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.

Are people too stupid to cook? Of course not. But cooking is not intuitive. We need to be told why and how things happen so we can create a successful final product. We need instructions and an idea of what will happen if we don’t follow them. I have an aunt who is a notorious non-cook. She once tried her hand at baking a cake from a mix, but she only had one pan. Although the instructions on the box clearly indicated to split the batter between two pans, she reasoned that if it all fit into one pan, it would be fine. Of course, as the cake rose, it overflowed and made a mess on the bottom of the oven. Was this stupid of her? We all thought so, and the story lives on in infamy. But no one had ever explained to her about the chemical reactions that would occur, and she had not been interested enough in cooking as a child to have accumulated the knowledge of what to expect from cake batter as it cooked.

My point being – it’s not as simple as it seems to those of us who do it every day. In the same way that, to a mechanic, disassembling and putting a motor back together might seem simple, but to anyone who doesn’t know very much about motors, it might be a terrifying prospect. Are those of us who cannot build a motor stupid? Are we taught that we’re stupid because we can’t build a motor?

Ruhlman sings the “simple” song about his chicken, all the while holding back just enough information to really teach someone how to do the task successfully.

If we truly want people to be comfortable in the kitchen, we need to encourage them. Not in Ruhlman’s condescending way, but in a manner that is gentle and supportive. My pal Amy Rosen has a piece over at the National Post that espouses readers to “cook something every day; toast counts”. Rosen suggests learning the basics, getting acquainted with the produce section of the supermarket, and comparing the time it takes to order take-out with whipping up something quick and nutritious like an omlette. Once someone gets hooked by having a few successes, or by being inspired by colourful produce or a beautiful restaurant dish they want to recreate, the desire overtakes whatever fear might exist.

I’d like to add that we need a lot more emphasis on cookbooks that feature basic dishes and simple comfort foods. Not a beat the clock mentality of dinner in 30 minutes or pulling crap together from packages, but books that clearly explain techniques, with photos that demonstrate steps, and with resource guides for each chapter. There is no better tome for this than the Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook: 11th Edition. Not Joy, not Julia. (I truly believe that part of why people are so scared of the kitchen and think they can’t cook is because they expect someone is going to demand they make Beouf Bourginon and Choux pastry.) Yes, The New Cook Book reeks of conservative middle America in the 50s. No, it’s not very multi-cultural. That’s not the point – it covers the basics exceptionally well. The recipes are well-tested and accurate (I once read that something like 30% of recipes in newly released cookbooks are inaccurate – talk about thinking you’re too stupid to cook, how about following a recipe to the letter and having the dish fail anyway??). Most recipes can be picked up by a novice with little additional training if they read all of the resource material (guides to types of pasta, cutting techniques, etc.) first.

Also, a list of basic tools for people just starting out – or better yet, some kind of boxed set that includes knives, basic gadgets and a basic set of pots and pans, at a reasonable price. If you don’t cook and don’t have the gear, strolling into a Williams-Sonoma with the intent of outfitting a kitchen full of Le Creuset pots is enough to send anyone back to the food court, determined that cooking at home is too expensive.

Ruhlman also takes shots at television, and that’s the one thing that I agree with him on. No one is truly teaching people how to cook anymore. No one is explaining the how and why, other than Alton Brown. (Damn, I miss David Rosengarten, who was not only charming but was able to do what Brown does without making the show feel like science class.) Everyone’s got a schtick; whether it’s boobs, or sunglasses or gay friends to cook for – it’s not about teaching anyone anything anymore.

In fact, the best TV chefs I’ve seen are the UK ones; Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver, and Valentine Warner, who, through their love of simple, fresh, seasonal ingredients, create dishes on their shows that people can get up and go to their kitchens and make. Fearnley-Whittingstall is famous for making things to go on toast, which is one progressive step beyond Rosen’s advice. These chefs are all, in their own ways, dedicated to fighting their country’s apathy towards home cooking and local sustainable ingredients. And given the programs put in place (Jamie’s Ministry of Food and advocacy of British pork, Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Out and Landshare campaigns – to promote free-range chickens in supermarkets and sharing land to create gardens, respectively), they’re doing a lot more to promote and teach people how to cook at home than anyone on this side of the pond.

I get Ruhlman’s point – we have a society that is scared to go into the kitchen and cook real food. But I think better shows, better cookbooks and better teachers are what is going to make the difference. Not pompous ranting and half a recipe for roast chicken.