Friday, March 24, 2006

Queenie Rants: Confusing Simplicity and Stupidity

My mom just sent me a link to a news article that has me really mad. How many of you saw this last week? Cooking 101: Add 1 Cup of Simplicity. Here are the first four paragraphs of the story.
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.

Do these food companies think they're helping people by dumbing things down? I sure don't think they are! If you read through the rest of the article it shows how many words recipes use to tell a cook how to cream something, instead of just saying "cream butter and sugar". It's ridiculous! It makes reading the recipe take longer, it makes it more likely the cook will get confused, and it makes it easier for the cook to think she's done everything right when she hasn't! So she'll either try to make the recipe again and mess it up - again - or she'll say that the recipe is wrong. And she probably won't learn what she did wrong, and how to do it right.

Dear hubby used to laugh at me when I cooked, because I "used lots of tools" and actually timed how long ingredients were whipped or simmered. He thought I was being too fussy, and making cooking harder than it needed to be. But then he ruined a chocolate mousse because he didn't know how to fold ingredients together and he just stirred. Hard. He still thinks I go overboard sometimes, which I probably do because I'm a perfectionist, but at least he asks me questions now.

It doesn't make instructions simple to add words instead of using the proper cooking term. It's dumbing a recipe down. And "step by step pictures" don't always help. How, in a series of still pictures, can a person really get the differences in the motions of stirring and folding? I guess next they'll be putting DVDs in with every cookbook so people can watch and see what they need to do.

Lots of professions have a special language that's like a set of conceptual shortcuts for them. In chemistry, for example, element, ion, and molecule all mean different things. Some nonscientists use them as if they're all synonyms, but that doesn't mean the scientists do, or should! I think of cooking as food science and we cooks ought to make sure our special language is used properly and learned by young cooks. Even though my children don't have a lot of skills yet, they know a lot of the terms, and they know what they're supposed to be doing. And I bet even they understand that it's simpler to say "dice" or "mince" rather than "cut with a knife to a uniform size of __".

I mean, really. If someone doesn't want to learn how to cook properly, aren't there a bunch of Cooking for Dummies books available? Put the stupidity in those books, and use the proper cooking terms in real cookbooks.

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