Home ec revisited

I was something of a tomboy growing up and didn’t pay much attention to anything I considered girlie.

I did however learn how to cook, sew and (later) type. At school. In the 1980s. Home economics was not optional in my elementary school. The Grade 7-8 girls did home ec; the boys did shop. (There may have been a few cross-over types but it was generally frowned upon.)

I remember burning a lot of things in the oven, and making a horrid floral blouse that I never wore (it was stiff and prissy and I’m pretty sure it’s the reason that to this day I almost never wear collared shirts or floral prints).  I spent most of the time being sarcastic about it all, irritated that sexist stereotypes were being perpetuated in school and figuring I’d never use the skills I learned. Home ec was for housewives, and that was not something I imagined ever wanting to be.

Fast forward some 25 years, and I type (for work) and cook (for pleasure—and family) everyday— with the occasional sewing project thrown in on special occasions.

I wouldn’t wish my old home ec class on anyone—especially divided by gender—but the idea of having such practical skills incorporated into school life sounds amazing, even essential, to me. Especially the cooking part.

Lamenting the loss of food skills in our culture has become a cliched refrain, but it’s also absolutely correct. Industrial food culture, of course, encourages this de-skilling—how else to sell more Big Macs, frozen chicken nuggets and Lite Delite Dinners? And the worst part of all is the impact it’s had on our health—and the health of our children.

There are some schools out there still offering cooking classes—often combined with their school gardens–though not many in my part of the world. In Britain, however, after years of campaigning by interested teachers and parents, “cookery” was finally added to the curriculum for 11-14 year olds. Advocates successfully argued that one of the largest barriers to good health is a lack of cooking skills.

But according to Jackie’s School Food Blog, the new Secretary of Education is doing a curriculum revamp and is likely to get rid of compulsory cookery. (Sustain is running a campaign called Keep Kids Cooking to pressure the government to maintain it.)

Squandering this resource is an astonishingly shortsighted thing to do when health and food are so much at top of mind for people around the world.

Just last year, in fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association even weighed in, publishing a editorial that urged American educators to “Bring Back Home Economics Education.” Not some retrograde version of my gendered home ec class, but curriculum for boys and girls focused on basic principles about feeding yourself and your family, complete with practical lessons, field trips and demonstrations.

I can’t believe I’m saying this considering my own resistance to home ec, but in our contemporary food culture, teaching kids to cook could be one of the most radical moves of all.

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