Kitchen illiteracy a national shame

March 28, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

We have a serious problem in this country. And I'm not talking about the war in Iraq, I am talking about the fact that people in their 20s and 30s don't know how to blanch.

Nor do they know how to fold, braise, cream, truss, sear, saut, dredge or simmer.

According to an article by Candy Sagon of The Washington Post, culinary illiteracy has become a major concern of recipe writers nationwide, who fear their readers will have no clue how to perform even the most basic cooking chores.

Of course, this immediately caught my attention, and raised an important question: Did the editors of the Washington Post have a good belly laugh when they hired a food writer named "Candy"?

But this is not answered in the story. Instead, she writes, "Basic cooking terms that have been part of kitchen vocabulary for centuries are now considered incomprehensible to the majority of Americans."


This is bad news for the likes of Kraft, Pillsbury and "The Joy of Cooking" because they fear their recipes will be misunderstood if they fail to dumb down the instructions to the point where the dish could, technically, be prepared by the average groundhog.

They say, no lie, that people have called saying they are out of eggs and asking if they can substitute a peach. One man caused a fire when he, as instructed, greased the pan. Who knew they meant grease the INSIDE of the pan.

It is only natural, I suppose, that they would want to blame us, the home cooks, for a problem that is clearly one of their own creation. I can't tell you how many cookbooks I've burned because the recipe instructs you to "cook until done." And a turkey will thaw in the refrigerator? Oh sure, that works. What temperature is Butterball's fridge set at, 80 degrees? Then there's my colleague Marlo, who reports a recipe in an older cookbook for roasted chicken that ended with the instruction to "make gravy."

And what does "fricassee" mean, anyway? It sounds so made-up, like "broasted" chicken, or "Condoleezza" Rice.

Besides, this is hardly a new problem. If I remember my "I Love Lucy," the kitchen has always been something of a mystery to middle America. There was the loaf of bread that pinned Lucy against the far wall, and who could forget Fred and Ricky trying to make rice and having to use every pot in the apartment to catch it all?

That particular prank made a repeat appearance on several shows. In fact, if it weren't for rice gags, the average "I Love Lucy" episode would have been only 12 minutes long.

The problem, as I understand it, is that today's younger generation wouldn't understand why that was funny. In a survey, only 34 percent of adults knew that it only takes a third of a cup of raw rice to produce a cup of cooked rice.

But is that our fault? No, it is the rice's fault. Look, when you put a 14-pound turkey in the oven, you don't expect it to come out at 40 pounds. If this exponentially multiplying food paradigm were normal, no one would have bothered to write down the story of the loaves and the fishes.

I always knew how cook because I always knew how to eat and I figured that learning to prepare my own food was the fastest way from Point A to Point B. In fact, I had the opposite problem; until about three years ago, I was scared to use the microwave.

I can understand why microwaves are appealing to that vast segment of society that enjoys its food scalding hot on one side and frozen on the other, but for me, they were always more trouble than they were worth.

Personally, I prefer the cooking shows that make things harder than they actually are, like Alton Brown, who can make a white sauce sound like the chemical formula for Roundup.

But even after decades of cooking, some of the jargon doesn't make sense, even to me. I've never understood "fold." There must be a point where stirring slowly becomes folding, but I've never figured it out. I've watched them, say, "fold in the blueberries" on TV and when they're done, all the blueberries are still in one big bunch on the side of the cake.

Then, they take a station break and when they come back, the blueberries are miraculously distributed perfectly throughout the batter, like some little mixing fairy has been hard at work while we've been subjected to the 8 millionth commercial for Applebee's.

Culinarily illiterate? Maybe. Lost in the kitchen? Perhaps. Does it matter? I don't know. But aside from all this food fumbling, I look around and I know this - we sure ain't starving.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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