I was in my favorite bookstore back when that was a thing to do, when I came face to face with my past.
There on the shelf was a brand-new, reissued copy of the cookbook my brother and I had as children, “Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls.” I paged through it with a sense of wonder, a sense of delight and, if I’m going to be totally honest, a slight sense of dread.
There were all of the old recipes, just as I remembered them — or rather, as I didn’t remember them until I opened the book again: Eskimo Igloo Cake (“the Eskimo has his igloo, but no cake like this”); Wheaties Ting-A-Lings (Wheaties cereal mixed with melted chocolate); the vaguely suggestive Candle Salad (“It’s better than a real candle, because you can eat it”).
Meanwhile, I also recently received a brand new cookbook for kids, “My First Cookbook,” by America’s Test Kitchen. The cover promises “Fun recipes to cook together … with as much mixing, rolling, scrunching and squishing as possible.”
This one is different. It has recipes for Pork Dumplings for Chinese New Year. Egyptian Spice Cookies for Eid. Karanji for Diwali.
I am a more or less a professional food writer. I did not know what karanji are. Fortunately, the book helpfully explains “karanji are sweet or savory dumplings that are typically fried.”
Those examples all came from a chapter devoted to holidays and celebrations. The chapter also includes more pedestrian fare, such as Easy Biscuits for Thanksgiving and Peppermint Bark for Christmas.
But other recipes are equally exotic. Rice Noodle Bowls with Peanut Sauce, for instance. Mango Lassi Popsicles.
The difference between the two books is startling. The book I grew up with had recipes for something called “Chili Concoction,” which is basically a slightly underflavored chili. “You serve this in bowls and eat it with a spoon and you never tasted such good chili,” the book states helpfully, if ungrammatically.
Meanwhile, the America’s Test Kitchen cookbook has a recipe for Kale Salad with Maple-Balsamic Dressing.
What’s going on here? Are kids these days eating and cooking better than my generation did more than 50 years ago?
It looks like it.
The recipe the 7-year-old me made most often out of the Betty Crocker book was for perfectly serviceable french toast. It was two beaten eggs, half a cup of milk, a quarter-teaspoon of salt and six slices of stale bread cooked in butter or bacon fat on a hot pan.
The Test Kitchen version adds vanilla extract, brown sugar, cinnamon and melted butter to the egg mixture and broils the slices on a greased baking sheet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Betty Crocker version did not shy away from recommending Betty Crocker products or others made by corporate owner General Mills. The recipe for Ice Cream Cone Cakes is, in its entirety, a box of Betty Crocker cake mix cooked in ice cream cones and topped with Betty Crocker frosting mix.
But children making the new book’s Chocolate Glazed Cupcakes actually make their own cupcakes from scratch and frost them with a glaze made from melted chocolate chips and butter. And they make Baked Macaroni and Cheese from scratch. And they make Peach Raspberry Crisp for dessert.
I am impressed, if not a little intimidated by the 7-year-olds of today. If they are whipping up Sheet Pan Barbecue Chicken and Broccoli now, imagine what they’ll be cooking in 20 years.