both of which I use still). People forget the revolution that Julia Child brought in America. Today we have an explosion of cooking.What do we have today? Cooks as celibraty, food network, the internet. Sections at the book store (for that matter, book stores. My daughter need to make Tarte Flambe for her french class - internet. It is not in Betty Crocker

45 years ago, who in Wisconsin knew what lemon grass was? A lot less than today. How about an oil other than corn oil? Perhaps if you shopped at Fraboni's you did, but really, how many of us did? Corning Ware was the "new" cooking tool, not ceramic knives and boat motors and induction cooktops. Coffee was, well, coffee. Out of a can. Folgers or Maxwell House. Fresh vegies was what you grew in the summer - everything else was canned.

To say that we are falling away from all this great knowledge is to simply ignore where we were as a culture 45 years ago - the author created a straw man arguement. Sure, we knew tablespoons and teaspons, but all we measured was suger, butter and lard. Now? I get a regular supply of Penzy's that never appeared in anyones cupboard.

dick said...

I was somewhat lucky in that my parents were building a business when I was a kid so if I wanted to eat I learned to cook. My grandmother was an excellent old fashioned country cook. We had neighbors who were very good at cooking since it was a small town surrounded by a lot of family farms. I just picked up a book and started. I ended up cooking my parents' lunch and leaving it for them to reheat at lunch time before I went to school. To make the meals better I just explored more.

The daughter of a neighbor was one of the first people I ever met who did not know how to cook anything at all. Her mother was of the clean house at any cost and she did not want her daughter messing up the kitchen. Good think the daughter was good looking enough to marry a member of the Hoover family.

Once I grew up I found that if I took the time to cook a meal and set the table and relax afterward I really felt better about myself. Everything had to be cooked from scratch. I was lucky at that time because the farmers' markets in Baltimore were within easy walking distance. The only time I ever went to a supermarket was to buy paper towels, soap, etc. Everything else came from the famers' markets.

Now that I am retired I go to the local supermarket (a pretty good one too) and I watch what people put on the counters. Do people really eat that stuff? The woman in front of me the last time had more chips and sodas and junk food than anything else. Her daughter was breaking out in acne all over her face and stuffing herself with the greasiest chips you can get.

Have recently gotten into the Oriental cooking and find that the flexibility goes back to when I was a kid. My grandmother would take almost anything and make a meal out of it fit for a king. The Chinese and Japanese in my neighborhood seem able to do the same thing based on what I see from their shopping. The problem is that we need to make this kind of knowledge available to our kids for their own good. What happens if you are almost broke and have to fix something to eat? If you are young this is a real possibility. If you don't know where to start you starve. A little knowledge can be the start of self-sufficiency.

Balfegor said...

Balfegor, what do you eat with that rice? Do you put sauce on it, or some type of stir fry? Meat or veggies on the side? Just curious.

Often just plain. Sometimes with soy sauce, or a kind of pepper-sauce (kochujang) mixed with soy sauce and sesame oil (and usually an egg or something and some vegetables stirred in). Sometimes with some stewed meat that's simple to prepare and lasts a long time (chanjorim). Sometimes I just eat it with seaweed (keem), like a snack. Sometimes with kimchi or umeboshi on the side, when I have them. Sometimes with furikake. All kinds of ways.

Aspasia M. said...


Yum. That sounds good.

I need a rice cooker.

Has anyone seen _Eat Drink Man Woman_? It's another good foodie movie.

I also like _Big Night_.

_Raise the Red Lantern_ is depressing (hmmm, maybe relevant to our polygamy thread the other day) but it highlighted some great looking food.

ok. Now I'm hungry for tofu and black bean sauce.

jeff said...

Big Night was a film I had to watch for, of all things, a Business class. Pretty good movie when I got over the reason I had to watch it.

I'm astonished that there has not been one reference to the following yet:

1. Food Network
2. Alton Brown (fun guy)
2. Rachel Ray
3. Iron Chef

Zealux said...

There are really many different between the Chinese cooking and western cooking, which even happens in the writings of receipes. In my expiences, we don't have such kind of problems in reading Chinese receipes.