A NEW YORKER cartoon shows a smartly dressed city couple reunited in their living room at the end of a working day. As the husband reads the paper, his wife interrupts by asking, "What's our dinner strategy?"
Somehow the question conjures up a vision of two lonely bottles of mineral water in a spotlessly empty refrigerator.
Not so long ago, any "dinner strategy" in most families remained a woman's responsibility and involved real cooking. Today it often requires a joint decision ("You wanna eat out?") and calls for the skills of an "assembler" rather than a cook. As a General Mills home economist noted at a corporate forum, "Twenty years ago the consumer's challenge was to get everything on the table at the same time at the same temperature. Today the puzzle is really a mix-and-match of scratch, frozen, home delivery, and m any other ways of assembling a meal."
For many time-short assemblers, this new mealtime strategy grows out of a desperate need for convenience. For others - young people who grew up satisfying Big Mac attacks, testing the speed of 30-minute pizza deliveries, and zapping snacks in the microwave - assembling also hides ignorance about what to do in the kitchen. As the offspring of working mothers who had little time to cook and even less time to teach their children how, these members of the under-30 crowd increasingly find themselves culinary
illiterates. The idea of cooking appeals to them, researchers find, but the how-to escapes them.
To the old musical question, "Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy boy?" they must give a qualified answer: Only if it's frozen. Even then, directions had better be simple. When General Mills discovered that some consumers don't know what "knead" means, for example, the company changed instructions on one mix to read "squeeze." And instead of telling customers to "cream" butter and sugar, they now say "beat." Other food experts fear similar oblivion for terms such as braise, flute, and caramelize.
If no one's in the kitchen with Dinah - or if Dinah herself is ordering out for Chinese - does it really matter? On one level, probably not, as long as everyone gets fed. On another level, it does. Cooking skills are not all that will be lost if families stop passing the culinary flame from one generation to another, Olympic-style. What happens to family mealtime traditions if the legacy of what has been dubbed "grandma food" vanishes in a just-add-water-and-stir culture?
As women have traded aprons for attache cases, they have served as a new kind of role model to their offspring. Showing daughters and sons how to make dough - the spendable kind that buys groceries and pays mortgages - counts as a more valuable skill in the '90s than teaching them how to bake dough, the edible kind.
Yet some of my most enduring childhood memories involve watching my mother and grandmother cook. In kitchens stocked with large mixing bowls, rolling pins, and pastry boards, they turned out flaky crusts and 13-egg-white angel food cakes - no mixes allowed. They filled kettles with vegetable soup simmering on a back burner and chicken dumplings bubbling in broth. In late summer, they lined counters with Mason jars and jelly glasses.
Today those Mason jars gather dust in my basement, along with 20 years' worth of Gourmet magazine, whose tantalizing recipes I no longer have time to try. If my own daughter becomes an accomplished cook, the credit will be hers, not mine. In the meantime, she and other young women of her generation are mastering other skills probably far more useful than knowing how to crimp a pastry crust, such as changing the oil in a car.
Glitzy kitchens still sell houses. But is the kitchen - except for the overworked microwave - at risk of becoming the museum-piece of the house of the future, comparable to grandmother's immaculate and seldom occupied parlor? Such concern may be exaggerated and premature. Yet can anyone answer the question implied by that New Yorker cartoon: Is a family dinner now less about the art of cooking than the art of negotiation?