Keep home economics in the home

In today’s New York Times, Helen Zoe Veit argues that America’s public schools ought to revive the teaching of home economics. That simply isn’t going to happen, not given the state of public school funding, the priorities of education reformers, or the inexorable march towards core curriculum. And that knowledge, frankly, is a relief to me, because I’d be deeply worried about the effect the schools might have on what little there is of American home cooking. By all means, teach children to cook – but not in school.

“Today we remember only the stereotypes about home economics,” Veit complains, “while forgetting the movement’s crucial lessons on healthy eating and cooking.” But those lessons weren’t absorbed — or were simply wrong, or in the long run undermined Americans’ ability and desire to cook. As home economics grew as a profession and a course of study, home cooking declined in frequency, complexity, and quality. Home economists, in an effort to show how serious and progressive they were, promoted the shining new products of industry, the rules of nutritionists, and the twin gospels of rationality and convenience. Industry had its own agenda, of course. Nutritionists, who based their beliefs on 19th-century science that turned out to be either woefully incomplete or deeply flawed, stuffed American food with carbohydrates and sapped it of much of its flavor. (“Eating fruits and vegetables,” which Veit mentions, was not originally a part of their program.) And the embrace of rationality and convenience stripped cooking of its skill, its craft, and its joy — which left American women with no reason or ability to cook, and thus at the mercy of condensed soup and canned biscuits.

Skill, craft, and joy — and some common sense — are what Americans need if they’re going to cook again. Do we really see the public schools teaching those things? Cooking is work, and it is work one does with one’s hands — a concept increasingly foreign to educators. Public education is focused on the curriculum and the test, and the sort of simple, honest cooking that can become part of people’s daily lives and routines cannot be reduced to a curriculum and cannot be evaluated on a computer-administered test. Handwork, especially, is fast being displaced by technology. Art classes have all but disappeared. Science labs are replaced by virtual experiences. But you can’t cook virtually, and cooking with technology means not cooking — rather, letting a factory do the work for you, and we don’t need schools to teach us to do that. Can we really imagine classrooms — not a classroom, led by a genius teacher, but hundreds of thousands of classrooms across the country — full of children kneading bread dough? And given the safety-first mantra of so many of our institutions, can we really imagine the public schools letting children play, literally, with fire?

What home economics classes would teach is what they taught the first time — recipes, formulas, and government standards for nutrition, three things perfectly designed by committee to sap the joy from cooking. What’s needed, instead, is wonder at the miracle of rising bread. What’s needed is sensory experience — eating is, after all, a bodily activity, not a mental one — the moist pull of dough on the fingers, the aroma of spices, anything done literally to taste and not by formula. What’s needed is an ability to improvise from available ingredients, an ability that comes from experience, not memorization.

What’s needed, in short, is for would-be cooks to break free of curricula and standards. The problem facing Americans certainly is not a dearth of information on how to cook, or on what constitutes healthy eating. More information isn’t going to cure the obesity epidemic. “Nutrition facts” on the labels of every box, can, and bag haven’t helped; we’ve only grown fatter as we’ve read them. We know vegetables are good for us; we simply don’t eat them. Food pyramids, dutifully promulgated by our public schools, have taught two generations of Americans the virtues of a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet — virtues that, we now learn, were based on rotten science and are killing us. More information isn’t the answer. You can’t eat nutrition facts.

What’s needed, if people are going to cook at home, is for them to spend more time at home and less at schools and workplaces. Ideally, children would learn to cook from their parents, as they did for millennia. (Home economics classes became necessary because by 1900 girls were spending all day in school and thus had no opportunity to learn to cook at home.) But that isn’t going to happen, because their parents don’t know how to cook, either. So what do we do?

First, we must restore dignity to eating. Forget cooking for the moment. Families, friends, and communities need to eat together, so that food can resume its place as a part of culture, and so that people have a reason to cook. Schools can’t make that happen — although they could certainly do a better job of modeling it. People have to make it happen for themselves.

Second, if parents know how to cook, they ought to teach their children, and they ought to take and be given the time to do so, as a family. If they don’t know how to cook, they should find a friend who does. Passionate cooks are usually eager to share their passion. Find that passion and build on it.

Third, at a broader level, we need to create places where families — not just children — can learn to cook. They should be based in communities, because outsiders telling people how to eat isn’t the answer. Work with schools, but also work with churches, with nonprofits, with business owners. Get people using their hands. Get them working, not just watching and listening. Teach them to cook what they enjoy. Make it social, and keep it fun. Because if people don’t like to cook, they’ll head back to McDonald’s or the microwave — whatever they’ve been taught.