Monday, October 19, 2009


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.


  1. Two of my favorite memories -- really, virtual memories, as I wasn't there for either -- are the Valentine's Day meal my older son (28) cooked for the woman who is now his fiancée, and the Christmas Eve dinner my younger son (26) cooked for my husband on his way to our new home in Texas. Both meals were accomplished with skills they learned in 8th grade Home Ec. And even though I still have the napkin holder and the doll chair they made me in Shop Class, I think their cooking skills take the prize.

  2. Home Ec was great. I took it in 7th and 8th grade, and also n high school (where it was an after school program taught by a former southern belle who always wore pearls and taught manners along with how to make a proper omelet for one.) I'm not so sure about the cause and effect relationship between family dinners, lack of obesity and home ec, tho altho it is intriging... My husband took Home Ec (aka 'Boys Foods' at his high school) and went on to work his way thru college largely thanks to jobs in food service. Our kids love to cook AND eat, and we all have to watch our weight constantly as food-related activities are often what we choose to engage in for family 'quality time'.

  3. My Mom was a Home Ec teacher while we were growing up (she later became a family therapist - from which she has just retired) and taught all four of us to cook, sew and clean almost as soon as we could sit up on a kitchen counter and 'help'. Home-cooking and family meals are still the norm in our family - but I recently became aware that what has gone by the wayside is teaching our own kids how to do all these things. Earlier this month, my 13 year old daughter asked to help make her own birthday cake as a special treat -- and I realized that while it takes time to help and encourage our kids to cook - rather than throwing something together ourselves -- it is a legacy we need to make the time to pass on.