Thanksgiving is well behind us now, and even the leftovers are long gone. It’s always a favorite holiday for us because it’s not about buying stuff and because it celebrates an idea we can all get behind: rounding up family and sharing a great home-cooked meal. So why does its media coverage sound like bulletins from a trauma unit? Are readers so panicked that they need a hotline to call? With so much troubleshooting advice, serious trouble must be afoot.
What’s so hard about cooking a meal for which the menu is so familiar? Sure, there’s the risk of family tensions when we gather (a lead-up to the perils of Christmas). And a turkey is, admittedly, a huge, unwieldy bird that doesn’t always turn out moist and yummy. But the real problem is that busy modern people don’t cook anymore, and when they do, it’s not what we used to call cooking.
Will food historians date the beginning of the Dead Food Age to the invention of margarine? Or the creation of canned cream of mushroom soup? In my mother’s spiral-bound copy of the 1942 “What’s Cooking at Columbia,” typical of its era, contributors’ recipes are full of canned soups, and yet the idea of cooking from scratch had not been snuffed out. Fast-forward to a 2011 community cookbook whose fine intentions I’d rather not sully by naming it. It includes a recipe for deep-fried Oreos and a cake made with instant pudding, cake mix, chocolate chips, Cool Whip and Heath bars.
The low cost and ubiquity of bad food and the high price and elusiveness of good food have caused a health emergency in this country, as the rate of obesity and related illnesses soars, with little political will to change matters. But there is much we can do at the personal and educational levels. The recession-fueled popularity of vegetable gardens is a positive trend and one that encourages the return of real food. Having raised all these healthy ingredients, you cook with them. But at that point people need some help.
So let’s bring back Home Ec. It fell out of favor when women insisted that girls should be steered toward other careers besides homemaking. Fine. Make the boys take it, too. Parts of the curriculum that do not address life-or-death issues, such as sewing curtains, can be left out. But let’s teach our kids about food. Mandate a basic understanding of human nutrition. Have them do the math and decide whether “cooking” with prepackaged processed food actually saves money.
These days, schools are lucky to have a kitchen at all, let alone a kitchen classroom. But I will never forget the hour I spent in a classroom started by Alice Waters in Berkeley, Calif., in which fifth-graders were making vegetable-stuffed wontons floating in vegetable-laden broth. They ate the soup, they loved the soup, and the knowledge of it will affect the course of their lives.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”