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Cooking 101: Add 1 Cup of Simplicity

Lisa Bernstein, 31, an employment law attorney in the District, said that while growing up, her mother was too busy to teach her much more than how to make spaghetti with sauce from a jar. Tired of microwaving frozen dinners, she signed up two years ago for lessons with veteran cooking teacher Phyllis Frucht.

"I watched some of the Food Network programs, but it's not the same as having someone in the kitchen with you, showing you how to hold the knife," said Bernstein, who now can make her own pasta sauce for baked ziti, as well as homemade biscotti for dessert.

Some of these skills used to be taught in mandatory home economics courses in middle school, but most of the classes ended about 20 years ago, said Pat Lynn, a Springdale, Md., high school teacher who taught her first home ec class in 1968. But in some schools, including her own, home economics has been reconstituted under the umbrella subject of "family and consumer sciences" to include electives in cooking, parenting, fashion and career training for jobs in the food-service and hospitality industries.

And despite laments about the end of home cooking, more than three-fourths of all dinners are prepared in the home, with women doing the majority of the cooking, according to the latest figures from the research firm NPD Group. Interest in food is undiminished, as measured by magazines devoted to the subject (it's the second-most-popular topic behind crafts and hobbies for new magazines launched in the past three years, said Samir A. Husni of the University of Mississippi) and in sales at gourmet cookware chains such as Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table.

Still, in test kitchens at food giants such as Kraft, the goal is terminology that is "simplistic, and very literal, to make it easy to understand," Meyers said. Where 20 years ago a recipe for chicken might have said, "dredge the chicken in flour," today it might say, "coat the chicken in flour." And instead of saying "sauté," recipe writers say to "cook over medium heat and stir," she said.

At Land O'Lakes, the 85-year-old Minnesota farm cooperative known for its cheese and butter products, former test kitchen director Lydia Botham said cooks in their forties and younger are high-tech oriented when it comes to using the company's Web site for recipes and customized advice but relatively unskilled when it comes to baking.

"They've grown up with the computer, so they expect things to be faster, including cooking," said Botham, now director of corporate communication at the company. "They like baking by adding things to a mix. In recipes, they want fewer ingredients -- seven is ideal -- and they like step-by-step pictures that show them what to do."

In 1935, for example, a Land O'Lakes butterscotch cookie recipe directed cooks to "cream together thoroughly the butter and sugar." Today, Botham said, "we don't use the word 'cream' anymore. People don't understand what that means. Instead, we say 'Using your mixer, beat the butter and sugar.' "

A survey conducted by Betty Crocker Kitchens in 2004 showed adults don't even realize how cooking-challenged they've become. The national survey of 1,500 adults found that 70 percent rated themselves "above average" in cooking knowledge, even though only 38 percent scored above average on a 20-question cooking-skills quiz. While 98 percent knew the abbreviation for teaspoon, only 44 percent knew how many teaspoons were in a tablespoon. Even fewer, 34 percent, knew how much uncooked rice is needed to yield one cup of cooked rice. (Answers: 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon; one-third cup of uncooked rice yields 1 cup of cooked rice.)

Children age 10 to 17 weren't much better. A 2004 Betty Crocker survey of 1,000 children found that while 94 percent could access the Internet, only 42 percent could cook a spaghetti dinner. Nearly 100 percent could play a computer game, but only 41 percent could make a fruit smoothie in a blender. On the other hand, 64 percent said they'd like to help more with the cooking at home, confirming that cooking is hardly a dying art.

"There's a real need and desire to learn these skills," Ruben said.

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