Term Paper: Mckibben's "Age of Missing Information

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¶ … McKibben's book the Age of Missing Information

The missing ingredient of PBS: Applying the Age of Missing Information to educational broadcasting

In some ways, I knew, it would be very easy to satirize modern American culture when completing this assignment. In Bill McKibben's book the Age of Missing Information, the author seems to approach his topic with a rather deliberately ironic, although very well-intentioned aim, to show that watching television provides less information than simply living in the woods. The apparently fast pace of television information, and its diversity of content, pales in comparison with what can be taught living a simpler life in harmony with nature. To demonstrate his seemingly obvious agenda and thesis, McKibben condemns himself to a monumental and unpleasant task -- namely watching hours upon hours of television, a dire occupation in comparison to the joy this environmentalist receives when he is camping and roughing it in the pure Adirondacks.

A could, I realize, have simply watched the Jerry Springer show, or some other proudly worthless, mind-numbing T.V. But it would be fairer, I decided, to watch an educational program that is deliberately designed to instruct the American public. I also thought that this type of program would give me a more fair assessment of the value of television, and perhaps exhibit content that was dissimilar to the reams of schlock, alternated with advertising, observed by McKibben.

On Sunday, in the interest of self-education, I decided to watch PBS, rather than cable or network television. I flicked the switch randomly, having decided not to plan the show, merely the time I would watch -- Sunday afternoon on April 13, 2008. When I saw that a cooking show called "America's Test Kitchen" was airing I couldn't help but smile. Educational programs were one of the few things I was permitted to watch, when I was home from school. (My parents, no doubt correctly, realized that if they allowed me to watch cartoons and game shows, and play video games, I might decide I was 'sick' more often). PBS often airs cooking shows, and along with documentaries on history and nature. One would think such shows are valuable or useful than, for example, "The View." Also, even McKibben at his most sarcastic, when making fun of an advertisement for Jimmy Dean sausages, notes that if you lived in the Adirondacks, you would actually need to know how to cook (McKibben 23).

The show I watched was entitled "Chicken in a Skillet," and promised to teach the viewer how to make easy, quick meals, all using ordinary chicken cutlet breasts. With "Pan-Roasted Chicken Breasts with Potatoes" I learned that the savvy home cook softens the potatoes in a microwave before cooking them with the chicken, to ensure speedy cooking. Also, I learned that it is important to check the size of the breasts before you cook them, as smaller breasts cook more quickly than large breasts. Thus it is better to use all the same-sized breasts, to avoid having one underdone breast and one overdone breast. A way of ensuring that the chicken is done is to use an instant-read thermometer.

A learned a new way to use Parmesan cheese when cooking chicken. The program showed the harried mother or father to make a variation on Chicken Parmesan, which usually features breaded chicken cutlets with melted mozzarella and Parmesan cheese and marinara sauce. Instead, the program showed the viewer how to make a breaded chicken breast with a rich, grated Parmesan cheese crust. The program pointed out that most Parmesan cheeses we get in the supermarket are not really 'authentic' Italian Parmesan cheese. This cheese can be used but is grittier and saltier, and does not make as good a crust. It is better to buy real, solid Parmesan cheese, not from a 'green can' and to grate it yourself. Also, it suggested that a blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano is best.

After watching the show, I decided that this was an interesting idea. I thought that a good test of the usefulness of the television program, since it was a 'how to' show, would be to see if I could do it myself. I had taken a few notes about oven temperatures and ingredients during the show, but looking down at my scrawled handwriting, and consulting my 'memory bank,' I realized that I had forgotten much more than I realized, like how the breading exactly was supposed to stick to the chicken. I wondered how people like my grandmother ever cooked from watching television shows like Julia Child, since at least I could download the recipe from the Internet. After doing so and equipping myself with a shopping list, I decided to go to the supermarket and get to work.

But even then, I ran into problems. The chicken breasts being sold in packages were of very different sizes. Never fear, I could just put them in the refrigerator and slice them into same-size pieces, like I was told by the program. However, I realized that there was no way I was paying for an expensive hunk of Parmesan cheese, as opposed to the cheap, generic kind in a can -- I just could not afford to buy not only the cheese and a sharp, new cheese grater. I eliminated some of the suggested seasoning ingredients from the recipe, like the chopped fresh chives, because I did not want to buy seasonings that were expensive, when I only needed a few teaspoons.

I was also worried that I did not have an oven thermometer to check the temperature of the chicken. Normally, I just cook chicken until it is really overdone, to avoid getting salmonella, or even more often, just get take-out. But overcooking would burn the Parmesan, a big no-no, according to the program. Then again, I wasn't going to buy more new appliances to cook what was supposed to be, according to the show, an "easy" chicken dish. (Who ever said that public television was free?)

When I got home, I ran into another problem. Unlike the heavy, nonstick skillets featured in the show, the frying pan I had was far smaller, and the chicken began smoking quickly, getting far hotter than it was supposed to, before it had cooked thoroughly. I realized that the burners on my stove did not have as many adjustments as the ones on television. The smoke alarm went off. I decided to cease my experiment before I burned down my house or injured myself.

Perhaps if someone was a more expert cook, they could have learned more from the show, or if someone had a fully-equipped kitchen, they could have gotten some real value from the experience of watching television. But this shows that even a relatively simple dish from a food show is hard to duplicate. I wondered why elaborately choreographed cooking programs have gotten so popular in recent dates, and why there is an entire cable network devoted to food programming. Surely not everyone can simply 'wing' (no pun intended) the chicken recipes they see -- many people must be watching who know they have no hope of even tasting the type of food they are seeing, much less learning how to cook it. I concluded that even PBS promises a kind of vicarious, rather than a real, lived experience, the type of experience that McKibben preaches against in his text.

I told a friend who knows how to cook. She actually does have a good pan and even an instant-read thermometer, and she offered to show me how to cook an easy skilled recipe with chicken with whatever I had on hand. (She did not have the 'best' instant-read thermometer, the brand recommended by the television show, however). She did not bread the chicken exactly like they… [END OF PREVIEW]

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