— by Roberta
How do we learn? It’s probably safe to say that all of us have a slightly different learning style and that each of us has his or her own way in which we learn best. Personally, I’m definitely mostly a monkey see, monkey do sort of learner.
I am no expert, nor have I done any research in this area, but I will argue that before the invention of the written word and instruction manuals, and before the emergence of institutional learning, people gained experience by observing and doing. Humans learned about what foods were safe to eat by eating the good and the bad, and about the consequences of eating the bad by observing what happened to the eater. We learned about crop cultivation by doing (with much trial and error), and we learned to cook by watching, doing and tasting. In all cases, knowledge was acquired by observing and then by repeating the process.
It’s pretty safe to say that learning (and teaching, for that matter) has changed enormously from those early monkey-see-monkey-do times, and with the emergence of the printing press, television, and then the internet, knowledge and information are literally at our fingertips more or less any time we desire to access them. But has our learning, and the experience of learning, become (dare I question) better?
I love being able to browse for recipes on the internet, and I love leafing through cookbooks, but I still believe that learning in the kitchen and about food is done best when demonstrated in person. That, too, however, has changed. Before there were cooking schools, for example, there were grandmothers, aunts, cousins and mothers (and also grandfathers, uncles and fathers, of course) who would pass culinary knowledge and skills to the next generation. When food advanced into the commercial arena (restaurants, butcher shops and bakeries, just to name a few), masters passed knowledge on to their apprentices. But what about the average modern human who was never taught how to cook from scratch? Can he or she just pick up a recipe and do it? Probably… it depends on one’s motivation.
Somebody asked me once how I decided whether a recipe was good or not, and I said that I usually make my judgment based on the ingredients. When I say judgment I really mean that I am using my bias for or against certain ingredients in determining whether a recipe is good (like in preferring to use butter instead of vegetable shortening), but that judgment is also based on experience. Through experience I have definitely become a more capable cook. I am comfortable substituting the listed ingredients of a recipe with my own, even in baking. For example, I can take a muffin recipe that calls for wheat flour and make it gluten-free by using other types of flours like buckwheat (which is not a wheat at all), rice flour, amaranth, or some other type of milled seed or grain. I have successfully made crème brulee, apple tarte tatin, ice cream, jams and pickles (my latest conquest is tomato salsa; made for the first time this year). But there is so much more that I want to try my hand at.
I suppose that being able to read a recipe and transform it into a meal takes a certain kind of literacy, and although I am now much more recipe literate, I still benefit from watching and then repeating. There was a time not too long ago when “easy as pie” was pretty daunting to me. I found the crust recipe intimidating (why, I couldn’t really tell you) and the instructions baffling, so to solve my problem I used ready-made crusts instead. But then one day, after I moved into a place that had the Food Network in its cable package, I watched Anna Olsen make pie on her show Sugar (this was before she became the spokes-person for Splenda). After watching and listening, pie crust making instructions started to make sense. It wasn’t that much later that I tried it, and if I may say so, I now make a mean all butter pie crust.
I sometimes think that it would be cool to learn to cook from someone the likes of Mrs. Patmore on Downton Abbey, or to run off to France to be an apprentice in a patisserie. Better yet, I wished I had paid attention to my grandmother’s baking and cooking, but that’s a story for another time. For now, I’ll keep up with my culinary self-education and recipe literacy by consulting the internet and my circle of “cooks” and market folks, and by learning through trial, error, and experimentation. There is many a culinary learning adventure waiting for me out there, but also right here in my own kitchen. I dare say the same is true for you, dear reader.