Jamie Oliver’s wish: Teach every child to make dishes
In prior generations, food was a tool mothers — sometimes, fathers — used to teach offspring history, culture and religion. How will the next generation know how to eat healthfully — and understand themselves — if they aren’t taught? asks celebrity chef Jamie Oliver as part of his Food Revolution campaign.
He is telling us what we already know. Look no further than West Virginia for what happens when four generations of Americans give up cooking homemade meals and abdicate their responsibility to teach their children basic cooking skills. The next generation comes to equate “semi-homemade” with cooking from scratch.
Oliver isn’t the first person to point out this cultural shift. Michael Pollan wrote in a July 2009 New York Times article:
Obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation. The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity.
I commented on this article and my experience with home-cooked meals and weight loss here.
Overdependence on processed, junk and fast foods, rather than occasional indulgence, has produced a generation of Americans in which two-thirds are overweight or obese. Some children don’t know the difference between a eggplant and an egg or realize French fries are made from potatoes.
American parents can’t depend on schools to teach these skills. As Oliver discovered, American school cafeteria offerings often are just as convenience-oriented, processed and nutritionally deficient as what’s sold in fast food restaurants.
Many U.S. schools no longer offer Home Economics classes. Giving your class a Food Pyramid chart and saying, “You figure it out, good luck,” is a recipe for lifelong dependence on microwave meals.
But many Americans know what they don’t know about cooking. A lack of basic culinary knowledge has made TV chefs from Julia Child to Jamie Oliver as famous as rock stars. Deftly wielding a chef’s knife is considered revolutionary and entertaining, attracting millions of viewers who want to learn how to cook that way.
Here’s my American experience: My grandmother, who raised me, refused to teach me how to cook. She said I was “too smart” for that. When I told her I wanted to take the only cooking class my high school offered, she said it was a waste of my time. A progressive feminist, she said cooking was “housewife” work, and the last thing she wanted me to be was “just a housewife.”
My grandmother and I missed a grand opportunity. She denied herself an important avenue of teaching me her culture and her values. I caught some glimpses of her German-Irish background in the foods she made. Because I didn’t learn those recipes at her side, I didn’t learn why those foods were important.
As a college newlywed, I realized quickly we could not survive or thrive eating the highly processed yet vegetarian food served in our school cafeteria. I started reading recipes on the Internet collecting them in a three-ring binder. That first improvised cookbook is still on my shelf.
Shortly after graduation, we moved to Korea to teach conversational English in Chuncheon, located east-northeast of Seoul. On frequent trips to the capital city, I continued buying cooking and history books at Kyobo Bookstore.
Korea was the first place where I was able to really stretch myself and grow as a cook. I don’t think I would have been quite as interested in Korean cuisine if I already had a stronger sense of culinary identity. Because I was a blank slate, I soaked up all the spiciness and complexity of Korean food like a sponge. Now, I can make Korean dishes better than most American ones.
Back to Jamie Oliver’s Battle of the Bulge in West Virginia. I applaud his attempts to create a desire for home-cooked, “real” food. But as long as highly processed foods are less expensive and quicker to prepare than dishes made from fresh, basic ingredients, he will face an uphill battle not just in West Virginia, but all over America. It’s worth fighting but will take a long time to win hearts and minds.