The Conversation: America's struggle with cooking

02/10/2013 12:00 AM

02/24/2013 9:42 AM

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The slow degradation of cooking expertise in America has given nearly half our population an unofficial new ailment – Cooking Deficit Disorder. Here we are, sitting on couches watching cooking on TV while slopping delivered pizza into our faces. How often do we learn enough about cooking to leave the couch, enter the kitchen and start a recipe?

While cooking can be entertainment, therapy and escapism, at its core it is a 400,000-year-old survival skill, and it is in decline. Cooking Deficit Disorder is damaging our personal budgets, taking our control of nutrition out of our hands and making us rely on others for every bite we take.

Cooking in the home was the American norm through the 1940s. Convenience foods became popular in the 1950s – remember TV dinners and cake mix that were intended to shorten kitchen time? By the 1980s many families needed two wage-earners, and there was little time left for from-scratch cooking by either parent. And now, decades later, we spend about $110 billion a year on fast food and nearly a quarter of our grocery money to fund our reliance on processed food and packaged meals.

Last year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention projected that 44 percent of Americans would be obese by 2030, if we keep up the bad eating habits of today. That's an expansion so big it would make our current collective body type seem eligible for Project Runway.

We're now seeing the second generation of non-cooks giving rise to yet a third, and that's not good news.

"Not knowing how to cook can kill you," Dr. Francine Kaufman of Children's Hospital in Los Angeles and author of "Diabesity" says bluntly. "It means you have to eat out all the time where you will likely be exposed to excess calories, sugar, fat and salt."

On average, according to the Food Marketing Institute, we do eat at home about five times a week. But even though we're eating in, clever marketing tricks us into believing we're truly cooking.

For example, cooking today means adding an egg to a cake mix so we feel some measure of participation in making the cake. In fact, cake mix manufacturers in the 1950s easily could have included dried eggs in the box, but decided to give the "cook" a hands-on thrill by having her – yes, her – crack a real egg and add it to the batter.

Call them naive, but many near-cooks have come to think they're "cooking" by heating frozen dinners, picking apart rotisserie chicken or assembling components in shelf-stable "kits." These cooking kits, sort of a paint-by-number experience for expensive but fast meals, were the darlings of last month's Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. The "cook" opens several packages, combines and heats them, with no say about the seasoning, the amount of salt or any of the ingredients therein.

Also coming to the aid of reluctant cooks are bagged, fully cooked microwavable grains, such as quinoa. The manufacturer prepared the pricey grains no differently than you would from scratch at home – by boiling water. The only difference is you paid extra for the packaging and the consultant who wrote the reheating directions.

Non-cooks appear normal, but they go through life a bit like someone who can't read. They cover it up. For a potluck, they bring the paper plates. Or they stop at a store and pick up hummus, which is why at any given potluck you can tell how many lousy or lazy cooks are there by how much the table heaves with hummus.

While teaching beginners, I began every class with group therapy. "Why are you here? Why can't you cook?" The predominant answers are:

I've had too many disasters to look forward to cooking.

The stove might as well be a nuclear reactor.

I was a feminist and wasn't about to enter that room of oppression and servitude, but now that I'm 50 I need to cook and eat healthier.

My friend Elinor Brecher in Miami is a successful journalist whom I've diagnosed with Cooking Deficit Disorder. Her oven is the breadbox. The refrigerator is a repository for batteries and nail polish and hummus. "A recipe that's got more than five ingredients and three steps is like reading an operating manual for an aircraft carrier," she says.

Alanna Nash, an author in Louisville, Ky., was shooed out of the kitchen by both parents. Territorial ownership of the kitchen is not uncommon, particularly by mothers who cleave to the only place in the house where they have power. In an irony, Alanna eventually had to arrange for nutritious meals for her ailing mother. When she enrolled in what was titled a beginner cooking class, the instructor pulled out an apple and began carving it into a bird. Her meager cooking skills depress her. "It means I have not fully matured as a human being," she laments.

For me, the worst case was an elderly, diabetic widower in my beginners cooking class. His wife had died without teaching him how to work the coffee pot. She had coordinated his food exchanges and cooked all his meals. Without her, this man was in big trouble, particularly in managing diabetes without an inkling of what to do in a kitchen.

Other students of mine have not known that cream whips, how to get the pulp out of an avocado, how to chop an onion, how to measure using measuring cups and spoons.

There is a hip factor to food these days with farmers markets, organic produce, the slow food movement, bloggers and celebrity chefs. But all that still hasn't made more of us better cooks. We may have to wait a generation to rebuild food competence. The smart money is on kids.

More than 3,000 gardens are planted at California schools. Kids work the dirt, plant seeds and harvest a cornucopia of bounty. Teachers correlate lesson plans to the garden so they also become opportunities to learn science, history, math.

But even with the gardens, there's a glitch. After the kids grow their beans, peas, squash and eggplants then what? The project is unfinished unless the children can cook the bounty they grew. Fresh food needs to be peeled, chopped, prepped and somehow cooked. It's easy to imagine a child taking home an eggplant to a mom who can't cook an eggplant.

Only a smattering of California's schools are equipped with a culinary lab where students can cook from their school's garden. Many home ec labs sit fallow at schools where gardens flourish. Schools with functioning cooking equipment long ago turned away from basic cooking to vocationally training students for food service, denying the basics to everyone. That's like offering PE only to kids who want to become professional athletes.

If we can complete the circle started in the gardens by teaching basic everlasting cooking skills to girls and boys, today's children will become adults who can cook, and cook well. They'll also eat well, the best revenge. Maybe after they're grown they'll have their clueless parents over for dinner.


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