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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 26 October, 2014

Darina Allen: A shared meal was once the bedrock of family life – its loss is a serious problem for society

Not surprisingly the decline in home cooking closely mirrors the rise in obesity – and it has also undermined our social skills.

Image: Daragh Mc Sweeney

FOR THE PAST 50-plus years the main focus of our educational system has been to encourage students to focus on a set of academic skills. Even when I was in boarding school in the early 1960s, the lovely Dominican nuns who were charged with the responsibility of my education were encouraging ‘us girls’ to have a proper career. Do medicine, law, architecture, the sciences … The subliminal message was “why would you want to grow or cook, you’re never going to need that”. We all got the message loud and clear that practical skills were of lesser value than academic skills. All I ever wanted to do was cook or garden, hope I wasn’t too much of a disappointment!

That attitude was all very fine and dandy during the good times but ‘when the music stopped’ in 2008 many people who had hitherto been riding on the crest of a wave found themselves in quite different circumstances, without the finances to buy ready meals or eat in fancy restaurants. Suddenly there was a realisation that academic skills are not enough we also need some survival skills so we can whip up an omelette or a spontaneous pasta instead of just slitting the top of a package.

Fighting obesity with practical cookery

An urgent paradigm shift is needed, one in every four Irish children are overweight or obese, we need to bring cooking skills back and fast. How do we do this now that two, and in some cases three, generations have left home without the basic skills to feed themselves?

Practical cookery classes need to be embedded in the curriculum starting at kindergarten. Every school needs to have an edible garden as part of the educational system.

Food could be included in every subject, history, geography, languages and even maths to calculate the quantities in a recipe. This approach, now widespread in schools in California brings the importance of food in every aspect of our lives into sharp focus.

Slow food

Here in East Cork we have a Slow Food Educational project which links with nine local schools, each now has an Edible School Garden and we send a chicken coop and two hens to all the schools, so the children also learn how to keep hens. The manure goes onto the compost heap which in turn goes back into the soil to make it more fertile to grow more beautiful vegetables and fruit, a powerful lesson in sustainability and a living example of a holistic system.

In one school alone 28 parents grew vegetables for the first time and 18 got hens – how about that for impact? The children come to the cookery school to see around the farm and gardens. They learn about food and they love learning how to cook – we give them a gift for life.

The multinational food industry

In a few short decades we have almost abandoned cooking from scratch and virtually handed the preparation of most of our meals to the multinational food industry which, despite assurances to the contrary, can hardly be expected to have our best interests at heart.

Nowadays, many people know more about the lives of celebrities than how their food is being produced. Paradoxically, the less time we spend in the kitchen, the more time we spend talking about food and watching others cook it on TV. Funny how we don’t watch programmes on other domestic chores like house cleaning or mending. Could it be that deep down there is still a craving and emotional attachment to home cooking? Many of our happiest childhood memories are connected to food.

Industrial food has taken a substantial toll on our health and wellbeing. Corporations and large food manufacturers cook in a very different way to real people, that’s why it’s called food processing and of course they tend to use much more sugar, salt and fat and whole variety of novel chemical ingredients to extend shelf life, ‘improve’ the product et al.

Losing the family meal

Not surprisingly the decline in home cooking and the rise in fast food consumption closely mirrors the rise in obesity and the many chronic diseases linked to bad diet. It has also undermined the shared family meal as the ‘grab, gobble and go’ (often alone) culture has gained momentum. The loss of the shared meal has far greater repercussions than one might imagine at first. It used to be the bedrock of family life, the place where we chat to each other, where children learn the art of conversation and hopefully table manners, plus the importance of sharing, taking turns and even arguing without ‘offending or fighting’. The loss of the shared family meal is a more serious problem for society at large than one might imagine at first.

It seems to me that a return to home cooking with fresh, naturally and locally produced local food in season could remedy a lot of our ills and reconnect us to how our food is produced, where  it comes from – and the farmers, fisherman and artisan food producers who labour to nourish us.

Fancy winning a place for two on a short cooking course at Ballymaloe’s Cookery School, including accommodation? Just submit your own butter-based recipe here. Your recipe will be judged by Darina and Rachel Allen. 

Read: More people cooking meals from scratch since recession kicked in

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