Are Americans now too stupid to cook?

cooking breakfast

Michael Ruhlman had a particularly controversial blog entry recently. In America: Too Stupid to Cook, he presented the thesis that "Americans are being taught that we're too stupid to cook." To back up his argument, he cites several examples: 

"The messages are everywhere.  Boxed cake mix.  Why is it there?  Because a real cake is too hard!  You can't bake a cake!  Takes too long, you can't do it, you're gonna fail!

Look at all those rotisserie chickens stacked in the warming bin at the grocery store.  Why?  Because roasting a chicken is too hard, takes FOREVER.  An hour.  I don't have an hour to watch a chicken cook!

Companies that make microwaveable dinners have spent countless R&D dollars to transform dishes that used to take 7 minutes in the microwave into ones that take 3 minutes.  "Hey, Marge, that's four minutes of extra TEEvee we can watch!"

In practically every single cookbook produced today, the message is, buy this book because we show you easy things to make fast.  Only takes a second.  Whether it's Rachael's 30-minute meals or the quick-and-easy columns in the food magazines.  That's all we hear.  Real cooking is hard and difficult so here are the nifty shortcuts and tips to make all that hard stuff quickly and easily."

It's an interesting argument, but I can't agree. First, two of his examples - boxed cake mixes and TV dinners have been around since the 1950's and so any lessons have long been assimilated. And look at some of the trends since then - the resurgence of farmers' markets, the popularity of cooking shows, the much greater availability of ethnic, international, and artisanal foods in the markets. All of these argue for a greater, not lesser, interest in cooking.

And his argument about cookbooks also doesn't really hold water. Last year Ree Drummond (the Pioneer Woman) had three of the top ten selling cookbooks in the U.S. in 2013. And whether you like her recipes or not, her books strongly advocate home-style cooking - there's very little about trying to make meals quicker or substituting store-bought ingredients. 

I guess I'd like to give us a little more credit than Ruhlman does for being able to balance an unquestioned need for more time against a natural instinct and intelligence for good food. But I'd love to hear what you think.

And, by the way, I wanted to give you all a heads up that in February I'm preparing to hand over the reins as EYB's primary blogger to a new blogger, Darcie Boschee.  Darcie is a culinary enthusiast, freelance food writer, and (naturally) a cookbook lover. Her passion for cooking is exceeded only by her zeal for baking and craft cocktails. By way of introduction, Darcie will be posting a bit this month as well. 

 

9 Comments

  • madamepince  on  1/17/2014 at 4:27 PM

    While I have found some of Ruhlman's writings helpful, his recent TV appearances & this blog entry in particular suggest he's just making stuff up. (And there is no way I con see that needing to make a meal quickly means that a cook is being told s/he is "stupid.")

  • boardingace  on  1/17/2014 at 4:42 PM

    I disagree with Ruhlman, and I'm not sure why he is so concerned about this. TV dinners, boxed cake mixes, rotisserie chickens, and quick-and-easy style cookbooks give people choices. They save people time. It's quite a leap to jump from that to "The manufacturer is trying to convince people that they are too stupid too cook." Or is inadvertently implying that. How silly!! Does he forget that people are TIRED after a long day at work or home, and that not everyone likes to cook? Or that even people who love to cook don't do so every time? Some people love to cook, but not bake from scratch. Of course, if you never cook, then you won't know how to cook, but even if you don't know how to cook, you're not STUPID and you're not too stupid to learn how to cook if you're interested. This seems like such an odd argument, but it was interesting to think about.

  • FuzzyChef  on  1/17/2014 at 10:49 PM

    Welcome Darcie!

  • margiehubbard  on  1/18/2014 at 8:35 AM

    Wouldn't a boxed cake mix be better for you than a Twinkie? I can kind of see what he's saying. But, I think things are really getting better in the convenience food area. At least every kitchen doesn't have a box of instant mashed potatoes in the pantry any more!

  • sir_ken_g  on  1/18/2014 at 4:44 PM

    Stupid? No. Uneducated? Very often,

  • boardingace  on  1/18/2014 at 6:32 PM

    Yes, welcome to Darcie! I will miss your posts, Lindsay, and wish you the best! Thanks for all the entertainment and education!!!

  • Margaretsmall  on  1/19/2014 at 2:51 PM

    It's not stupidity, my daughters in law and daughters who are all highly intelligent, all make pancakes for their children from a prepackaged mix to which you add water. One was astonished when I made a batch from scratch for her children, especially since it actually took, at the most, three minutes more than the packaged approach. And cost less, plus there was no plastic container to throw away. I think it is mostly a matter of being time poor, as they all juggle very busy lives with work children who play sport, etc, involvement in school activities, etc. etc. Plus a child can easily make it from the packaged version without any parental intervention, which is also a worry, since it's reinforcing the attitude that the prepackaged stuff is the only way to go.

  • apattin  on  1/22/2014 at 6:41 PM

    Stupid is a very strong adjective. Ignorant and time-crunched is more like it. But what he says is true: one should try the non-productized way because it tastes better and is better for you.

  • susan g  on  1/22/2014 at 9:04 PM

    My experience as a natural foods retailer: When we started in 1981, we sold a lot of bulk beans, grains, etc, and ground bag after bag of whole wheat flour for home bakers. Over our 30 years, we saw the growth of packaged foods, convenience foods, many of them products that mimicked mainstream products. All the factors above figured in the changes we saw. Lazy and stupid? Nothing new there.

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