I remember high school home ec as a bit of a joke. Nobody took it seriously, except maybe by the local 4-H crocheting champ who could use the class time to create masterpiece toilet-paper cozies. And it’s reputation was not helped by the surly curmudgeon-in-a-housedress, a seeming relic from a different age, who taught it.
An essay in the NY Times today reminded me of something I continue to take for granted about home ec, though, and made me re-think my stance on it. You see, I didn’t take home ec all those years ago, because I thought it would be a waste of my time as I had already learned how to cook with my mother. I forget that that isn’t the norm in a lot of households. In fact, a lot of people don’t cook at all these days, if you disqualify anything that involves emptying a bag into a pot and turning on the oven/stove/microwave. Those that do “cook” are often cobbling together pre-packaged elements to make what passes for “homemade.”
According to the author, Helen Zoe Veit, “The home economics movement was founded on the belief that housework and food preparation were important subjects that should be studied scientifically.” It is was also a way for women to get into college during a time when higher-learning was still considered to be an area only for men. The women in the field worked in elementary, middle and high schools, spreading information about vitamins, germs, and nutrition to the children of America.
Unfortunately, the women of home economics were TOO good at disseminating their message regarding the importance of hand-washing in food preparation, that coffee is not good for babies, and that fresh fruit and veggies are part of a healthy diet. They placed themselves right out a job by making things that used to seem science-y into commonsense knowledge!
Perhaps home economics were pushed out of the curriculum too quickly, though. Judging from the obesity epidemic and the health problems that come with it, Americans seem to know less about the importance of food in their lives than ever before.
Cooking can be fun and I have yet to meet a kid who didn’t love measuring flour and dumping ingredients in a mixer. My 11-year-old son takes pride in helping cut up vegetables (because he’s honing his knife skills, naturally) for me and takes even more pride in the fact that he can make späetzle (his favorite homemade German noodle dish) from scratch entirely on his own. He has been helping me in the kitchen since he was old enough to pull up a step stool and demand the measuring cups. Now that I have three, I have to manage who gets to help when or there’s liable to be an impromptu screaming match that could turn into a wrestling one.
If home ec was re-introduced to American curriculum and taught kids about the dangers of a diet filled with highly processed cheap food while teaching them how to make delicious food from healthy ingredients, do you think it would make a difference? Zeit concludes that “the idea of reviving home economics as part of a broad offensive against obesity might sound outlandish. But teaching cooking — real cooking — in public schools could help address a host of problems facing Americans today. The history of home economics shows it’s possible.”
Photo Credit: © Kati Molin – Fotolia.com
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