Time saved, art lost

Thursday, January 18, 2007
Dr. Georganne Syler taught an advanced cooking class on the first day of the semester at Southeast Missouri State University on Wednesday. (Diane L. Wilson)

Harley Clark remembers when cooking habits of American families changed -- it was the invention of the microwave oven.

During the early 1980s, Clark stocked his appliance store with 150 microwave ovens every year before Christmas. They were soon gone, sold for $650 apiece.

"Back then there were even microwave cooking classes. People did everything with microwaves, and they still do," Clark said. "I bet there's people out there who don't even know you can make popcorn on a stove."

The 36-year owner of Clark Appliances in Cape Girardeau has seen the evolution of kitchen appliances over the past 50 years. The once plain white refrigerators are now made with stainless steel and computerized ice makers. Stoves come with gas grills next to the burners, allowing people to barbecue indoors. Newer convection ovens have cut down baking time, and today's microwaves heat food a lot faster than in the past.

"Everything is so modern these days," Clark said. "It's really cut down on cooking time and your time spent in the kitchen."

So much so that cooking has become something of a lost art, although there is a resurgence of interest, said Dr. Georganne Syler, a registered dietitian and professor at Southeast Missouri State University.

"I do think everyone uses many convenience products, and that's not a bad thing," Syler said. "There's the deli-prepared products and ready-made salad dressings -- at one time people made salad dressing from scratch."

Syler believes the art of cooking was lost in her grandmother's generation.

"I cook because I love it, but many of my friends don't cook," she said. "I'm in my 50s, and I believe people in my mother's generation didn't cook as much as my grandmother's generation."

Tom Harte, a local food expert, said one-third of households in the country serve frozen or ready-to-eat main dishes on any given night.

"It is truly amazing to me the things available in the frozen food case -- things like quiche or stuffed potato skins, which don't have to be cooked, just warmed up," he said. "Some folks probably never peel or slice carrots -- you can find them in all sorts of shapes and sizes in the produce section."

However, Syler has seen a revival of interest in cooking within the past few years. Last semester, more than 70 students were enrolled in Syler's general cooking class, which teaches students the basics of cooking. This semester, even more students are enrolled in the course.

Syler said she's always surprised at the number of students who major in food-related subjects but have never boiled an egg.

"A lot of these students who want to work with food really have no food skills, and I think it's because their parents don't," she said. "When the students get done with the class, they always say they can't wait to get home and show their parents how much they've learned about cooking."

Syler believes the popularity of cooking has increased since cable television started the Food Network in 2000. And the variety of magazines devoted solely to food reinforces the demand for information about cooking.

"The interest is out there, and we've really seen it here with the number of students enrolled in the cooking classes at the university," Syler said.

Notre Dame Regional High School's life skills teacher Tanya Davis, who teaches a course on food and nutrition, has also seen an interest in cooking during her four years at the high school.

"I have a lot of students who are talking about going into culinary school after high school," she said.

Martha's example

Central High School graduate Jenna Russell was enrolled in Syler's general cooking course last semester at Southeast Missouri State University. The 19-year-old food and consumer science major first became interested in cooking about four years ago when she saw Martha Stewart ice a cake on television.

"I wanted to ice a cake just like her, but first I had to bake the cake," Russell said. "The baking part went fine. It was the icing part that I had problems with."

The basic cooking course Russell took in college improved her skills in the kitchen, she said. Recently, she baked her first meal of chicken and green bean casserole for her family.

"It was my first time working with raw meat, and it turned out really good," she said.

Syler has also seen more interest in cooking from men who enroll in her classes.

One of her students is senior Chris Nebel of St. Louis, a hospitality management major. He's enrolled in the quantity foods course, in which Syler teaches students how to prepare food for 50 or more people.

"I cook a lot at my house," Nebel said. "About half of my male friends cook -- either they are really good at it or they're oblivious to what's going on in the kitchen. A lot of them can do the man-foods like grilling hamburgers and steaks."


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