How not to cook

The Government have just announced that all children between the ages of 11-14 are going to be taught to cook. Obviously for some schools this will be difficult. They have no functional kitchens, and pupils whose families will struggle to provide the ingredients.

But I think this is something that is long overdue. My own Domestic Science lessons, in the early 1970s were a bit hit and miss as far as equipping me for life went. All we ever cooked were sweet things, though I shouldn't grumble: I can still do a mean cake. And thinking about it, in needlework I was taught how to hem, sew on a button and basic mending, which for me have been all the sewing skills I have needed. I really learned to cook as my mother was a staunch believer in good, plain nursery food, so I taught myself out of sheer self-defence, from a black and white Good Housekeeping recipe book from the 1950s.

My own children's cookery experience at school has been radically different, and their needlework (or Textiles, as it now seems to be called) laughable. Did they learn how to thread a needle? How to tie a knot at the end of a thread? Pushing a needle in and out of material even? No. Appliqué. On a machine. Sometimes I am left utterly flabberghasted at the enormous gap between what is actually a useful skill for life, and what educationalists think children need to know.

My daughter was asked to bring in stuff to make an apple pie. We'd just picked some cooking apples and I suggested she take those, to be told no, they had to bring in pie filling in a tin. Well, she didn't. She brought in properly pureéd apple. Putting a tinned pie filling in a dish and covering it with bought pastry is not cookery. It is assembly.

My son does Food Technology GCSE, and it is enough to make you weep. You would think, wouldn't you, that they would get marks for the way things taste. Nope. For nearly 2 years, not a one. Not a single one. They get marks for how it looks. Even my son, who thinks presentation is a complete waste of time as long as it tastes alright, and has survived his course for nearly 2 years by blagging trimmings from his friends, is finally towing the line and I had to buy him coriander and peppers to trim the meal he's making tomorrow in class.And what has my little lamb spent 2 years doing, to earn his GCSE? Designing a ready meal, that's what. Cooking the same blessed thing, with tiny modifications, over and over again. And what preparation for real life is it? I despair. I worse than despair. I cannot believe that anyone, save someone locked in the most distant and inaccessible of ivory towers thinks that what my son has been learning is any preparation for life.

And now he has cooked the thing, for the last time (this is his final, finished product, don't forget) and it has actually been tasted. Just a tad late to make any changes.

The Government has asked what suggestions people have: mine is soup. It doesn't take long to do (generally), uses up things that are past their best and is an excellent way of disguising the dread vegetable. I'd also have a simple pasta dish, and pizza made from scratch which is an excellent way of teaching bread-making. And roast chicken, apple pie, shortbread and a cake: which leaves me one more, and I can't decide between scrambled egg or omelette.


Gillian said…
Good lord ! You're right: making apple pie with tinned apple puree and ready-made pastry isn't cooking at all. surely it's not even going to be much cheaper than just buying a ready-made apple pie ?

And as for basing an entire exam around how the food looks, not what it tastes like...words fail me. You don't cook food just to sit and look at it (unless you're, say, Tracy Emin). You cook it TO EAT IT !
Some teachers should be ashamed of themselves for going along with this.
GeraniumCat said…
This sounds so frustrating! My elder son did a bit of cooking at school - think they learnt to make scones, and several variations on what we referred to as "tuna surprise". Younger son missed it altogether. Like you I learnt some basic stuff (before I went off to do Latin) so at least I could make pastry, and we were taught to sew and knit, skills that could then be enlarged on later if you were so inclined.
I read a comment a while ago that charity shops are full of clothes that simply need a button replacing, or re-hemming, which suggests that very few people do even the most rudimentary mending any more.
And tinned apple puree is revoltingly sweet! I absolutely agree with your suggestions about what should be taught. Omelettes are good because you can add so many things to them.
winnie said…
In defence of schools I would like to point out that in the school where I work they do teach cooking - proper cooking that is making things from scratch. However, they rarely have a double lesson so the dishes cooked can't take more than an hour for the teacher to explain the dish, then see them cook it.
Often there are some very good smells coming from the cooking room! Last year I was invited to a French meal which had been cooked by some of the less able students. We had boeuf bourgignon, followed by strawberry meringue. All was made by the students from basic ingredients, and it was delicious. So not all are hopeless!
Susan in Boston said…
When I was about that age (11 – 12), my school taught cooking too. They had a room with multiple, small kitchens, and each class was broken into smaller groups, each assigned one kitchen. We did basics (think pancakes from scratch) to fun stuff (lollypops), mostly to learn to read and follow a recipe, and use all the bits of equipment you find in a kitchen….not just the oven and stovetop, but graters, sifters, double-boilers, rolling pins, and which pans you use for what and why. Accurate dry and liquid measurements came into play, of course, as did proper washing up in hot-as-you-can-bear-it soapy water to kill germs. (And how to tell when something is done, from “when a toothpick inserted comes out clean”, to “no, it is NEVER ok for poultry to be pink inside!!”) Eating what we made was part of the class, and nobody cared what it looked like.

