by Kit Bakke, author of Miss Alcottt's Email
I took Home Economics in ninth and tenth grades, in the very early 1960s. One year was required, but I liked it and took two years. It was very hands-on — cooking, baking, sewing, mending, setting the table, writing a thank you note. Our teacher visited all her students’ homes, telling us to brew and serve her tea, all the while engaging in gracious social conversation. I was nervous and stewed the tea into bitter, tannic awfulness.
Home Ec classes are mostly gone and, surveys tell us, so are home cooking and family dinners. Is cause and effect at work here? Is the absence of Home Ec the causing the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes? Perhaps also the decline of parenting skills and western civilization in general? Unlikely, but still. . .
Cooking and good nutrition came to my attention this week in the same way that when you name your baby Olivia you immediately meet dozens of other parents with an Olivia of their own. Suddenly my week was filled with references to people working to improve our nutritional knowledge and eating behaviors.
I belong to the Washington Women’s Foundation, a Seattle-based foundation that educates women to be responsible philanthropists as we give away $500,000 each year. We recently had a discussion about food in schools and read about Ann Cooper’s Lunch Box Project. The project provides broad resources for parents, kids, school administrators and kitchen staff — recipes, cost breakdowns, best practices (such as Michigan’s work to make it easier for schools to buy from local farmers) and more — all designed to help schools and parents provide healthy food for all children.
Later in the week, I learned that our county United Way has paid for coolers to be installed in “minimart” food stores so they can sell fresh fruits and vegetables in Seattle neighborhoods without convenient access to large grocery stores. Then a friend emailed me a New York Times article about British chef Jamie Oliver. I’ve been a Jamie fan since his extremely cute Naked Chef days, and have admired even more his growing engagement with community problem-solving. First he developed a food service training program for street kids in London — now a multimillion dollar foundation that turns out skilled restaurant chefs on a regular basis. His first restaurant staffed with these kids — Fifteen, in London — is superb and has been replicated in Cornwall (near Newquay), Melbourne and Amsterdam.
Then Oliver took on the London school lunch program, as abysmal as many in the U.S. With his introduction of healthy foods and scratch recipes, the kids showed statistically reduced rates of asthma attacks, less manic behavior and better concentration. Next he tackled an entire community — a town in northern England with high rates of poverty and obesity. He built a community center and taught people to buy, cook, and eat fresh, inexpensive foods — skills they apparently didn’t have a chance to learn in Home Ec. The idea of cooking a meal and eating it together as a family was new to them; one told Oliver that she thought only rich people ate that way. He is now in the U.S., spreading the same message: good food is available, it’s easy to cook, it’s fun to eat and it’s good for your family.
All these efforts remind me of Jane Addams and the settlement house movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Women arrived in American cities from farms in Poland or Italy or Russia and had to cope not only with a new language, but with different foods, food sources and cooking tools. It was difficult to learn what was nutritious and what wasn’t, and how to prepare it safely and deliciously. Settlement houses like Hull House taught immigrant women to provide good and safe food for their families in a foreign and often treacherous environment. New organizations now assist our more contemporary immigrants.
Most of us don’t face a language hurdle, but (dare I say it?) without Home Ec, we are as helpless as foreigners in our own land for all we know about healthy home cooking. The prepared food industry works hard to convince us that cooking is tricky and time-consuming, and it bombards our taste buds with so much sugar that we’ve forgotten how to appreciate a ripe tomato or a crisp apple.
My apologies for sliding into a rant. What I’m really trying to say is that historic skills are still valuable and that there is great pleasure and benefit to discovering the lessons of the past. Enough said.