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A food-crazy culture of culinary klutzes

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Ottawa Citizen article:

A food-crazy culture of culinary klutzes: These days, people are ever more fascinated by food, writes Janice Kennedy. There's just one tiny problem. They can't cook.


Can't boil water without burning it? You're not alone.

As more people than ever before watch celebrity chefs, subscribe to gourmet magazines, drink fairly traded organic shade-grown coffee and blow their paycheques in upscale restaurants, fewer people than ever before know their way around a kitchen.

The food world's latest trend -- if troublesome and inadvertent ignorance can be considered a trend -- is called "culinary illiteracy." The Washington Post devoted an entire feature story to it last Saturday.

The dumbing-down of today's recipes, said the Post story, citing examples from some of the food industry's biggest kitchens, is evidence of how uninformed people have become about cooking. Kraft Foods no longer uses terms like "dredge" and "saute." Betty Crocker has banned "braise" and "truss." Pillsbury now shies away from "simmer" and "sear."

And the trend is not confined to the United States.

"Not nearly as many people have the basic culinary skills of a generation ago," says Carol Ferguson, cookbook author and founding food editor of Canadian Living magazine. "The level is much lower now, and that's kind of sad."

Yes, agrees Anita Stewart, "it's deeply disturbing." Ms. Stewart, a cookbook author and chair of Cuisine Canada, the national association of culinary professionals, says you just have to go to the supermarket for proof.

"It's pretty dramatic when you go through the checkout counter and see all the processed and prepared, packaged food people are buying." It's not that it's all bad food, she says, but it does betray the fact that there's not much cooking going on in the buyers' homes.

That much can be obvious from the questions asked at consumer help lines. The Post story cited the conference speech given last December by the chairman and chief executive of General Mills Inc. Stephen W. Sanger told of some of the requests for cooking advice they had received, such as the one that wanted to know if a peach could substitute for eggs in a baking recipe.

He also mentioned the complaint from the man who thought the recipe directions were bad when they stipulated greasing the bottom of the pan. Apparently, he had to deal with a fire after he greased the bottom of the pan -- on the outside.

Ms. Ferguson says she's happy there is a keen interest in food as entertainment -- "food TV is better than nothing" -- but it's not the same as knowing how to do things in the kitchen, and doing them.

Like many food writers today, she believes recipes are being simplified because they must be.

"It's not that you dumb them down. You just don't make them look quite as complex. You wouldn't use terms like 'fold' and 'cream' any more, unless you know your readership."

Upscale food magazines can still get away with them, she says, but not publications aimed at the general population.

Recipes are made less to look less complex, says Ms. Ferguson, who also teaches food writing at Toronto's George Brown College, by keeping the number of ingredients and procedural steps to a minimum. The generous use of explanatory pictures is also a help.

And every year, says Ms. Ferguson, food writers alter their vocabulary lists to remove words that are becoming too unfamiliar, replacing a previous generation's commonplace cooking terms with something more simplified.

According to the Post, Kraft now tells people to "coat the chicken in flour," instead of dredging it, and to "cook over medium heat and stir," where once it would have just said "saute."

Ms. Stewart, who refuses to dumb down her own recipes -- "maybe I should, but I don't" -- says the only thing recipes have to be is approachable.

"We have to put the simplicity back into the food system, which is not as hard as it might seem. When ingredients are really fresh, you don't need things to be complicated."

She also has opinions about why culinary illiteracy has multiplied so rapidly.

"I don't know when Home Ec got cancelled in the schools of Ontario, but that was the death knell."

And, she says, it hasn't helped that so many homes today operate on frenetic schedules where properly cooked evening meals are an impossibility.

Part of the problem, too, is that cooking has been made to seem daunting, she says. "We've made it into some sort of mystery. We forget that it's a bit of an art form, and it's OK to fail. Instead, we've set up a kind of mythology about cooking, that you have to be smart to do it. And you don't.

"You just have to be brave."

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"Not nearly as many people have the basic culinary skills of a generation ago," says Carol Ferguson, cookbook author and founding food editor of Canadian Living magazine. "The level is much lower now, and that's kind of sad."

It might be sad, but it pays my rent!

It all more or less comes down to laziness. Cooking is only as hard as you want to make it for yourself. If people really watched these cooking shows they would see how easy it really is. [color:red]MIS EN PLACE, thats how cooking is made easy. Set yourself up with everything you need (ingrediants and tools) within an arms reach and then cook.

As for the guy who greased the outside of the pan...well on second thought I'm not touchin that.

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