It was one fourth of the “practical” courses all the boys and girls had to take (classes were all co-ed, and all the supplies were provided by the school)…the others were sewing (by machine), woodworking using all the machine tools a professional woodworker would have, and mechanical drawing. I made a bookbag in sewing that I’ve still got somewhere, and a cassette holder in woodwork that now holds some of my cds quite nicely. In mechanical drawing I did some plans for houses that could never have been constructed without a magic wand. Since I’ve never owned a sewing machine, much less a drill press, vertical or table saw, and architecture was clearly not my calling, the cooking class was probably the most useful (though I’m pretty sure I learnt more from hanging around the kitchen with my grandmother).
Susan in Boston said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane said…
Gillian - I'm not sure whether the teachers have much say as far as GCSE goes, or even further down the school. There might well be some prescription on the curriculum that the filling has to be tinned so that it does not exclude people... though it's a lot cheaper to buy a couple of apples and pureé them, and it isn't as if it takes long.

geraniumcat - I wouldn't be at all surprised about charity shops. I am a pretty dreadful needlewoman, but even I can put a button on, so it ain't hard. Are we the same vintage I wonder, as I did 2 years of DS before Latin!

Winnie - your school sounds wonderful, and all kudos to them for doing it. If only they weren't alone. Maybe they should contact the BBC for an interview so they can show what should be done?

Susan - that sounds ideal. I wish I'd done woodwork, as it would have been so useful. Do American schools still have this excellent approach?
Gillian said…
We did a little cookery at junior school - I think pancakes is about as far as we got.

At High school, in the second and third years (age 12-14), both boys and girls did sewing, cookery, woodwork and metalwork. I think metalwork was my favourite. I made a pair of supports for a shelf that I had in my bedroom for a few years. I don't know what happened to them after I went to university and my parents moved home. I'd love to have them now.
Susan in Boston said…
Don't know if they're still teaching that curriculum, but my guess would be no....there's probably a computer lab installed where the cooking room was!

That type of course would always have been hit or miss the US, outside of core subjects like English, History, Math, etc., States and even cities/towns have leeway as to what subjects they'll cover, or what material within an individual subject will be taught (i.e., we had a "health" class, the most useful thing we learned there was the end, the American Red Cross came in and we were all tested and certified by them.)
Jane said…
Gillian - how lovely to have made something that was actually useful! I hope one day the shelf brackets reappear.

Susan - I guess you're right and there are computers there now. I went to our village library the other day to do some research and found the books had diminished by what seems a third. No one had cut down the amount of computers though.
Fiona said…
I teach for the adult education service (that shrinking organisation) and I'm very proud to do so. I teach art & design. About 5 years ago they decommissioned all the kitchens and made them into general classrooms or computer suites.
In our accredited "get 'em back into work" courses there are basic skills add ons. Surely now is the time to be "adding" cooking & nutrition skills but it will cost so much to replace the kitchens I don't suppose it will happen, not where I work at least.
People need to see & experience the food; "a cook it taste it" course would be ideal. People need to learn that pie with real apples & pastry is more nutritious and tasty.Incidentally a friend of mine was a starch chemist and worked in the development of these pie fillings. They are composed of root vegetables, starch, flavourings and lots of sugar, I think he said there had to be only 5% fruit.
When I was in school, we did very little "cooking", most of the time it was silly things like "what do you eat for breakfast" etc. When we did cook, there was very little cooking:- I remember once making a milkshake out of nesquik powder and milk, and we made custard out of bird's custard powder.

