Back to school Britain! Or maybe just the kitchen?

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.

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30 thoughts on “Back to school Britain! Or maybe just the kitchen?

  1. kibbled says:

    There is at least one generation lost
    to the art and understanding of cooking. Unfortunately this lost generation can not teach the next so it is vital that schools pick up the reins. As ever it is about education.

  2. themamadiary says:

    perfect timing for me to read this! tomorrow is my first day of post-grad michaelmas term. the optional home economics class is the american version of public school kitchen education, which i flat out refused to take during my primary and secondary schooling. what was better? lectures about home domestication or self-taught frying lessons at home that led to a kitchen fire?

  3. I agree! Food Technology was good fun but it wasn’t really that useful. Our coursework revolved around baking healthy cakes and the exam was mainly on bread.

    I do think schools are getting better, or at least my old school seems to be. The lessons seem much more relevant for learning home cooking skills.

    This was a good read! Really made me think. :) Thanks!

  4. @Lily in the Nova – bread, of course! the other “staple” item to learn to make…because nobody has a bread-maker these days, much as I love oven-baked bread. I agree that schools are getting better though, I hope they keep moving in the right direction.

    @themamadiary – doesn’t sound much better on your side of the world!

  5. So true. I believe the eating habits we are teaching our children right now are as dangerous to them as cigarettes.

  6. shesellzseeShellz says:

    This is the path to failure a nation takes, I am afraid.

  7. ^ quite possibly – which is why we must do something about it. Cooking should be fun and I remember really looking forward to my food technology lessons (excluding the evaluations and silly star charts) but we could do so much more. Even labels at supermarkets teach kids more

  8. I’m from the US and I didn’t learn to cook in school or anything because it was an elective. I didn’t even really learn to cook until my second year at university and I didn’t discover the joys of baking until recently. Don’t get me wrong, I baked every year and cooked just as often, but I love it now. I wish my schools had taught me how to cook and bake and what not. They need to teach us how to cook for one person and for a family. While I’ve been studying abroad, I cook for a family and invite friends over. Cooking for others is my favorite hobby. :D

  9. wow, that’s terrible that you didn’t even get to enjoy cooking at school. My mum is a primary school teacher and they just love to make cupcakes, bread, anything! Great that you got stuck into it and that you pass it on :) Simple, fundamental skills and knowledge about food would allow us to make much better and more-informed choices

  10. Rai says:

    I kind of like to learn about cooking by cooking.

  11. I think it’s a mixture of school and culture. I did cooking at school and loved it, but also my dad was a baker, so good (as in wholesome) food was big in our house. He came from Poland and so I had strong flavours from a young age, garlic sausage,lebkuuchen but also we always sat at the table to eat. Make eating an occasion!

  12. HannahDavis says:

    I’m also from the US and never cooked/baked at school. We had to take a class called Home Economics in high school, but it was more along the lines of the teacher explaining things like “OK ya’ll, this is a tablespoon and this is a teaspoon” and “this is called a thimble, and it goes on your finger when you sew.” In consequence I am woefully lacking in culinary skills, although my mom did teach me the basics so I know how to get by and have at least a little variety. I wish we’d had classes where we cooked and baked… that sounds fun!

  13. ashanam says:

    You may be lucky over in the UK. I have never cooked anything at school in my life other that wontons at my 6th grade teacher’s wild end of the year party on the last day of school. The high school where I teach has neither health nor food technology classes. The only source of health information for kids at school is science and PhysEd–where it can be squeezed into the required curriculum, which is probably not much. Our students probably think milk is made in factories.

  14. pezcita says:

    Great post! I agree that cooking classes are an important part of education. We call them “home ec classes” here, but being home-schooled and having a mom who didn’t like to cook, I never actually took one. Luckily, I had a desire to learn to cook and went to Dad and Grandma for an education in the basics. I still don’t like to cook main course (waiting for food is irritating when you’re hungry) but I’ll bake any day. I can even bake a pie! http://pezcita.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/ice-cream-cone-cookies/

  15. @Rai – the perfect way! mistakes only make it more fun i think, especially with friends.
    @Gingerbreadcafe – mm sounds some lovely memories – i love mixing cultural influences of food in my cooking, especially from friends and family
    @HannahDavis – that sounds so lecture-like! When cooking is such a hands on subject that just doesn’t satisfy does it?? Good for you for taking the challenge on!
    @ashanam – fancy starting the first cookery club? ;p but seriously, it’s an idea that will catch on with your students I promise. The one at my local school flared like an Australian wildfire.
    @pezcita – thanks for the link :)

  16. My food tech was middle aged with a ratty frame, she wasn’t that nice and would get so angry if we took a bite out of our biscuits,! Her name was even related to food…

  17. I’ve found a love of cooking now that I’m independent. I think for me, I needed to have the freedom to spend time researching dishes and choosing to cook for myself because I wanted to.

