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Hey, Remember Home Ec?

Hey, Remember Home Ec?
A look back at home economics and a question: could our collective inability to cook be what's driving American food choices?

Last Friday, I sat through a USFRA Food Dialogues panel, where they were asking and answering the question, "Who is shaping America's nutrition choices?"

They talked about media and commercials. They talked about food production, specifically land, water and energy. They talked about our crazy-busy lifestyle and processed foods. They talked about a knowledge gap in food production, and about dieticians.

And I had a crazy thought: what about the fact that (a lot of) Americans don't know how to cook?

At the November 2012 Food Dialogues in NYC, Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating, spoke about the "lost art of cooking from scratch." She told how cooking from scratch is an art that's been passed down over time, and that it's gotten lost in a lot of households.

"It's a high-level skill that you have to learn over several years," McMillan said. "I would be much more comfortable judging people for their food choices if I knew everyone in the U.S. could cook from scratch."


I learned to cook in three different places: my mother's kitchen, although I paid little attention because I'd rather have been in the barn, but did learn basic baking skills; my mother-in-law's kitchen, where I have her on speed dial and have asked approximately 3,682,504 questions since our June 1998 wedding; and in my high school home economics class.

Admittedly, when I was in high school in the early '90s, taking home economics was not the thing that girls who wanted to go to college did. Even today, I don't know what possessed me to take not just Foods and Nutrition I but also Foods and Nutrition II. Most likely, I had an open hour and I generally felt that study hall was a waste of time. I don't know. But I took two semesters' worth and I learned a lifetime of skills: how to plan a menu, how to select ingredients, how to plan a balanced meal (fruit, vegetable, meat, grain and dairy, thank you very much).

I also learned what happens when you want to make taco salad and you aren't specific in your Italian dressing order, and they send you creamy Italian. And then you stir it all together and plan to eat it the next day. All I can say is, thank goodness we had a substitute that day and I'm sorry, Mrs. Shupe, but that taco salad went into the trash in small napkin-wrapped increments. True confessions.

I digress. Somewhere along the way, home economics became the antithesis of the feminist movement. Home ec wasn't cool anymore, especially for girls who wanted a college education and a career. That of course, makes little sense; we still need to eat, and eat nutritiously and for less money.

Karen Leonas at Washington State University says that prior to World War II, home economics was about taking the latest in science and technology and applying it to the home. It was also a professional path for women who wanted to do something other than teach school - nutrition and design, for example. During the war, women left the home and went to work in factories and pursued careers in male-dominated fields. She adds that following the war, there was an effort to get women back into the home and home economics became a part of that movement. Universities encouraged women to go into home economics, and Leonas believes it changed home ec's image: "It became more about keeping women in the home than about teaching students the latest science and technology. Home economics and all the good it did us was cast in an unflattering light," Leonas says. Home ec basics were widely rejected during the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and '70s, and home ec became viewed as a limitation rather than an opportunity.  

By the time I arrived at the University of Illinois, home economics as a major had ceased to exist. The home economics department had been folded into a variety of other majors: food science, textiles, human development and family studies. There was no major for someone who wanted to teach home economics because the theory was that no one wanted home economics teachers.

At the time, I worked in the alumni office and suffice to say, there were some home ec alums who were decidedly unhappy about what they saw as a short-sighted turn of events.

It seems they may have been right.

Because here we are, recovering from a recession. A consuming public that's suddenly interested in "old fashioned" ideas like home canning, baking, gardening, sewing and food production. Stretching their food dollar, and turning a protein from the centerpiece of the meal into a component of the meal - the "year of the casserole," some nutritionists joke. Processed convenience foods are out; homegrown, local and home-cooked are in.

But do they know what to do with them?

I have long said, often in the occasional speech to farm groups, that I want my children to leave the house knowing a couple things: first, that they might know what a good, balanced, home-cooked meal looks like. And second, that they might know how to cook from scratch. That they'll leave my house knowing what to do with a chuck roast. Or a packet of yeast.

And I wonder, where did you learn to cook? Where do you think young people are learning to cook today, for those who don't learn at home? Is the lack of emphasis on home economics to blame? Could a stronger home economics education system help young people learn more about food production, food preparation and food value? Could it change the way our country makes food choices?

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