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The time: 5:50 p.m., dinner.

The place: Kitchens across America.

The incident: Improper use of a vegetable peeler.

The perpetrator: Typical "modern" cook who never learned the basics.

Have you heard the one about the woman who wanted high-altitude baking directions because she lived on the second floor of her building? Or about the guy who put lettuce and water in his salad spinner because it works kind of like a washing machine, right?

Those aren't jokes, unfortunately. They are real examples of what many food writers, cooking teachers, food manufacturers and marketers cite as a troubling downward trend in America's culinary literacy, from Tampa Bay to fabled San Francisco..

Thanks in part to what cookbook author Elaine Corn calls "a fast-food generation raising a fast-food generation," many Americans not only don't know how to mince, julienne or saute, they sometimes don't know how to boil water.

"Literally, we get that question," says Judith Ets-Hokin, who has taught cooking for the past 20 years: " "How do you know when the water is boiling?' "

San Francisco cooking teacher Mary Risley tells of a neighbor who fetches coffee from a nearby cafe when guests visit because she doesn't know how to make it herself; another says she sometimes has to show adults how to use a vegetable peeler.

Even at one of Tampa Bay's gourmet headquarters, Williams-Sonoma in Hyde Park, the mention of culinary illiteracy brings knowing laughter.

"A lot of women in my generation can't cook at all. I mean nothing," said manager Liza Adler-Kubik, whose store will start a series of very basic classes in August. "We just went straight from high school to college without learning how to cook. In my age group, in their 30s, it seems it's the men who know how."

Eva Putzer, a German-born chef who works at Williams-Sonoma, says the problem runs deep. "Even people in their 40s and 50s don't know how to cook ," she said. Yet Putzer pointed out that those who don't know demand extremely exact and detailed instructions when she shows how to make a dish, reflecting their fear.

Corn remembers watching a beginning cooking class in which one of the recipes was lamb curry. "The instructor says, "All you do is saute this chopped onion,' and that's where everyone freezes, because they can't hold a knife and they can't chop an onion. I don't think people realize just how "beginner' a beginner is."

But the extent of the problem is increasingly apparent to people who communicate about food for a living. Cookbook authors, food magazine editors and the test kitchen directors who put recipes on the back of food packages say they are having to streamline and "dumb down" their recipes, using simpler language to explain procedures that most home cooks used to understand.

Sensing a niche, publishers recently have introduced a small flurry of cookbooks aimed at beginning cooks _ among them, Corn's Now You're Cooking: Everything a Beginner Needs to Know to Start Cooking Today.

In a world of drive-through and home-delivered convenience, no one starves for lack of cooking knowledge. But concerned food writers and others say the problem can have serious consequences.

People who don't know how to cook are at the mercy of restaurants, deli counters and the nation's packaged-food manufacturers. They pay a high price for this convenience _ in dollars and in nutrition, given the high levels of fat and sodium in much processed food.

Some say the situation also takes a toll on families: When no one knows how to cook dinner, the dinner table ceases to be the place where parents establish traditions, teach manners, promote their culture and pass on their values.

Paradoxically, many of the people most ignorant about cooking are highly knowledgeable about food.

"I have friends who are savvy about food from dining out," says Lorelle del Matto, test kitchen manager for Fleischmann's yeast and Spice Islands spices. "They have sophisticated tastes and know a lot about different ethnic foods, but they don't know what's required to put it together."

Where did the knowledge go? Most observers say it simply failed to get passed down when women began entering the workforce in large numbers particularly after World War II. It was exacerbated by the arrival of frozen foods in the 1940s.

Many young adults today never saw their mothers (or fathers, for that matter) frying chicken, making a pie or even cooking fresh broccoli. Dinner came from cans and boxes or from restaurants.

(And now-popular foods, from fresh fish to fajitas, were not fixed at all in many homes even where the parents did cook.)

Others point to falling enrollment in home economics classes nationwide, because of academic reform and changing gender roles as well as lack of interest.

Around the country, declining math, reading and social studies scores have prompted many administrators to raise academic requirements and to eliminate electives. "You have to go out and find these students and tell them why they need these (home economics) courses," says Darlene Yoquelet, a national leader in the profession.

In Florida, the news is a bit better. The state has about 2,000 teachers in the field of "family and consumer sciences," which includes some food preparation and nutrition courses, among others. High school students must take one semester from this category or other business and industrial courses to fulfill a "practical arts" requirement.

Students of both genders take the classes in equal numbers, and interest is on the comeback, especially in smaller counties. And in larger counties like Pinellas, interest is stable enough to make supervisor Linda Smock optimistic.

"There is reason to hope," Smock said, but she points out that it's not what "home ec" used to be. Most courses stress nutrition, wellness and wise use of money and time, while a few concentrate in preparation or food chemistry for home cooks or those heading toward food service jobs.

"It's more making good choices, less cooking from scratch and less sewing; those will become more of an art form and leisure time activity. The focus is more "Do I choose Healthy Start or some other kind of frozen dinner to put in the microwave?' "

Consequently, when Smock sets up a high school classroom, she outfits it with a microwave, hot plate and induction oven, with a TV and computer close at hand, but she asks for a full traditional kitchen in adult education centers, where many people later turn for enrichment or household skills.

Plenty of adults need those skills, according to a food literacy test given to 735 adults; nearly 75 percent flunked.

"With all the fascination with food these days, people's ability to get a home-cooked meal on the table is still half-baked," according to Robin Kline, of the Pork Information Bureau, which commissioned the study. "People struggle with correct cooking measurements, ingredient substitutions and proper cooking techniques. Most find it difficult to hard-cook an egg and don't know how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon."

(The answers, by the way, are to place the whole egg in a pan of cold water and place on the heat until the water bubbles vigorously, then reduce the heat so the water simmers with tiny bubbles and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, and there are three teaspoons in a tablespoon.)

The situation weighs on professional recipe developers, whose ability to develop foolproof recipes is being sorely tested.

"One lady called and said, "Your angel food cake didn't work, and what's powdered sugar anyway?' " recalls Sharon Stilwell, test kitchen director for Better Homes & Gardens. "Another reader called me last week. She was making chocolate chip cookies and didn't have any baking soda. She asked what would happen if she left it out. We said, "They'll be flat and hard.' And she said, "Yep, they are.' "

Those who write recipes for a mass audience today realize they can take nothing for granted. Every detail is spelled out in basic language.

A Better Homes & Gardens cookbook from 1930 might have told readers to make an apple pie by combining sliced apples with enough sugar to sweeten them and then baking them into a two-crust pie. And a home cook would have known what to do, Stilwell says.

"Today we tell you step-by-step how to make the pastry, how to roll it out, how to fill it, how to trim it, how to put the top crust on, how to bake it and how to let it cool."

"I find it frustrating that my readership knows so little about cooking that I cannot say, "Blanch the beans.' You have to write it all out," says author Martha Rose Shulman.

At Sunset Magazine, food and entertaining editor Jerry Di Vecchio says "blanch" has been replaced by "immerse in boiling water for 30 seconds and drain," and "puree" has given way to the more descriptive "smoothly puree."

"We just are surprised every day at the number of things people don't understand anymore," says Marcia Copeland, of the Betty Crocker Kitchens in Minneapolis. They don't know what "dredge" means, or "knead," or how to separate an egg, says Copeland.

More sobering, Copeland says, is that they may not be able to read at all. With an estimated 22-million functionally illiterate Americans, manufacturers have begun to supplement text with graphics. Copeland says Betty Crocker cake mixes now have illustrations on the back showing the number of eggs and the amount of oil and water to add.

With so little knowledge and so few skills, how do some people get dinner on the table these days? In many cases, observers say, they are not so much cooking dinner as piecing it together. "They're assembly cooks," says Copeland. "They assemble dinner from a variety of food groups, and not the food groups nutritionists are talking about, but "frozen,' "take-home' and "deli.' And when we talk to consumers, we don't hear any guilt about that. They think of themselves as being very resourceful."

Some of the hottest food products today are convenience foods that allow consumers some involvement, says John Scroggins, editor of the Food Channel, an industry trend-tracker. Pizza kits and fajita kits that include everything but the fresh products let cooks feel as if they're actually making dinner from scratch. And maybe, by today's standards, they are.

The manufacturers argue that their recipes merely mirror reality _ the reality of cooks with few utensils to cook with, few ingredients in the pantry and a strong desire to get out of the kitchen quickly.

Four years ago, several firms surveyed consumers about their pantries and their cookware collections. The results, meant to guide test kitchen directors in developing recipes, were sobering.

"Nobody's got utensils anymore, nobody wants to use more than eight ingredients, and nobody wants to spend more than a half hour cooking," says Mary Ryan of the California Beef Council.

The well-stocked spice racks and pantries that characterized home kitchens 35 years ago are less common now and in some homes, apart from ketchup, the cupboard is nearly bare.

Better Homes & Gardens' Stilwell said a high-school teacher told her about a student who had missed home economics class and was asked to make up by making muffins at home. "The mother called the school, irate, because they didn't have flour and sugar at home," Stilwell says.

Amid the grim news are glimmers of hope. Enrollment is up at cooking schools nationwide, says the Food Channel's Scroggins.

At least one cooking teacher believes the pendulum is swinging back, as people start to take stock of what they're missing. "People are starting to say, "Where are my kids? I need to touch base; I need to come home.' It's not the '80s anymore," says Lauren Groveman, author of the recently published Lauren Groveman's Kitchen, a 500-page basic cookbook.

Regular mealtimes are part of the glue that holds families together, says Groveman, who is clearly targeting career women with her message. "I'm hoping that people will realize that life does not have to be an either/or thing," she says.

"You don't have to be either Betty Crocker or a high-powered business executive. You can cook to make yourself feel replenished and fortified."

Groveman, Corn and other food writers dispute the idea that people don't have time to cook. "I don't buy it," says Corn. "If you have time to surf the Internet, you have time to cook."

Groveman concurs: "If people would stop spending so much time trying to figure out how to get around it, they'd be surprised at how quickly they could put a good meal on the table.

"Sure you can purchase a nice roast chicken, but you can't purchase the anticipatory stuff. Half of the enjoyment happens before you get to the table, like the sound and scent of onions sauteing in olive oil. It's a sound of safety, a sound of somebody home, a sound that it IS a home."