Cooking For Dummies

It’s pretty much been determined that The Food Network has been dumbed down to make it more “entertaining” as opposed to educational. Cooking shows never give you the recipe for things anymore, and viewers choose their programming based on pretty hair, big boobs and which TV celebrity chef has the most gadgets for sale.

Apparently this desire to want to cook but not really put the effort into the process has created a whole new (lowered) standard in cookbooks. As today’s cooks are bewildered by basic techniques and standardized cooking terms, recipes get longer and more detailed in an effort to explain the process enough so that the inexperienced home cook can turn out a halfway decent product.

In today’s Toronto Star, Susan Sampson explores the difficulties faced by both cookbook publishers and food writers.

We don’t sauté. We cook, stirring.

We don’t combine. We toss gently. Or stir in. Or whisk.

And we never, ever julienne. We cut in matchstick strips.

It’s our way of speaking very s-l-o-w-l-y and enunciating as home cooking skills continue to slide downhill.

We are not alone. Cookbook editor Rux Martin, for example, also tries to avoid terms readers may not know, like blanch or baste.

The catch? “If you can’t use those terms, how do we educate cooks?” wonders Martin, an executive editor at Houghton Mifflin in Boston.

The situation is created by a variety of factors:

  • People are used to convenience foods that require minimal effort
  • They cook simple recipes regularly because they believe they don’t have time to do anything more elaborate
  • Home cooks are intimidated by complicated recipes and expect their results will look like what they see on TV
  • Cooking is not considered a “fun” use of time by most people, and it’s seldom used as a way for families to spend time together.
  • Home Economics programmes, which would teach teenagers cooking basics, have been abandoned in many areas because kids would rather concentrate on computers or sports. Even scarier:

    The bridal edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook cuts to the chase. It includes definitions of “peel,” “slice,” “julienne,” “cube or dice,” “chop,” “snip,” “cut up,” “shred,” “grate,” “crush,” “simmer” and “boil” – each with a photo. It even defines “stir.”

    Stir. There’s someone out there who needs a definition of STIR. See? This is exactly the stuff that makes me such a curmudgeon.

    There are a lot of things in life that I firmly believe you need to pass a test to do; drive a car, perform surgery, have a baby (oh, yes, especially this one!), but I never thought I’d see the day when we’d have to add “bake a cake” to that list.

    But here’s the new criteria – no one is allowed to buy a new cookbook unless they’re already able to cook 50% of the recipes in it. We don’t let you drive a car in public until you already know how. You read the manuals, you take the written and vision exams, and then you practice, practice, practice. No one dumbs down driving to make it easier (although lots of dummies seem to be issued licenses anyway), so why should we let people near the stove if they don’t know what they’re doing?

    No person ever just walks into a kitchen and finds themselves magically transformed into August Escoffier. Even well-known chefs pitch an awful lot of food in the process of developing a new recipe. You wanna cook? Learn to do it properly. Read the books, take some courses, and stop making the rest of us sink to your level.