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New ‘Lost Generation': The Cooking Illiterate

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
By: Chef Marshall O'Brien

This is circa 1992, but I think this is more than relevant today in 2011. What do you think?

 

New 'Lost Generation': The Cooking Illiterate

By TRISH HALL

Published: January 15, 1992

WITH an entrenched recession and a greater emphasis on simple, inexpensive pleasures, Americans say they would like to do more cooking at home.

But once they arrive in the kitchen, will they know what to do?

Food marketers and researchers say that despite the desire to cook, the cooking skills of Americans have declined precipitously. Even more striking, they say, Americans don't even know that they don't know how to cook.

In the last decade, cooking has evolved into an optional activity, like skiing or playing chess. Many young adults never learned how to cook, or they simply don't bother, because there are so many other choices, like fast food, takeout or frozen dishes that can be microwaved.

But if people want to eat healthfully, save money or entertain — all desires being espoused in many public-opinion polls — they may have trouble if they lack basic cooking techniques.

"For the first time in a long time, we're starting to see people concerned with the cost of food," said Marlene Johnson, the director of product communications at Pillsbury in Minneapolis. "If they can't cook, their choices are going to be extremely limited. They will turn to convenience products that may not be as nourishing."

When the National Pork Producers Council in Des Moines gave a cooking test last year to a nationally representative sample of 735 adults, nearly three-quarters of them flunked, missing 30 percent or more of the 20 questions. It found that 50 percent of the respondents didn't know how to thicken gravy correctly, 75 percent didn't know that broccoli should be cooked uncovered to maintain its color, and only 55 percent knew there are three teaspoons in a tablespoon. The test was contained in a mailed questionnaire sent out for the council by National Family Opinion Research Inc. in Toledo, Ohio.

Despite the vast gaps in cooking knowledge, 63 percent of the respondents described themselves as excellent or very good cooks. Men in general, and young adults 25 to 30 years old had the least cooking knowledge. These respondents said they would cook from scratch more often if they knew what to do in the kitchen.

Similar sentiments have been found by other researchers. "We hypothesize that young folks feel they do not have the appropriate skills," said Barbara Caplan, a vice president of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a market-research company in Westport, Conn.

When these young adults were growing up, she said, women were entering the work force in great numbers and did not have the time or energy to show their children how to cook. "In order to develop skills, they must be culturally desirable," she said, "and there must be adequate role models."

For years, going back to the 1920's, food companies have tried to persuade women that it was better to buy prepared food than to cook from scratch, said Joan Gussow, a professor of nutrition and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. Women allowed themselves to lose their cooking skills, she said, partly because no value was placed on cooking. "They were told that smart women don't cook," she added.

Cooking gained cachet in the late 1970's and early 80's as many Americans were discovering new and different cuisines, but the fad has passed. Irena Chalmers, the head of the International Association of Culinary Professionals in Louisville, Ky., said there were 800 cooking schools 11 years ago; now there are only 23 significant ones. "We are raising the first cooking-illiterate generation," she said. "They neither smell nor taste nor stir nor touch the food."

Whether or not they spend time in the kitchen, more Americans now consider cooking a worthwhile activity. In a 1990 Yankelovich poll of 2,500 people, conducted in person, only 34 percent said that cooking was creative and satisfying; in a survey of a different group in 1991, that number rose to 41 percent. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Mona Doyle, the president of the Consumer Network Inc., a consulting and research company in Philadelphia, has done two large studies on cooking in the last two years. Because of economic pressures and changing values, she said, people would like to do more cooking and baking, relying less on restaurants and prepared foods.

But they don't find cooking fun, and they especially don't like cleaning up. "The mess is the big reason propelling the decline of traditional cooking," Ms. Doyle said.

In one study of 1,450 consumers done in three stages last year, she found that more than two-thirds of the respondents, and almost 90 percent of those under 30, would enjoy cooking more if someone else cleaned up. Homemakers, rather than employed men or women, were more likely to express that feeling. What people do like about cooking is getting praise and having something succeed.

Lisa Kolrud, 27, who works for a public-relations company in Minneapolis, said she never spent much time in the kitchen with her mother, who held a job and ran the household. In college, she ate only processed foods, especially pizza. But now, partly because she is trying to save money because of the uncertain economy, she is learning how to cook.