Fortunately I didnt do it for GCSE, the option was then to do IT instead (it wasnt complusory) and I did that.

The bad news was (through a set of circumstances) aged 20 I did not know how to cook; my mother did not allow me to use the cooker, so I could not even boil an egg. Fortunately I did not starve, I was living with my now ex, who was actually a trained chef, and we could at least eat. Although I did not do anything spectacular, I can at least do some cooking.

Nutrition wise, I did not learn anything from school. Fortunately my flat is owned by a housing charity: they got some money from European objective funding to run their own education programme. One of the units was "healthy living" which meant that I now know to tell healthy foods from unhealthy ones, and what food labels mean. The downside is that the European funding is running out in March: meaning that any new tenants and any current tenants which have not done that unit will miss out on something extremely useful.

As for cooking, if the schools can actually teach it, I see the compensation claims actually increasing because some "little darling" has burnt their hand on the oven and the teacher was helping someone else at the time, rather than ensuring that people weren't burning themselves on the cooker.

As for sewing and other practical life skills: I have none, as we werent allowed to "play" with anything more dangerous than fabric pens. Yes there were sewing machines, but we were only allowed to watch the teacher demonstrating something.

Mind you, that was when I was in the class: most of the time I either walked out or was sent out due to my "bad behaviour" (which turned out later to be an disorder which they had not picked up on). I do sometimes wonder how come I managed to get an A at all.......
We used to make things like apple crumble, scones, pizza (making the base ourselves) and jars of mincemeat. It was never particularly practical or useful stuff.
Jane said…
Fiona - it's obvious the Government needs to support this with major funding, or there are many places it simply won't happen, like your college. I think your idea of a cook it - taste it course is excellent. I had no idea pie fillings were so inadequate.

Dawn - I think from your experience it's really plain how very much this latest initiative needs to happen. I read your post virtually with my mouth open. My children's school cookery experience hasn't been brilliant, but it has been better than yours. It left you with it all to do yourself; and it's no wonder people resort to ready meals if that's all their experience. Really glad you have had a better time with your Housing Charity.
Fiona said…
Dawn's mention of the compensation culture made me recall an incident from my own school cookery days.
A girl (who curiously did end up being a cook in a hospital) said she could smell gas, the teacher said that the oven had gone out & she should relight it. When the girl put the lit taper in the oven the resultant explosion not only through her back across the cookery room but completely removed her eyebrows. I have always taken extreme care near gas cookers since!
Jane, maybe my school was poor (it certainly was very poor in other things), but it just shows you what the system has been over the past 15 years, combined with the fact that what you said about your son's schooling.

At least with the housing charity, although the tutor did not go through entirely with me on how to cook simple healthy meals, at least she gave me a load of recipes which are at least lower in fat than read made, although not ideal (one sticks out in my mind that it needs condensed soup).

It's a sad fact that it was left to the charity to teach something that they should be doing in schools. Apart from the education side of it, it's the only charity Wales (and indeed in the UK) which does this kind of work, which is alarming and disappointing.

If the government is serious about teaching people, then it should go back to the 1950s style teaching of home economics. Like you said, no wonder people go to ready meals, if nobody is there to teach them, especially when they have learning difficulties. I must admit that I still over rely on ready meals; living on your own is one reason why and secondly, there is nobody to teach me. I hate it, but it's a choice of that or starve.

However, I do think that the supermarkets need to come on board with this. They make millions of pounds profit on the year, and if someone on a low income or on their own is forced to buy "5 ready meals for £4" because they cannot afford to make the same meal from scratch, then all the government's teaching methods will be out of the window once they leave home. If they cut the amount of profit they were making on basic ingredients (without cutting the amount they give to the farmer), it would not be a waste of the government's time. The supermarkets will make profits in other areas, just not as much as they used to.

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