Is It Time to Revive Home Economics Classes?

February 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

In a previous post, “Two Web Sites Sharing Big, Bold, Innovative Ideas,” I discussed TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.  As I type this, the TED2010 Conference is taking place in California where it has been announced that chef Jamie Oliver is this year’s TEDPrize Winner.  As the winner, he receives $100,000 and gets to make “One Wish to Change the World,” which the TED community then works together to support and help make come true.  Jamie Oliver’s wish: “I wish for your help to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.”  TED has already posted the video of Jamie Oliver’s compelling talk in which he “makes the case for an all-out assault on our ignorance of food.”  Watch it.

This is serious business.  The TEDPrize is awarded to an “exceptional individual” who stands out among hundreds of other exceptional individuals and who has a wish that’s “big enough to change the world.”  That this year’s prize has gone to an individual who is passionately fighting to bring our attention to what we’re eating and what we’re feeding our children, and who is taking concrete action to change our habits, well it says something.  It says we’ve got a problem, and if we don’t do something about it, soon, it will only get much worse.  We have an obesity rate and incidence of diabetes at historical highs, both of which have far-reaching consequences.  As Jamie Oliver explains in his TED talk: today’s children are destined to have a shorter life span than their parents; the majority of the people in this country will die of diet-related diseases; and the costs of these diseases amount to 10% of America’s annual health care bill ($150 billion), a number which is set to double in ten years.  And it’s not just America.  Jamie Oliver’s food crusade began in England and he acknowledges that many other countries are not far behind.  Cleverly, he suggests that if America takes the lead to address the problem, these other countries will follow.

Let me start by saying that I am most certainly not the world’s greatest cook.  My  brother is a better cook than me (of which I am both proud and mildly embarrassed).  I cook a few things well.  And I cook slowly, much to the chagrin of one ex-boyfriend.  But when I do cook, I enjoy it (you can’t eat out or take in every night).  I love food.  I love good food.  I’ve gotta cook.

I grew up in a house where cooking was a daily activity, with the exception of Friday, which was “pizza night,” and Monday, which was “stew night.”  I  still do not consider stew “cooking” or edible, but that’s my issue.  Sunday’s roast, however, well that was another story … I loved that.

It never dawned on me that people, a large number of people, simply do not know how to do it.  Do not know how to scramble an egg or cook some pasta and top it with some tomato sauce (even out of a jar) or broil a pork chop and steam some carrots.  This is in no way meant as a criticism.  I find it confounding because to me cooking is a basic life skill that every adult would naturally possess, like knowing how to swim.  How could you not?

And that is the question … how can one survive and not know how to cook?  Of course the answer is that it’s all too easy in a world full of fast food restaurants (McDonald’s should be the exception not the rule) and prepared food (if you don’t recognize the ingredients, as Michael Pollan says, it’s probably not food).

What I’ve not known how to cook, I know my mother does, or my friend Mary.  So I pick up the telephone in some emergency state or another (my sauce isn’t thickening or my pie crust is crumbling, what do I do?) and get an answer.  Today, the Internet is almost as good – do you know how many recipes are out there, for free?  What I find hard to grasp is not knowing to even ask the question.  For all of the information that’s available, the message doesn’t seem to have gotten through.

Almost as important as the food we eat is manner in which we eat it.  I believe something is lacking in our culture in which food has become cheap, fast, disposable.  The sensual nature of food, the rituals created around the preparation and eating of food, are disappearing.  I find that to be a sad thing.

So here’s something radical.  Maybe it’s time to bring back the old high school course, Home Economics, and not just for teenage girls … guys need to eat too.  When I attended high school, it was deemed an easy course – one to take to balance the rigors of Algebra and History – but that was because so many of us already knew how to boil and mash the potatoes, cook the broccoli, and bake chocolate chip cookies “from scratch,” not to mention sew a straight seam on a sewing machine and crochet a hat or two.  You could get through the class “with your eyes closed.”  And not only bring it back, but change the perception of it to something of real value.  Teach the basics of nutrition (the fruit and vegetable aisle is a good thing, you’ll like it) and how to read food labels (any bad stuff in the top four, put it back on the shelf).  Teach the pleasure of cooking and eating real food.  Make it mandatory.  That would do it.  It wouldn’t solve all of our problems when it comes to food and weight, but it would be a start.  As Jamie Oliver said towards the end of his talk:

Under the circumstances, it’s profoundly important that every single American child  leaves school knowing how to cook 10 recipes that will save their lives … life skills.

Eat well.


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