On Jan. 5, she did the cooking for a dinner party. "I put lasagna on the table for nine people," she said. "It was the first time I'd ever done it. I got a standing ovation."

The route to the table, though, was traumatic. She put the uncooked noodles in the pan and topped them with sauce before she realized the noodles needed cooking. Fortunately, she had another box ready, in case of disaster. "I'm still at the stage where I buy two of everything," she said.

When children watch parents cook, they absorb technique by osmosis and gain confidence. Cheryl Camp, a 22-year-old actress who works at the New York Foundation for the Arts, said her mother cooked a great deal, and so does she. Roasted chicken, potato-dill soup, poppy-seed cake, apple pie, she's made them all. Describing a tortellini soup she and her roommates frequently make, she said, "you spice it with basil or rosemary or oregano, whatever you happen to have around."

Such comfort and flexibility in the kitchen are increasingly rare. Because Americans know less and less about technique, food companies and cookbook authors say they must make recipes extremely clear, explain every little step, and give no choices that could scare people. Many words commonly understood in the past can no longer be used.

Words like dredge, flute, braise, carmelize and butterfly are no longer understood by most people, said Katherine E. Smith, the vice president of consumer affairs for the Quaker Oats Company in Chicago, which recently commissioned a large study on cooking habits. All of those words are less likely to be understood by younger Americans.

On the other hand, cooking illiterates who only know how to steam vegetables may be healthier than their grandmothers, who knew how to flute a heavily larded pie crust and carmelize the top of a gooey dessert.

From observing consumers in its test kitchens, Quaker Oats has found that half the people don't even read the instructions on the package. "Some will have very thin oatmeal and think that's just fine," Ms. Smith said. "Our products have to be very tolerant. They have to taste good regardless of what you do to them."

Cindy Ayers, who oversees the test kitchen and recipe development for the Campbell Soup Company, said consumers want to be told the most basic things: when the food is done, for example. "They don't feel comfortable with their judgment," she said. "I think their confidence is down because their cooking skills are less."

These days, the company gives people few choices. In Campbell's 1978 cookbook, "The Creative Cook," a recipe for Easy Pot Roast said: "In large heavy pan, brown meat on all sides. Use shortening as necessary." The new edition of the cookbook, "Deliciously Easy Recipes," to be published by Campbell this month, is far more specific. Its recipe for Savory Pot Roast gives these directions: "In six-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat in hot oil, cook roast until browned on all sides." In the list of ingredients, the recipe specified two tablespoons of oil for the cooking. The new cookbook, unlike the old, has pictures with every recipe.

Susan Friedland, a senior editor at HarperCollins in New York, has commissioned two beginner cookbooks for the first time in her 10 years as a cookbook editor. The books, on Chinese and Italian cooking, will come out in the spring. "I think there are a lot of people who got used to good eating and can't afford those restaurants anymore," she said. "They want to cook this food at home."

Harry Balzer, a vice president of the NPD Group, a market-research company in Park Ridge, Ill., said that people are eating more meals at home than they did a few years ago, but often, they're not cooking dishes from scratch. Instead, they're assembling foods that have been already prepared. Meals that include a homemade ingredient declined from 48 percent in 1984 to 42 percent in 1991, Mr. Balzer said.

The percentage of meals made at home requiring use of the stove top continues to decline, from 54 percent in 1984 to 42 percent last year. But the use of the microwave oven, which is mainly used for heating prepared foods, went from 9 percent to 20 percent in that time, he said. The use of the ordinary oven has dipped slightly, from 17 percent of all meals in 1984 to 16 percent last year.

Still, researchers say people have strongly expressed the desire to spend time with their families doing simple activites like cooking. Nobody thinks, though, that a return to the kitchen will mean a revival of cooking from scratch.

"Maybe they're cutting up a few more vegetables with the kids," Ms. Ayers said. "It has to be simple and fun." TESTING YOUR SKILLS

These questions are from a cooking test given last year by the National Pork Producers Council to 735 adults. Nearly three-quarters of them failed, missing six or more of the 20 questions.

How many ounces are there in one measuring cup? Four ounces Six ounces Eight ounces Sixteen ounces

To retain the vitamins when cooking vegetables, use little water. True False

Marbling in meat indicates: Tenderness Fat content Freshness Aging

Answers: Eight ounces; true; fat content.

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