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California Cuisine: The Present : Culinary Illiterates: There's a whole generation not acquainted with kitchen basics. Experts say it's the legacy of a generation of non-cooking working mothers.

November 01, 1990|IRENE SAX | NEWSDAY

It is not fair to say that Donna can't cook.

She can microwave popcorn and frozen lasagna. She can make instant coffee. And she can cook vegetarian chili for 24, using a recipe she got from her college roommate.

But she cannot scramble eggs, boil pasta or broil chicken. This smart, energetic, 25-year-old lawyer is helpless in the kitchen. What's more, she couldn't care less.

And she's not alone.

In recent years, educators have talked about cultural illiteracy and mathematical illiteracy. Now cooking teachers, food writers and dietitians are talking about culinary illiteracy and the fact that they are meeting a group of people in their 20s who can't and don't cook at all.

"We're looking at the first generation of cooking illiterates," said cookbook writer Irena Chalmers. "They don't cook and they don't see why they should, any more than they should cut their own hair or clean their own clothes. There's a whole population that has no contact with their food until they peel back the top of a frozen dinner."

She is talking about women, of course. Although there have been changes in the kitchen, it is still more of a surprise when a man does cook than when he doesn't.

These women don't cook because they don't have to. They can eat out, take out from gourmet shops, supermarkets, pizzerias and restaurants, warm up shelf-stable and refrigerated foods or microwave frozen dinners. If nothing else is available, there is always the salad bar, the bran muffin and the pint of Haagen Dazs.

And they can't cook because their mothers didn't cook.

"Traditionally, young women learned to cook at home from their mothers," said food historian Alice Ross, who is studying American women and domesticity. "By the time they were 11 or 12 they could, and did, do everything their mothers could do."

When social changes made greater demands on women's skills, they turned to cooking schools and books to teach them newer, more elegant ways to cook and set a table. But their basic cooking knowledge came from their mothers. Night after night, they were in the kitchen while she made dinner, and without realizing it they absorbed her way of washing lettuce and cleaning chicken.

Now, said cooking teacher Peter Kump, he gets students whose mothers didn't cook at all. "They stopped because they were working and because it was modern to use TV dinners and convenience foods. And there was a time in the '60s and '70s when it was smart for a woman not to be able to cook, just as it was smart for a woman not to be able to type."

"My mother was from the 'I-hate-to-cook generation,' so I'm from the 'I-don't-know-how-to-cook generation,' " said Robin Soslow, author of "The Official Single Woman's Cookbook" (Corkscrew Press). "She could cook but didn't want to, because she was a liberated working woman. She used to tell me to go study and not waste my time in the kitchen."

Cooking schools have had to adapt to the new culinary illiteracy. Kindergarten-level courses fill up, while enrollment in advanced courses lags. Carol Brock, coordinator of food and entertaining for the Adult Education program of the Great Neck Schools on New York's Long Island, said that she will add introductory courses next spring, hoping to catch the interest of students who need to learn how to boil water.

What makes a non-cook decide to go to cooking school? Thirteen students, including lawyers, marketing executives, a software specialist and an actress, met at the New School here before Stephen Schmidt's course in Fundamentals of Cooking last month. As hesitant as if they were members of a therapy group, one by one they confessed what had brought them there.

"I'm here to save my marriage." "I've had it with Lean Cuisine and Chinese takeout." "The Amex bills were getting horrible."

Teachers share horror stories about how little their current students know. There was the one who left the giblets inside the roasting chicken. The one who didn't know that a cake pan went in the oven. The one who was told to cut the stems off a bunch of watercress and asked which side of the rubber band he should cut on.

Ross has had students who didn't know butter was made from milk; Schmidt has had students who don't know where to find meat in the supermarket or how to unwrap and store it when they got home.

Kump recalls a student who said that she couldn't cook at all. "I wanted to boost her confidence, so I said, 'You can make coffee, can't you?' It turned out that she couldn't. She sent down to a coffee shop for coffee in the morning."

All the teachers said that their non-cooking students clung to written recipes as though they were chemical formulas. "They don't want to hear 'season to taste,' " teacher Deborah Jensen said. "They don't want to be told to leave out the garlic if they don't like garlic, or double the parsley if it doesn't have much taste. To them, a teaspoon is a teaspoon."

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