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The Great Re-Learning

May 2, 2011

Where do we learn to cook?

In days past, it seemed to be that girls learned at their mothers’ knees, perhaps helped along by “Home Economics” class at High School – which in the “I’m okay, you’re okay” spirit of late 70s education theory had become compulsory for boys as well as girls in my first couple of years of High School (the results, as I recall, were uniformly awful).

As far as I can remember, I never actually learned to cook at my Mother’s knee. My brothers and sisters do tell me that, when I started at school and Mum returned to work, she would leave pots of vegies, etc., all prepared on the stove, and a note on the table telling us when to put everything on, so that dinner would be well on the way to being ready by the time she got home from work.

Mostly, though, I think I just picked up the basics by a kind of osmosis: just watching Mum in the kitchen every day. Certainly by the time I was finishing High School, I was already putting on dinner parties for my friends (I remember an Italian, a Japanese and, of all things, a Hungarian dinner). I’m not sure how successful these early efforts were, but my friends kept coming back.

But it is said that we are raising a generation that have never learned the basic skills of cooking, because they have rarely seen them put into practice at home. The blame is usually laid on working parents falling back on ready-to-eat, frozen meals and cheap takeaways.

I’m not sure how true this is, as a generalisation, but a quick internet search shows that it is certainly a common perception, even amongst young people themselves. For instance, this young woman despairingly asking where she can learn “cooking skills for life” . A thread on a internet forum asks, are we losing our cooking culture? – and the answer seems to be an almost unanimous “yes”. Another study claims that young people are losing “traditional skills”.

I also recently heard an interview with Stephanie Alexander, who said that she is seeing a generation, of young women especially, signing up for basic cooking classes, because it’s something they just never learned at home.

All this came to my mind when I watched this Christmas episode of the brilliant British comedy, “The Royle Family”:

While there is ample comedy in Denise and Dave’s bumbling efforts to create ‘a Nigella Christmas feast’ there is as much tragedy, in that for all their good intentions the task is utterly beyond them.

Indeed, it seems that here is a schism in our food culture today, identified in the discussion thread mentioned earlier: while our society is being dazzled by celebrity chef and food snobbish “Masterchef” television, like Denise and Dave from the “Royles”, it’s the grounding in the very basic skills of simply putting a meal on the table every night that’s missing.

It’s sad, really, because I think at heart the much-maligned Generation Y want to learn these basic life skills. Certainly my teenage sons love helping out in the kitchen, and are well on their way to being self-sufficient.

While I don’t want to be as militantly self-righteous as Jamie Oliver and his Orwellian-sounding “Ministry of Food”, I do hope that we can encourage, not just the younger generation but all of us to relearn those basic life skills that are in danger of dying out.

Well, I can’t help anyone out with ironing a shirt (I can do it, but frustratingly slooowly), here’s hoping I can help out on the cooking front.

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