  18. Oh absolutely; cooking is a form of expression. But schools can cultivate an interest and they don’t have to teach what to cook, they just need to deliver the basic skills so chuldren and adults can engage with cooking and decide where they want to go from there. It’s giving people equal opportunity to develop and better themselves and others.

  19. asoulwalker says:

    Congratulations on being freshly pressed. That schools fail at something you should learn at home is not really surprising…

  20. sylviag11 says:

    I was never actaully “taught” how to cook (unless you count the phone calls I made to my mom at work asking how to peel a chicken or how to cook rice), so I had to rely on recipes and anything I picked up from watching my mom cook. Today I dance around the kitchen tossing ingredients together and coming up with some pretty tasty concotions. Learning to cook is a matter of initiative and unfortunately some people just lack the initiative. (I believe the first thing I ever cooked – not including sandwiches – was rice crispy treats probably when I was about ten.)

  21. THIS IS A VERY INTERESTING TAKE ON BRITISH COOKING. HAVE SHARED IT ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE. Like poetry on cooking? We’ve done some at http://www.ourpoetrycorner.wordpress.com! Come and see!

  22. writerdood says:

    I was never taught how to cook either. At all. When I was about thirteen, I started cooking on my own. Why? Because my parents moved us out to the country where there were NO Chinese restaurants. The closest one was sixty miles away, and the food tasted like Chung King out of a can. (I think it was). Seeing as Chinese food was my favorite, I had no choice but to buy a wok and start experimenting. After a year of trial and error, I started getting pretty good at some of the dishes. Chow mein, of course, was the first one. From there I moved on to beef and brockley and orange chicken, and sesame chicken, and many others. Later, when I got older, I started in with sushi.

    So, in one regard, (at least for me), it was the proximity to restaurants that made the difference. Not having the restaurants was a great motive to learn. But school? Nah. Never learned a thing about cooking. It wasn’t even an option.

  23. heycrin says:

    I work at the company that carried out that UK survey about parsnips growing on trees. I find out some really depressing stuff believe me! haha. Congrats on Freshly Pressed x

  24. I’m in the US, but we have the same problems, if not worse in large cities.

    I’m absolutely an advocate of mandatory cooking and nutrition classes, but things that actually *teach you to cook* not just cooking theory or history. Things that will actually help you in life.

    Maybe if enough of us realize the problem things will finally start to change?

  25. brookenado says:

    Great read, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed! As Creative Metaphor said above; in the U.S. there aren’t really any cooking or home economic type classes offered in public schools anymore. Nutrition is a topic only lightly touched on as well.

    I feel quite lucky that my mom is a good cook and took the time to help my siblings and I learn, and I absolutely love to cook and bake! I feel like cooking and baking is a great way to instill confidence, creativity, and can be a fun or relaxing activity. Hopefully more people will read your post and find ways to integrate such an essential skill (the actual doing bit) into schools and their lives in general! Cheers :)

  26. Good post – I went to school some time ago, not divulging how long ago but we did home economics, our teacher was scary! We learned about how to plan meals as well as cook them. Part of the dietetic degree involves being able to cook, but I did most of my learning cooking my own meals – much tastier and cheaper than ready meals. cooking for yourself is cheaper and everyone should know the basics about what is in their food. People’s nutrition will improve as a consequence.

  27. Michele LMS says:

    Love your writing style! . . . And wonderful message!

    http://arabianmusings.wordpress.com/

  28. You’re right. I don’t remember learning anything about cooking at school, or for some time after. The way I learned to cook (to the extent that I can) was sharing cooking duties with friends when we were at university. They were all lefty vegetarians so when it came my turn I had to come up with something filling, tasty, meat-free and cheap. Habits learned early tend to stick with you and pulses, grains and vegetables are still my staple ingredients. Don’t let anyone ever say they can’t afford to eat healthily – you certainly can!

  29. bellope says:

    It’s like we’ve never cared so much for cooking, but still the food-culture around the world is worse than ever, more fastfood and more snacks. Nice post.

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