The Benefits of Dumber Cookbooks

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.)

9 thoughts on “The Benefits of Dumber Cookbooks

  1. (Look at Arby’s meat under a microscope. It is composited scraps not grown flesh.) Expensive futile Federal action is desperately needed to save the VICTIMS! Look how well we are succeeding in New Orleans. Imagine a cement wall that per ft^2 costs more than a house to build. Was it poured by the milliliter?

  2. You’re a bit young, Chad, to realize that there’s one huge area where the quality of food available today has deteriorated greatly. That’s the flavor quality of almost all meat in the markets.

    I can’t remember the exact date, but back in the late ’60s or early ’70s, the USDA changed the grading system for beef to accommodate the fast-growing feedlot system of the major meatpackers. What used to be “prime” no longer exists, except for the high-price restaurant trade. What used to be “choice” is now sold as prime, etc. There’s really a huge difference in the taste and quality as far as I’m concerned.

    And then there’s pork. Pork is supposed to be a white meat, not pink or red. This again is the result of modern techniques for fattening livestock faster and bringing it to market at a much younger age. And don’t get me started on the “water added” hams.

    Almost all lamb now comes from Australia, New Zealand, or Argentina, and none of it has the flavor I remember from my younger days.

    Fortunately, we can now get flavorful free-range chicken again (at a higher price), but all chicken was free range (and cheap) when I was a kid.

    It’s sometimes possible to find good flavorful meats at farmer’s markets or from specialty suppliers, but that’s always at a premium price and certainly not available everywhere.

  3. There are other downsides to increase in available variety. I’ll pick on, say, Kobe beef, not because I have a problem with it, but just as an example. You can get Kobe beef in some grocery stores now. Increased distribution will lead to increased demand. Either the supply will remain constant and the price will go up, or more likely Japanese raisers of Kobe beef will try to increase the supply, using more limited resources to do so. By resources, I mean land, water, feed (goes back to land and water). Then increased transportation from Japan to all over the globe leads to increased use of fuels which are again a limited resource. Substitute French brie or Goya canned beans for Kobe beef and it’s much the same story. I love the fact that I can get Hispanic products up in the cold frozen north, but let’s face it, I am contributing to the depletion of natural resources when I buy them, as we all are when we buy non-local.

  4. Chad – Both your Amazon links point to Peterson’s book.

    Should be fixed now.

    You’re a bit young, Chad, to realize that there’s one huge area where the quality of food available today has deteriorated greatly. That’s the flavor quality of almost all meat in the markets.

    I’m also told that tomatoes have really lost a lot of flavor in the last few decades. I don’t really like raw tomatoes, though, so I couldn’t say one way or another. (I like tomato sauce, but alas, it’s on the forbidden list for the reflux diet… Grump, grump, grump.

    On the whole, I think the general improvement in the range of stuff available offsets the loss in flavor of individual items, but then, as you say, I’m too young to remember the situation before the change.

    I love the fact that I can get Hispanic products up in the cold frozen north, but let’s face it, I am contributing to the depletion of natural resources when I buy them, as we all are when we buy non-local.

    I’m not wild about any worldview that requires me to feel guilty for eating a healthier variety of food than I could manage given the climate in which I live.

    I would be very happy to hear that people found and adopted ways to produce and ship food without doing a great deal of environmental damage, but I don’t think I’m concerned enough about the impact to want to subsist on local produce. There’s a reason we have all these liberal arts colleges in the Northeast– it’s a hell of a lot easier to run a college than to make a living farming this land.

    Also, I should’ve included one of my favorite opening sentences in literature, which is vaguely relevant:
    Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jewelled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicarauguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.
    — A.S. Byatt, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”

  5. The overall trend sounds like it’s basically tracking the spread and establishment of shipping/consumer culture around the world. Not necessarily a bad thing, but if we do get a serious fuel crash, most of that will go bye-bye in a hurry.

    Ms. Shapiro’s comment “And all vegetables and most fruits taste bitter to me” is interesting, as I just read Sciam-Mind’s article about the sense of taste — and especially bitterness. Sounds like she’s a supertaster!

    Another drawback to the larger selection is the allergy issue — more different plants, yielding whole new groups of allergens. You probably know whether or not you’re allergic to strawberries, or wheat. What about lychees, or taro? Or some African spice that isn’t common here in the West?

  6. What’s the size of your hometown now? How big was it then?

    The Census Bureau puts the population of the village at 965, and the next town over at 300, both of which are about the same as they were when I was a kid.

  7. You might also like The Best Receipe. There is lots of practical experimentation as the chefs try to figure out the best way to roast a chicken, make beef stew, etc. Second edition in stores now!

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