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TV, training wheels, teaching and trashing...

I think I figured out what's up with those two food tv shows that many of us don't understand. It's all a matter of framing. This is cooking for beginners. Just maybe not the beginners you are thinking of.

What do you think of when you think "beginning cook"? For me at least, I think of children (and adults too, but always children) who are not only unskilled in the kitchen but too young to do many basic things on their own. No sharp things. Limited use of appliances: microwave instead of range, toaster oven instead of standard oven, etc. There is often a focus on assembly of ingredients rather than actual cooking.

You can see this clearly in old cookbooks. I learned to cook as a young child, and while I didn't use many children's cookbooks, I did have a few. Having not done too much shopping for such books in the last decade, I'm not sure if they have changed all that much since then. (other than having TV personalities on the covers) While there have been some notable additions since I was a kid, I bet that the books that have been in print for decades (and many of the newer ones) still use their tried-and-true approach. Duh. Tried and true sells.

Those aimed at the youngest audiences are often little more than combinations of ready-made ingredients. Pigs in blankets, anyone? English muffin pizza? The resulting food is enjoyed primarily because it was made by a small person, not for its inherent tastiness. There is little wrong with this sort of cooking for the very young cook - although if a parental unit made the components (dough for crust or wrapping piggies) it would be ever so much better. There is also often a lot of emphasis on peripheral things: tablescapes decorations, amusing cocktails drinks, giggling with your tipsy three year-old buddies.

But whatever it takes to get kids in the kitchen with their parents in the kitchen  is fine with me. I'd rather a child cook with purchased refrigerator biscuits and hot dogs than not at all. It also offers a chance to teach the little one some things: math (fractions), how to follow a set of instructions, a smidge of cooking skills, and gives you some time to hang out and talk.

With older kids, cookbooks move into more actual cooking, although still oversimplified and with lots of shortcuts and pre-made ingredients. often with a bit of over the top delivery. You know the jr. high school vice-principal or guidance counselor who tried just a bit too hard to be hip? Many books written for 'tweens and early teens are sort of like that...trying too hard: a little brash and use slang they made up just a bit too often. At times, it's like being cornered by an overly enthusiastic cheerleader.

Remind you of any TV shows you love to hate slag?

I will gladly eat, and praise, whatever attempt a child makes at cooking, even if it is truffles that are just peanut butter and canned frosting rolled into balls and coated with cocoa. Which is more complicated than these, which are being sold to adults as something they should be making. I will not, however, endorse teaching adults that this is cooking! At best, it's assembling ingredients.

Don't get me wrong. All stages of a cook's education are valuable, indeed this is the foundational apprenticeship of a kitchenMage. But ultimately, these are cookbooks with training wheels. Something to be used and passed along to the next child in the family, not upgraded and used forever. If you are replacing your training wheels, even with an new version of wheels that are much spiffier, you are still limiting yourself.

This random train of thought brought to you by:

For a broader view on this, pour yourself a cup of tea, or a good stiff drink, and make sure you read the comments.

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