Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2003 / 18 Adar I, 5763
Call the kids the
Like butter churning and barn raising, America is losing a grand old tradition. It's called cooking.
"What my students call cooking, I call reheating," says Miriam Chaikin, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "They think heating up a frozen pizza is cooking."
They are kitchen illiterates.
While Chaikin had been more inclined to study the food habits of faraway peoples, she turned her attention to young Americans after inviting some students to a potluck supper. "One or two brought cooked food," she says, "but the rest just showed up with a bag of chips."
Could it be that kids had no idea how to cook? To find out, Chaikin sent her assistant to the local grocery to photograph the contents of students' shopping carts. The results were very encouraging - for Swanson's shareholders.
"Only 12% of the things they were buying gave clear evidence of cooking - things like oil or fresh vegetables or baking supplies," says Chaikin. The rest were convenience items like frozen dinners and deli sandwiches or plain old junk food and soda.
That college students eat a vending-machine diet is no big surprise.
The surprise came in the dawning realization that this is not a four-year hiatus from the kitchen, but a permanent leave.
"What's the most complicated food you know how to cook?" Chaikin demanded of her students. "Pouring spaghetti sauce over noodles," most replied, or, "Making scrambled eggs." One guy admitted, "Boil noodles, add cheese powder and stir."
Now, certainly the blue box can be satisfying. But mac and cheese is to eating what the kazoo is to music. How would you like to listen only to the kazoo the rest of your life?
That could be the food fate of Generation Y, says Chaikin, because they don't know what they're missing.
"These are the kids raised by the first generation of working women," she says. With both parents pressed for time, "I don't think they grew up in households where they saw cooking as part of the routine of daily life."
For many, home-cooked food was for special occasions only. Mom chopped vegetables as often as Dad chopped wood.
So just as my generation lost the arts of canning and crocheting (or at least I did), the class of '03 is losing the art of cooking, which is a lot worse than not being able to make a scarf.
When you can't cook, you break the chain of family history. Your holidays will never taste like Grandma's. Your house will never smell as homey. And who will linger over a bag of burgers?
"Meals are just going to have a different dimension for this generation," says middle-aged Chaikin. "They'll be about getting sustenance and moving on - or doing something simultaneously."
I can accept a country filled with young folk unable to darn or whittle. But if making a stew stumps them too, they'll be forever at the mercy of Dinty Moore. It is time they asked Grandma to take them into that mysterious room - the one with a stove - and larn 'em one of life's great lessons.
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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.
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