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Column - It's not too late to learn to cook

The other day, sister Mary asked me if I wanted a bunch of her many cookbooks. She is running out of room.

"Nope, I don't have room either," I said. "Why don't you give them to your kids?"

She scoffed.

"I know my kids," she said. "They wouldn't want a roomful of cookbooks, especially if they have a McDonald's next door."

By which Mary meant those kids, grown adults now, can't - or won't - cook. It's not that they were brought up on junk food - far from it.

One day, while visiting Mary, her daughter Aleah asked her where she could get a chicken breast.

"Duh!" Mary said. "Have you ever tried a grocery store?"

"What I meant is can I buy just one breast separately or do I have to buy the whole chicken?" Aleah said.

Another time, Aleah was hungry for an omelette, so Mary told her to go ahead and make one. She stared at the frying pan Mary gave her as if it was a piece of space junk fallen from the sky. Then she stood at the stove for a small eternity, waiting for the pre-heat light to blink, which of course it doesn't. An exasperated Mary talked her through the omelette process, and it turned out fine.

"Oh, those kids!" Mary seethed between gritted teeth. "They can't eat without a steering wheel in front of them! How did they get so dumb?"

Actually, they are all intelligent - well, in just about everything but cooking, that is, although one of them, Shane, has shown some stovetop promise.

So many people I know are superb cooks. It's no wonder their children grew up to be clueless at cooking. They never had to learn how. Instead, day after day they enjoyed their parents' gourmet meals. It's the same way I don't know a hubcap from a carburetor. Dad was an auto mechanic. No need to learn.

It's not just clueless kids, either. Lots of parents, partly because of busy lives (at least that's their excuse) buy pre-cooked or boxed dinners for their families. Some families rarely, if ever, sit down for a meal together. When they're hungry (or bored), they dash off to the freezer and then microwave boxed foods. Recently, I talked to the membership manager of Sam's Club, which just opened in Sartell. One of their new features, he said, is complete heat-and-serve meals. It was a strong demand from mothers, he said, that launched the service.

This fast-food lifestyle is a shame. Home cooking and enjoying meals together is one of the ways families develop healthy bonds. It's the American way, like the famous Norman Rockwell painting of the happy family around the table ready to enjoy the "perfect" Thanksgiving dinner. If Rockwell were alive and painting today, he'd probably grace a magazine cover with a living room full of slouchy couch potatoes, oblivious of one another in the flickering TV light, chowing down potato chips, pizza and TV dinners.

There is hope, however. It's never too late to learn to cook. I know some adults who never cooked; they didn't know how. They have since learned, and some of them are very good. Some, like Mary, are extremely good. But when it comes to kids, she shouldn't talk. Thirty years ago she didn't know how to boil water. One day, to impress her boyfriend, she attempted to make lasagna. I told her how. Instead of putting in one clove of garlic, she put the whole garlic bulb in the sauce - all 12 or so cloves.

"How did it taste?" I asked, laughing.

"It was really garlicky," she said. "But we ate it. We were really hungry."

Ah yes, boys and girls, live and learn...

Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at