A little while back, Eugene Wallingford wrote about the dumbing-down of cookbooks as a metaphor for computer science education. As we get a fair number of student in introductory calculus-based physics who can barely take a derivative of a polynomial, I have some sympathy with what he describes.
The cookbook thing, though, is interesting from a different angle. The article Eugene linked has some interesting quotes from people in the cooking business, including this one:
“We’re now two generations into a lack of culinary knowledge being passed down from our parents,” said Richard Ruben, a New York cooking teacher whose classes for non-cooks draw a range of participants, from 18-year-olds leaving for college who want to have survival skills to 60-year-olds who have more time to cook but don’t know how.
“In my basic ‘How to Cook’ class, I get people who have only used their ovens to store shoes and sweaters,” he said. “They’re terrified to hold a knife. They don’t know what garlic looks like.”
While this is presented in a sort of “What is the world coming to?” manner, I think there are worse problems to have. After all, even if they don’t know the terms, these are people who want to learn how to cook. To the extent that the dumbing-down reflects a broadening of the audience for books on how to cook, I think it’s actually a Good Thing (though people should still learn what cooking terms mean…).
This sort of ties in to something that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while, namely the across-the-board improvement in the food available in the US over the last thirty years. Everywhere I look, it seems like the culinary situation has improved. There are more restaurants around, offering a greater variety of food, and there’s stuff available even in small, local grocery stores that you would’ve needed to make a special trip to a gourmet store to get back when I was a kid.
Some of this is a matter of having grown up out in the sticks, but even there, there’s a clear improvement. When I was a kid, the food options in town were limited to one diner and a couple of bars. In the early 80′s, a pizza place opened in an old hotel, and has since expanded to provide a reasonably good sit-down Italian menu. A second pizza place opened up when I was in high school, and I think there’s a third cafe-type place that’s opened since. There are even a few fast-food places (a Subway, an Arby’s, and a McDonald’s)– granted, they’re not haute cuisine, but the only other option used to be buying junk food in the supermarket.
(The grocery store situation arguably hasn’t really improved– there used to be two stores, but one went out of business, and the other has jacked prices way up. But the selection in that store is a hell of a lot better than it used to be.)
I’m not sure what the larger meaning of this is, but I think it’s interesting that there’s been such a universal and monotonic upward trend in the quality and variety of food available. It’s one of the few areas of public life that’s unequivocally gotten better over my lifetime. It seems to me that having to add glossaries to cookbooks is a small price to pay for that general improvement.
(On the general subject of cooking techniques, I highly recommend both Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food and James Peterson’s Essentials of Cooking, which include detailed step-by-step explanations of a number of cooking techniques. Those books gave me enough of an idea of what works and why to feel comfortable playing around in the kitchen, and cooking without a recipe.)
(If you’re into strained analogies, you could probably draw a parallel beween the broader audience for cookbooks and the increase in the number of students who go to college over the past few decades. Both have had the effect of bringing a lot of people into a situation (the kitchen, a college or university) that they’re not as well-prepared for as their predecessors, but in both cases, it’s probably a Good Thing that they’re there, once appropriate accomodations are made. I’m not sure this serves any useful purpose, but I’m sure David Brooks or somebody could make a column out of it…)
(Also, since I originally typed this out on Sunday, Hannah Shapero at Electron Blue has posted on the downside of the increase in food choices, which makes an interesting contrast.)