Stupid Is as Stupid Does

The foodie intarwebs are abuzz about a recent post by cookbook author Michael Ruhlman claiming that Americans are being taught that they’re too stupid to cook. While I get Ruhlman’s point (lots of people are making a profit on processed food because people are scared to try and cook food themselves), there’s a condescension to his words, a pompousness to his tone, that does a disservice to his message.

If you know how to cook, then yes, cooking is easy. Ruhlman uses a basic roast chicken as an example; sprinkle it with salt, bang it in the oven for an hour, ta da! And those of us who know how to cook understand this. But we also understand many things that a non-cook might not know; things that Ruhlman doesn’t mention in his post. Like washing and patting the chicken dry first, and taking care to clean all surfaces to avoid salmonella. Or to take out that bag of gizzards if there is one. Or whether to cook it on a rack in the pan or directly in the pan itself. Or whether to truss or not (it’s not mentioned in the “look how easy this is” post, and a small chicken doesn’t need to be trussed, but the accompanying photo shows a trussed roast chicken, which might cause confusion), or how much time to add for cooking if your bird is bigger than the size he mentions, or how to check for doneness when the bird comes out of the oven. A commenter even points out that, hey, not everyone, especially people who don’t cook regularly, might have an appropriate pan to cook a chicken in.

Ruhlman knows all these tricks of course, but he misses the point by not sharing the information, and the information is really what it’s all about. Seriously – compare his directions to these from Chef Claire Tansey. It’s the same basic recipe, but Tansey actually addresses all the little questions that can make a difference in both the final product and the cook’s confidence.

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The Real Food Dilemma

I haven’t had time in the past week to talk about the Michael Pollan lecture. Mostly, I think, because it’s wasn’t actually that inspiring. It wasn’t bad, don’t get me wrong, he just didn’t say much of anything new. The brief hour started with Pollan reading an excerpt from In Defense of Food, then being interviewed by CBC’s Matt Galloway. His answers were informative, articulate and witty, but it felt very much as if he’d done it all a hundred times before. And of course, he had. Disappointingly, there was no audience Q&A, so anyone who had questions for the author had to stand in line for an autograph, and I’m told, was rushed through pretty quickly.

The following day, there was an interview with Pollan in the Toronto Star in which he pretty much skewered the vegetarian community based on his three vegetarian sisters who apparently eat a lot of mock meat. I’m torn on this point between being chagrined and flipping the bird in his general direction, and nodding in agreement. During my time as a vegetarian, and even today when cooking at home, I used a lot of soy-based products to recreate comfort food dishes like cabbage rolls and sheperd’s pie. I know how processed these products are, but I’m drawn into the trap of it being easier than coming up with a straight-up vegetarian dish, especially when trying to include protein. On the other hand, I really like my rule of no meat at home, because my job has me out a couple of times a week stuffing my face with everything from chicken wings to foie gras. I don’t need more meat in my diet, and relying on the protein in eggs and peanut butter gets tired really fast.

The desire to eat “real food” has left me with a bit of a conundrum.

The other issue with Pollan is this so-called manifesto. I hate lists of rules and regulations like this, because there’s always so many exceptions, and people either try to live by them devotedly and feel guilty (or make excuses) when they can’t; i.e. The Hundred Mile Diet. So while I agree that we should be paying more for better quality food, the rule about not eating alone is just asinine.

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The Making of a Chef

First, a disclaimer. The content of this post is not intended to sound pretentious or condescending. It is not my intention to look down on the home cook (I am one myself), or to sneer at people who have not gone through a culinary arts programme. I’ve always hated when people with university degrees look down on tradespeople, and it’s very easy for people with professional training to look down on home cooks.

Which is why I’m not recommending Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef to anyone.

Oh, it’s not that it isn’t a great book – it is. But it would be like me trying to sit down and real a programmer’s handbook. Or a book of Latin. Most of what Ruhlman discusses in this book about his time at the Culinary Institute of America would appear to anyone who hasn’t trained professionally or worked in a professional kitchen to be in a completely different language.

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