TITLE: Dumbing Down Recipes AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 25, 2006 10:12 AM DESC: ----- BODY: As a part of seeing my wife and daughters off to Italy, I cooked a few special meals for them on Sunday and Monday. One friend suggested that I needn't have bothered, because they will encounter much better food in Italy, but I think that an unusual meal prepared by Dad is still a nice treat -- and my wife loved not having to think about any meals for the last couple of days of packing and preparing. Besides, I'm not too shabby in the kitchen. I like to cook. I'm not an accomplished chef, or anything of the sort, just an amateur who like to work in the kitchen and try new things. While blanching asparagus for my last and finest effort of the weekend, I remembered an article that ran in our local paper last March under the headline Cookbooks simplify terms as kitchen skills dwindle. It discusses the dumbing down of cookbooks over the last couple of decades because Americans no longer know the common vocabulary of the kitchen. These days, recipes tend not to use words like "blanch", "dredge", or even "saute", "fold", and "braise", for fear that the casual reader won't have any idea what they mean. Cookbooks that buck the trend must provide detailed glossaries that explain what used to be standard techniques. In some ways, this is merely a cultural change. People generally don't spend as much time cooking full meals or from scratch these days, and women in particular are less likely than their mothers to carry forward the previous generation's traditional culinary knowledge. That may not be a good or bad thing, just a difference borne out of technology and society. The article even implicates the digital computer, claiming that because kids grow up with computers these days they expect everything, even their cooking, to be fast. Who knew that our computers were partly responsible for the dumbing down of America's kitchen? I sometimes think about connections between cooking and programming, and between recipes and programs. Most folks execute recipes, not create them, so we may not be able to learn much about how learning to programming from learning to cook. But the dumbing down of cooking vocabulary is a neat example for how programs work. When a recipe says to "fold" an ingredient into a mixture, it's similar to making a procedure call. Describing this process using different terms does not change the process, only the primitives used to describe the process. This focus on process, description, and abstraction is something that we computer scientists know and think a lot about. In a more general teaching vein, I chuckled in my empathy for this cookbook editor:
"Thirty years ago, a recipe would say, 'Add two eggs,'" said Bonnie Slotnick, a longtime cookbook editor and owner of a rare-cookbook shop in New York's Greenwich Village. "In the '80s, that was changed to 'beat two eggs until lightly mixed.' By the '90s, you had to write, 'In a small bowl, using a fork, beat two eggs,'" she said. "We joke that the next step will be, 'Using your right hand, pick up a fork and...' "
Students probably feel that way about programming, but I sometimes feel that way about my students... ... which bring me back to my day job. I have reason to think about such issues as I prepare to teach CS 1 for the first time in a decade or so. Selecting a textbook is a particular challenge. How much will students read? What kinds of things will they read. How well can they read? That seems like an odd question to ask of college freshmen, but I do wonder about the technical reading ability of the average student who has questionable background in math and science but wants to "program computer games" or "work with computers". Colleagues complain about what they see as a dumbing down of textbooks, which grow in size, with more and more elaborate examples, while in many ways expecting less. Is this sort of text what students really need? In the end, what I think they really need are a good language reference and lots of good examples to follow, both in the practice of programming and in the programs themselves. It's our job to teach them how to read a language reference and programs. My selection of a CS 1 textbook is complicated by the particular politics of the first year curriculum in my department. I need something that feels traditional enough not to alienate faculty who are skeptical of OO, but true enough to OO that Java doesn't feel like an unnecessary burden to students. blanching vegetables Postscript: Many recipes require that vegetables be blanched -- scalded in boiling water a short time -- before being added to a dish. Blanching stops the enzyme action, which allows them to stay crisp and retain their color and flavor. Here is a simple how-to for blanching. I didn't lear this from my mom or any of the cooks in my family (including my dad); I learned it the old-fashioned way: I ran into the term in a recipe, I wanted to know what it meant, so I looked it up in the cookbook. If we could give our programming students the right sort of reference for looking up the terms and ideas they encounter, we would be doing well. Of course, some students of programming will be like some students of cooking and try to fake it. I don't recommend faking the blanching of asparagus -- it's a temperamental vegetable! -----