The New York Times published an op-ed by Helen Zoe Veit about bringing home economics back into the public school curriculum to combat obesity among young people. It’s one of those ideas good in theory. If kids learn to cook early, they will make responsible choices about what they put in their bodies.
Realistically, though? I think kids would be more excited about the example Veit gives about putting a hole in canned biscuits to make doughnuts. I was. (That’s essentially what Chinese doughnuts from the buffets are — deep-fried canned biscuits dipped in white sugar. You’re welcome, fellow fatties.) Why cloak such a good idea in fat shaming? Veit’s right about these courses being undervalued because of the gender associations of household cooking with women (specifically, domesticated women, whether housewives or hired help) and the whitewashing of time and marketing on food preparation innovations. People may not enjoy investing time in cooking; but it can be the difference between a $1 cheeseburger every day for a week, or a $7 bean soup lasting a few weeks. (Can of broth, bag of veggies, bag of beans, spices, and some rice if you’re fiesty. Prepare, eat, and take the leftovers to the freezer to store and reheat. You’re welcome, fellow frugal cooks.)
Can our schools do this? First of all, we need to evaluate if schools have the resources to accommodate home economics courses. Home ec requires appliances: dishwashers, ovens, microwaves, refrigerators. Home ec requires cookware and bakeware: pots, pans, dutch ovens, skillets, casserole dishes, cookie sheets, muffin pans. Utensils, plenty of tupperware or other plastic, and… what’s that other ingredient? Yes. FOOD. Some public schools barely can afford to heat and to cool the buildings properly. Outfitting them with full kitchens — multiple kitchens to accommodate overcrowded classes — will take major investment.
My high school — one of the few all-girl public high schools in the nation — had a home economics class. And yes, I took it. Sometimes we were encouraged to bring in our own ingredients for casseroles, and as a poor kid, I couldn’t always make that happen. It could be difficult watching your classmates pull out bags of fresh seafood across the room and make exquisite meals. Nevertheless, it was a great learning experience. I still wince at the time someone in our small cooperative forgot to add sugar to our first yellow cake. We had to eat everything we prepared — good tasting or bad tasting — so long as it was fully cooked.
But do I know my way around a kitchen? Yes. I can, at the very least, follow a recipe. I know how to properly measure wet and dry ingredients. Making things from scratch does not seem nearly as intimidating as it did before I took that high school course. We all learned to keep our hair tied back, we washed our hands religiously, and we were well-cautioned against cross-contamination of foods. We were schooled on what utensils were before we even entered the kitchen, and our lessons on how to spot botulism have followed me into adulthood.
I am not currently Suzy Homemaker, though. Cooking is a slow science. In our fast-paced society that has trained us for instantaneous results, cooking can be a slow crawl for kids who want something to eat when they want it. A crash course on proper food storage won’t be enough. Plus, there were moments where all of us in the classroom raised our eyebrows, such as the manners video. No one eats pizza with a knife and fork unless it is a massive, messy, well-layered, deep dish monstrosity of deliciousness. With extra sauce and pepperoni.
But I digress.
Who would be best for teaching these classes? Hospitality industry familiars, nutritionists, dietitians, and chefs, perhaps? The only way I could see these courses impacting people’s eating choices is if there’s someone installed in the kitchens who understands the importance of balancing diets and realizes deprivation and austerity do not result in healthy chow-down habits. Scaring kids with “if you don’t cook, you don’t eat” would send a lot of people into unhealthy binging and ridiculous eating schedules, and those are not conducive to healthy living at all.
Another positive side effect of home ec? You could transform it into a vocational enterprise for the school. Have kids make baked goods and sell them to the student body and local communities for a reduced price. Host district-wide competitions, or take them to existing ones. Team up with hospitality colleges to show kids who want to make a career out of it that it’s an option. Encourage the construction of a school garden for homegrown choices and pair it with biology curricula. The possibilities are endless to segue food preparation with healthy rewards for everyone. Investment is the key, as it is with every good idea for rebuilding communities and initiative in a floundering economic climate.
A potential negative is the politics of food. Cultural sensitivity around what to prepare, how, and the reasons why requires conscious teachers. There are healthy alternatives and techniques for every type of cuisine. While the French may have named virtually every cooking technique in the book, healthy and delicious soul food, techniques for making tamales, the secrets to a delicious and spicy teriyaki sauce, the filling properties of injera bread — all of these foods can open up the world to an America growing more and more close-minded in its worldview. Teaching the value of food substitution and culinary creativity goes a long way for feeding a new generation of experimental eaters.
In short, I am not completely down on Veit’s idea. The culinary industry is an important vocation. People do not like cooking at home all the time. Even home chefs who enjoy cooking like a reprieve from the kitchen. There is an open market for people who can prepare healthy, fresh and affordable foods and serve them safely. Bolstering home economics could be a valuable opportunity to take advantage of the glamor television shows like Hell’s Kitchen, Master Chef, and channels like The Food Network and The Travel Channel have given to chefs and food preparers of all genders and races. Let’s face it: Gordon Ramsay was a former football player who is one of the most respected chefs in the world. That’s a pretty awesome profile to an up-and-coming adult. Plus, it’d be nice to come home from school and watch Top Chef knowing exactly what a beurre blanc and a gastrique is. (Granted, in my cooking class, we learned little about beurre blanc and gastriques; but we made some mean batches of holiday cookies to conclude the semester.)
But is the solution to curbing obesity as simple as putting a fat kid in front of a stove? Of course not. You could even say it enables us.