Remember your domestic science teacher? The bubbly, voluptuous woman with cauliflower hair who cooed over your fruit scones and brushed over your kitchen uncleanliness with that red lip-sticked smile. No? Maybe you had one like mine then; middle-aged and ratty with a frame that suggested she’d never tasted home-cooking in her life. Or perhaps you are one of the food technology breed; I remember quitting it at year 9, leaving behind with some sorrow the two hours a week dedicated to making victoria sponges, fruit salads and um, eating our uncooked cookie batter.
Yes we all have memories of cooking at school. But how many of us actually learned anything useful? According to a recent survey, 20% of Britons think that parsnips grow on trees and that melons are grown in the ground. Worrying stuff. Perhaps more excusable is that the same amount have never heard of a King Edward or Marris Piper potato; to anyone who loves a good goose-fat roastie (yes, that’s all of you eat Christmas dinner or Sunday roasts) that is shocking but nevertheless, perhaps less fundamental than wrongly believing one can find an Granny Smith apple in the potato aisle…yes, 1 in 20 of our nation think you can.
So where did it all go wrong? Is it the international variety of our supermarkets have left our own parents flummoxed as to what food grows where and how? Was it our parents, not teaching us that carrots are a root vegetable and that oranges aren’t grown in the UK? Or was it our schooling, using food technology as a lesson designed to enhance our nutritional and culinary awareness but that in fact left us without the basics? Maybe even to blame are organisations like the Potato Council who believe us so dumbed down that they have come up with signs including “fluffy” and “salad” to help consumers pick the right potato. Surely it is a race to the bottom from here?
I remember friends taking their GCSE Food Technology exam; it was the only paper I recall reading “colouring pencils” under the you will need header. Ok, there may have been chopping boards to identify for different types of food but prior to GCSE, I’m not sure I actually learned anything useful. We did topics on cakes, healthy eating and general care and hygiene in the kitchen. Could I fry an egg by the end of year 9? Or plan and cook a family meal of spaghetti bolognese? Well yes, actually, because I learned at home. Knowing how to prevent the sinking of a victoria sponge or what kind of my healthy meal my school could serve for lunch is all very well but those tips don’t set you up well for home-cooking or living alone. Clearly, they don’t go very far in teaching us basic facts about food knowledge either.
Maybe it was just my school. I know of many very good cookery courses and I’m sure there are lots of schools offering informative and relevant programmes. The National Curriculum states that students should be aware of a nutritious and balanced diet; well that’s all very well if they can identify an apple from a potato and a parsnip from a shoe someone’s got stuck in a tree. What we need is not only more cooking in schools, but more culinary involvement for children from an early age, from helping them identify and enjoy their lunches to learning to bake and cook for enjoyment. Jamie Oliver has advocated for compulsory cooking and Let’s Get Cooking runs healthy cooking clubs across the country. It is not entirely our fault alone that British children are more distanced from food origin than perhaps developing countries where children are often involved in farming, agriculture and cooking. What is so frustrating is that we have the means to put it right. Food is not just a means of living but if we’re going to treat it as such, let’s at least try getting the facts right.