Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Cooking? What's cooking?

Tonight, I could eat Thai, Portuguese, Japanese, Italian, Indian, Korean, French, Afghan, Egyptian, Indonesian, Mexican, Spanish, Argentinian, Greek, Eastern European, Jewish, Lebanese or several regional Chinese cuisines. The place is so full of ethnic restaurants, I don't know where to look.

But if I am an average Melburnian, I probably won't eat any of them. I'll probably go to the supermarket and buy a box with a photograph of a meal on it containing a frozen food-like substance made in a factory and take it home and microwave it and sit in front of the television and watch The Biggest Loser or maybe heat up a jar of glop and tip it over some gluey spaghetti and call it pasta or order a takeout cardboard carton containing a disc of flat burnt dough with ham and pineapple on it and call it pizza.

If you don't doubt that there has been, over several decades, a net loss of cooking skills and food culture, take a look at the trolleyloads of packaged junk and slabs of Coke lining up at checkouts in the supermarket. And take a look at the people pushing them while you're there.

Our mothers shopped like that? Oh no, they didn't. They didn't look like that either.

The cover story in yesterday's weekly Epicure section in The Age savages current standards of culinary knowledge. Richard Cornish interviews food writer Jennifer McLagan, who takes a dim view of what people know today about food and cooking. Her book Cooking on the Bone: Recipes, History and Lore talks about the problem in relation to the cooking of meat, but there's no doubt it applies to all types of cooking.

"A few years back now, I had made an oxtail dish for a photographic shoot and afterwards the photographer, who was in his late 20s or early 30s, tasted the oxtail and asked me how to make it. To which I replied, 'Oh, just the same way you make a stew.' His answer alarmed me: 'How do you make a stew?' ... It was then I went, 'Whoah, What's going on? These people don't know how to make a stew?'"

OK, so one arty stew ignoramus doesn't make a summer of food idiots. But it's more than that. McLagan sees the loss of generations of accumulated knowledge:

"Eating is one of the most important things that anybody can do. You need to eat and you need to eat well, and you really should be cooking for yourself. This is a skill that is close to totally disappearing ... We teach our kids how to balance their chequebooks at school but not how to feed themselves. We're putting people out into the world today without cooking life skills because their parents are working and did not show them how to cook. They'll have never tasted a roast, an osso buco, a homemade stock. They will have no memory of them. Within a generation these recipes and dishes and techniques could be lost."

But we think we're enlightened because we can buy a jar of Simon Johnson sumac ... for about $10. Perhaps the vast array of international ingredients glistening on the shelves is blinding us to the fact that the food skill-set of the vast majority of the population is seriously tanking.

Incidentally, Epicure's new editor ironically recalls - in the same edition that carries the above story - her childhood in which she was part of 'the vast majority of an Australian population force-fed at home on the inevitable lamb chop and three boiled veg served with buttered, white, sliced bread.'

The image of a 1950s Australian culinary wasteland is a tired cliche that is frequently wheeled out by journalists, like a senescent aunt. It has been done to death like an overcooked turkey. Plus, I resent it. Chops and three 'veg' (I hate shortened words) were never on high rotation in the house of my childhood, but irrespective of that, any dinner plate with three vegetables on it is going to be a whole lot healthier than the pre-packaged rubbish parents are 'force-feeding' - to use the editor's term - their children today; when they're not taking them out for chicken nuggets, that is.

McLagan's analysis is closer to the mark. Generations of food skills are going down the drain, and that is a far worse scenario facing our children than growing up without the world's cuisines to pick and choose from.


Anna said...

Mm, I read that article too, and actually really want to buy the book as well - but at close to $80 I don't see it happening. I have plenty of others about "Grandma's cooking" etc. to tide me over!

It made me realise how happy and glad I am that all the while I grew up my grandma (until she died) and my mum (to this day, whenever I go home) have taught me as much as they can about "kitchen-craft". Some of my earliest and most fond memories are of aping (or trying to help) mum as she cooked dinner, or baked some kind of gooey desserty deliciousness.

jo said...

As you know, i live it everyday.
Kids who's parents NEVER cook, take out or a personal chef arethe only options. Kids who have been all over the world, yet refuse to try anything outside of their safety zone of chicken nuggets (processd and boxed of course - but they are Organic, the parents cry - so good for them) and mac and cheese.
An adult JUST LAST WEEK held up a grapefruit to me as she was gathering the ingredients for her recipe form the table I had laid out and asked, avocado?? It took every, single, ounce to not laugh.
Almost none of the new students can identify fresh herbs. We have had to add a course specifically to introduce them to herbs, fruits and vegetables. These are people 20 - 40 who SIGNED up to PAY FOR culinary school becuase they want to be a chef.
The mind boggles.
I hope to continue fighting the good fight for real food from my little corner of the world for years to come. *dons superwoma cape and flies around the room*

Janis Gore said...

A shopper from our house was at the checkout stand at the grocery the other day. The clerk couldn't identify celery.

skinnydan said...

I learned to cook at my mother's shoulder, mainly as an excuse to avoid going to school on Fridays (a short, boring story about early dismissal and my inability to understand Yiddish is implied). There was also the relative lack of prepackaged kosher foods when I grew up, sadly remedied by entrepreneurial purveyors of kosher precooked crapahoola.

Incidentally, I note you write of going out (if you choose) for "Jewish" cuisine. While I'm aware of Melburne's largish Jewish community, I'm curious as to what type of food they're offering.

neil said...

Burnt or not, there is nothing with ham and pineapple on it that can hold its head up and proudly say it's pizza. But I wonder if it's really true that generational skills are being lost. Why are cooking shows so popular and food exhibitions so well attended? There will always be people with no interest in preparing food, my daughters have some interest in learning but my sons don't, apart from asking for the odd barbeque tip. It seems to me that those who want to cook find the time to do it and the rest are those people you observed at the supermarket. Though I will concede that the skills in preparing offal have just about gone.

Anonymous said...

I love to cook but haven't done much since my husband died. This last year though, I started watching the Food Network and printing out their recipes and love cooking again! Am trying new recipes just for myself! Good thing I don't mind leftovers!

kitchen hand said...

Anna, I'm surprised the book is so expensive. The thrust of its argument seems the opposite in intent to the expensive pretty-picture coffee-table kind of book.

Jo, that is hilarious! It's the equivalent of the automotive school near me having to lay out bits of cars for apprentice mechanics to learn: 'engine', 'tyre', 'steering wheel' etc.

Janis, that happens to me all the time. OK, no-one knows what a choko is, but celery is not exactly a rarity.

SkinnyDan, lucky you getting to stay home on Fridays and cook. There's a wide variety of places offering kosher, almost kosher and probably not kosher styles of cooking. What I loosely call Jewish often take cultural influences from the various ethnic groupings, many of which settled here after the war.

Neil, it intrigues me as well. Plus, the sale of those billions of coffee table cookbooks which impart no skill but just recycle the same old recipes like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Anonymous, my sympathies for your sad loss - it is wonderful that you are enjoying cooking once again. From my single days I know how hard it is find motivation for cooking, so you are doing very well.