Cooking illiteracy forcing cookbook publishers to simplify recipes

Thursday, March 30, 2006

America has become a nation of "foodies." Shows on The Food Network and other television cooking shows are popular, and both exotic foods and gourmet cookware sales are high. But instead of assuming that Americans know how to cook, food manufacturers are dropping basic cooking terms that have been part of kitchen vocabulary for centuries and increasingly writing recipes for the cooking-impaired.

An associate professor at the University of North Texas School of Merchandising and Hospitality Management says part of the problem is a drop in cooking skills passed from one generation to another. A survey conducted by Betty Crocker Kitchens of children ages 10-17 shows almost all of the kids could play video games or access the Internet, but only four of 10 could make a spaghetti dinner or a fruit smoothie.

Priscilla Connors says kitchen managers in the food service industry admit that many of their new employees have little or no basic understanding of food preparation.

"The managers know to give employees simplistic, descriptive instructions," Conners says.

Cooking terms such as "dredge," "fold" and "cream" are being dropped from cookbooks and recipes, and instructions in recipes are being simplified with step-by-step illustrations. Even the writers and editors of "The Joy of Cooking," working on a 75th anniversary edition to be published in November, have argued over whether to include terms like "blanch," "fold" and "saute," one of the cookbook’s editors recently told The Washington Post.

Connors says that when she brings a potato, ear of corn or other vegetable to class, students are sometimes bewildered about how to prepare it.

"It's not unusual for some to have no idea how to get it from a raw vegetable to mashed potatoes or corn-on-the-cob," she says. "When I was growing up, going out to eat was a special event, and eating at home was the norm. Now, eating out is the norm, and eating at home is becoming a ‘special event.’"

A 2004 survey conducted by Betty Crocker Kitchens shows that many people do not realize they are cooking impaired. Seven out of 10 adults surveyed rated their cooking skills above average, but less than four out of 10 scored above average on a basic cooking skills quiz.

Connors points out that lifestyle changes — technology and convenience — have contributed to the lack of cooking skills, and the definitions of "homemade" and "made from scratch" are changing.

"An example I use in class is stuffing," Connors says. "In the past, my mother bought bread, cut it up, and made stuffing. Today, I buy breadcrumbs or instant stuffing, and say it's from scratch."

The popularity of television chefs like Rachael Ray and Eerily Lagasse show that Americans’ interest in cooking remains high. But Connors says the popularity is due to a "select subgroup" of the overall population, and watching a chef on The Food Network is not the same as watching someone demonstrate food preparation in person.

Connors, who is also a registered dietitian, adds the lack of cooking skills may also be contributing to the nation's growing obesity rate.

"If you don't have the concept of measuring food portions, you won't be able to tell that a serving portion is too large, and that can contribute to the obesity rate," she says

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