On one of my worst days ever, I was hunched over a stove in home economics class trying desperately to save a white sauce that smelled like a campfire. Twice a week, Miss Patterson tried to teach us to cook as if our lives depended on it. And in her world, they did. “Ladies, she would intone, an elegant meal served to your husband’s employer could gain him an advancement — and a finer life for you.” At 13, we couldn’t imagine husbands. Nor did we completely trust Miss Patterson’s guidance on their menu choices – since she was, after all a “Miss.” But a year of chopping, stirring and rolling out gave us the skills to feed ourselves, and eventually our families, quickly and well, as we became the professionals Miss Patterson expected we would marry.
Fast forward 50 years and I’m standing in the sunlit splendor of my friends’ brand new kitchen. It’s warm and beautiful, with all the stainless steel and stone we have come to expect from modern kitchen design. They are young, in their first home, and regaling me with their renovation survival stories.
When I asked about the first meal they cooked to christen their new digs, they laughed and said, “We don’t cook – we microwaved a pizza.”
I was not surprised. Over the past five years, as our Foundation has worked to end childhood obesity in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, one of our biggest findings is that home cooking is a dying art. Regardless of income, few people under 40 know how to prepare a meal for themselves or their children.
While local chefs became celebrities, and the audiences for the Food Network expanded exponentially, fewer and fewer families cook and serve food at home. My friends with the gorgeous kitchen watch cooking on TV the way I watch the Patriots: It’s fun and entertaining, but I’m never going to throw a pass at Gillette Stadium.
Cooking is important because it gives us control over how and what we eat, and what we feed our children. The data suggest that obesity increases with the number of pre-packaged or take- out meals we put on the table. Obesity leads to heart disease, diabetes, and a shorter life. So in a way Miss Patterson was right — cooking is a life saving skill — like wearing seatbelts and knowing CPR.
The reasons for the demise of cooking are understandable. Everyone is working longer hours and chauffeuring children to endless activities. And for a growing number of families, just having enough of any food is a daily challenge.
Yet, there’s more to it than that. Cooking is messy. Cooking is intimidating. Parents have told us they are afraid of knives and the stove. They fear poisoning themselves and all their relatives with underdone chicken.
Unless we can turn this trend around, all of the work that our region’s food activists have done to ramp up the supply and availability of affordable, healthy food will stall. We have to jump start demand. That means teaching the next generation to cook.
Given school budgets these days, those home ec stoves are not coming back any time soon. Yet there are lots of places like churches, synagogues and community centers that have the key ingredients: kitchens with down time and retired volunteers who can cook. Hundreds of youth programs could learn there. Malls and supermarkets could set up “learn to cook” events using hot plates. No one should graduate from high school without knowing how to cook at least four basic meals from scratch.
Cooking our food, according to Harvard professor Richard Wangham, is what made us human. Not just human as in having social skills and empathy, but as in inventing the computer and painting the Sistine Chapel. Cooking increases the energy to our bodies from the food we eat. As a result, human brains got bigger and civilization became possible. For almost a million years, humans have been creating and civilizing one home cooked meal at a time. Let’s not have it end with us.Karen Voci is executive director of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation.