Culinary Illiteracy

Stack of Cookbooks - where most culinary literacy journeys begin

Our community is facing a crisis of culinary literacy. What can we do about it?

I love cooking and eating locally and seasonally. The knowledge that I’m reducing my impact on the environment and greatly improving the economy and resilience of my community is reassuring.  Improved nutritional density of my food is a great benefit.  I love the sensory engagement that comes from eating seasonal food that has been grown with attention to flavor, color, and texture rather than shelf life and stability in shipping.  The constant flux of foods in our diet resonates with the changing seasons, marking the cycles of time.

Sharing this love affair with local and seasonal food is the primary impetus behind creating our farm, volunteer work such as serving on the Marshall County Food Council or running the Culver Farmers’ Market, and writing the farm newsletter and this oft-neglected blog.  One of the reasons I include many recipes is to share this passion, to help encourage others to cook and eat more intuitively and seasonally – and ultimately, to not follow the recipes any closer than I do!

The Culinary Literacy Chasm

This blog seems to be taking a bit more of an educational turn. But therein lies a challenge.  How much explanation should I include in my recipes?  We have a divide, as stark as the economic, political, and racial divides that threaten our world. A culinary literacy chasm, between those who are cooking and eating experts, who will throw out a dozen uses for hakurei turnip greens just off the tops of their heads; and culinary novices who don’t know turnips are something anyone other than Baldrick likes, let alone have edible greens.  The journeyman realm in-between? A chasm that even Pitfall Harry would find challenging.

Local, seasonal eating often puts one in the middle of that chasm.  And I think our food media holds a lot of the blame.  Just look at cookbooks alone: there are tons for beginners, and nearly as many for experts and professionals.  But try to find one that bridges that gap on your nearest bookshelf.  You’ll be lucky to find more than a handful.

What Can We Do?

I’ve been reading a couple of books on food writing, hoping to better serve my long-suffering supporters, most of whom fall in that chasm.  But I’m dismayed at their suggestions, particularly in recipe writing.  Both have explicit sections focused on the issue: in one a whole chapter titled “Culinary Illiteracy.”  Mostly, they consist of long lists of terms one shouldn’t use in a recipe, because people don’t know them.  Among the terms to avoid: cream, braise, blend, roast, dice, cube, simmer, and, saute.  Yipe!  Even worse, if you combine the suggested alternatives from one with the discouraged vocabulary in the other, you end up with a Venn diagram of nightmares.

I think we’re doing our civilization a disservice. We can spell out in excruciating detail how to deglaze a pan.  But it makes the recipe look long and complex.  Skilled cooks see a long list of steps that could be one word, and are discouraged from trying the dish, believing it to be more complex than it is.  Inexperienced cooks never learn they are performing a basic technique, not something specific to this dish.

Everyone misses the transference, the realization that I deglaze my skillet with milk when making sausage gravy, just like I deglaze my stock pot with stock when making soup, or with wine when making a ragout.  It’s even worse on TV: a celebrity chef guides us step by step through making elaborate, complex dishes full of specialty ingredients.  But missing is the explanation of why we do a step, or how it is useful in other dishes. We fail to learn how to substitute more available, less expensive ingredients or apply the techniques to a different dish entirely.

Meanwhile, we also lose our connection to our heritage, and the ability to share that heritage with others.  Do you have an old cookbook?  Maybe a community or family cookbook?  Does it use terms and measures you aren’t familiar with?  Are you left you guessing why your Butter Gooey Bars don’t quite come out the way you remember Grandma Brumbaugh’s?

A Little Help, Please

What to do about it?  I’m not sure.  My audience mostly falls in that underserved middle ground. I want to help them, and myself, advance and become more confident, more intuitive, and more creative in the kitchen.  To learn, in an authentic project-oriented way, how and why things work so we can better support our families and our communities while enjoying cooking.  I have a couple of ideas, mostly centered around this blog.  So some new content may be coming soon (expect a glacial pace).

What kind of cooking skills do you wish you understood better?  Are there confusing terms?  Do you want ideas on how to improvise? Particular techniques, ingredients, tools that befuddle you? Let me know how (or if?) you’d like me to help!

What I’m Doing So Far

Since initially making this post, I’ve begun a few initiatives to address the culinary literacy chasm. I’ll attempt to remember to update this list, so you can check back in the future (which would be the present for you…) and see what’s up.

  • Created a Glossary of Culinary Terms, with both brief definitions and extended descriptions of culinary techniques.
    • Terms are linked in posts and recipes. Hover over a term to see its brief definition. Click to access the full discussion.
    • Each glossary entry cross-references the posts and recipes that use it.
    • Currently working on a styling bug: glossary terms work as intended in posts, but not recipes. While they function fine (hover over the term, and the brief definition appears. Click and you get the extended article), they do not look different from ordinary text. Haven’t figured out where the issue originates yet – something between plugins breaking the stylesheet inheritance. For now, if you see a term you don’t know in a recipe, try hovering over it.
  • Created a new “basics” tag, for articles and recipes that are foundational. These are skills that transfer to multiple dishes and cuisines, or are general approaches to cooking, more than prescriptive recipes.

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