July 14, 2009

Foodie Manifesto: End Kitchen Illiteracy

There has been some really interesting feedback to Mark Bittman's recent article on kitchen illiteracy and convenience food, which was written in response to this article by Tom Laskawy.

In his argument against convenience food, Bittman notes that "both preboxed macaroni and cheese and Pasta with Butter, Sage, and Parmesan take 10 minutes to prepare from the time the water comes to a boil," and that "both provide decent fuel for the body." The difference, though, is that only "one provides a genuinely delicious eating experience and a link to traditions older than collective memory." One of the most common themes in the responses that disagree with Bittman's article has been the cost of ingredients, while those who agree with Bittman lament the state of cuisine in America in general. In my humble opinion, Americans need to quit complaining about the cost of ingredients that will make their families healthier, and, instead, cut spending on the types of goods (iPods! cell phones! plasma TVs!) that will just end up in landfills anyway.

Laskawy's article also deals with convenience food and kitchen illiteracy, but he goes on to explore the idea that "if you offer consumers real, fresh food products which save 10 minutes in the kitchen, you just might change people’s cooking habits for the better." Laskawy's mention of pre-washed and cut servings of fruit and vegetables in the grocery store is a perfect example of a means of steering the general public towards healthier eating habits.

One feature of Bittman's article that really stood out to me was his suggestion that homemade food offers us "a link to traditions older than collective memory." To me, one of the worst things about the spread of kitchen illiteracy is how foreign the idea of a recipe (especially a family recipe) is becoming to America's youth. Earlier this year, I was talking with some of my lacrosse players about living alone, and none of them (at fourteen and fifteen-years old) could believe that I made my own dinner every night. Now, I'm not a pro in the kitchen yet (hence the whole premise of this blog), but I can at least make food for myself on a regular basis. This is largely because my family members made it a priority to share what they knew about cooking with me as I was growing up.

Which brings me to Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food project, an idea that's changing the way England cooks at home. Oliver's concept is a simple viral model: he teaches recipes to local residents, and asks them to pass the recipes on to five friends each, etc. In doing this, he hopes to slow the scarily aggressive obesity rates in England, and to make up for the fact that "two generations [in England] have not been taught the basics" of cooking.

To me, the solution to kitchen illiteracy and our nation's dependence on convenience food (not to mention our own embarrassingly high obesity rates) needs to be a combination of Bittman, Laskawy, and Oliver's approaches. We need Bittman's nostalgia to make cooking something more important than just throwing together Hamburger Helper. We need Laskawy's emphasis on making fresh, healthy foods more convenient. Most importantly, though, we need Oliver's determined, grassroots approach to educating people at all socioeconomic levels how to cook fresh food and how to share what they've learned. I'm not asking that the average American suddenly be able to make a soufflé, but I do believe that having an arsenal of simple, healthy dishes is an attainable and a worthy goal to set for ourselves.

The cure for kitchen illiteracy won't happen overnight, and it certainly won't happen until our government and our society can commit to ending this dependence on "time saving" convenience food. In a country that prides itself on being a bastion of higher education, it's a shame that food education is such a low priority.

1 comment:

  1. my food education in school consisted of learning how to make stuffed shells (which were sort of icky)