Cooking 101: Add 1 Cup of Simplicity

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By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006

At Kraft Foods, recipes never include words like "dredge" and "sauté." Betty Crocker recipes avoid "braise" and "truss." Land O' Lakes has all but banned "fold" and "cream" from its cooking instructions. And Pillsbury carefully sidesteps "simmer" and "sear."

When the country's top food companies want to create recipes that millions of Americans will be able to understand, there seems to be one guiding principle: They need to be written for a nation of culinary illiterates.

Basic cooking terms that have been part of kitchen vocabulary for centuries are now considered incomprehensible to the majority of Americans. Despite the popularity of the Food Network cooking shows on cable TV, and the burgeoning number of food magazines and gourmet restaurants, today's cooks have fewer kitchen skills than their parents -- or grandparents -- did.

To compensate, food companies are dumbing down their recipes, and cookbooks are now published with simple instructions and lots of step-by-step illustrations.

"Thirty years ago, a recipe would say, 'Add two eggs,' " said Bonnie Slotnick, a longtime cookbook editor and owner of a rare-cookbook shop in New York's Greenwich Village. "In the '80s, that was changed to 'beat two eggs until lightly mixed.' By the '90s, you had to write, 'In a small bowl, using a fork, beat two eggs,' " she said. "We joke that the next step will be, 'Using your right hand, pick up a fork and . . .' "

Even the writers and editors of the "Joy of Cooking," working on a 75th anniversary edition to be published by Charles Scribner's Sons in November, have argued "endlessly" over whether to include terms like "blanch," "fold" and "saut é ," said Beth Wareham, Scribner's director of lifestyle publications. "I tell them, 'Why should we dumb it down?' When you learn to drive, you learn terms like "brake" and "parallel park." Why is it okay to be stupid when you cook?"

So far, the "Joy of Cooking" editors have compromised by including a detailed glossary explaining various cooking terms.

At a conference last December, Stephen W. Sanger, chairman and chief executive of General Mills Inc., noted the sad state of culinary affairs and described the kind of e-mails and calls the company gets asking for cooking advice: the person who didn't have any eggs for baking and asked if a peach would do instead, for example; and the man who railed about the fire that resulted when he thought he was following instructions to grease the bottom of the pan -- the outside of the pan.

"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."

For many people, cooking classes like his compensate for what they did not learn at home. "Food companies have to acknowledge that there used to be a level of teaching in the home by moms and grandmas that is not as evident today," said Janet Myers, senior director of global kitchens for Kraft Foods who has been creating and testing recipes for the company for 30 years.

A survey of women in their twenties and forties for Betty Crocker showed that 64 percent of women in their twenties had mothers who worked full time, outside the home, during their childhood, compared with 38 percent of those in their forties. The group in their forties primarily learned to cook from their mothers and at school; the younger women also learned from their mothers, but more of them learned from their fathers, television chefs, or on their own.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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