Bring Back Home Economics: Three Food Writers on Teaching People to Cook

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Leanne Brown’s project Good and Cheap, a cookbook and project to teach simple recipes and skills that had massive Kickstarter success.

That column got passed around a lot, and it ignited conversations with other food writers about the reality of people not knowing how to cook, and the conundrum of how to teach them.

Three of us—me in Atlanta; writer and cooking teacher Jacqueline Church of Boston; and “Living Small” blogger and novelist Charlotte McGuinn Freeman of Livingston, Montana—were so engaged by the problem that we held a Skype session to brainstorm ideas. Here’s what we came up with: Involve schools and community gardens; create a (gender-neutral) grandmother corps; and bring back home ec.

Along the way, we talked about how we learned to cook, what our favorite first cookbooks were, and why roast chicken is so important. Here’s an edited transcript.

Photo of a home ec class.

A student cooks a meal as part of her lesson in home economics class in 1917. Photograph courtesy Cornell University Library

Charlotte McGuinn Freeman: I have a good friend who is always saying, “Oh, you have to teach me to cook.” She doesn’t know how to do anything. Actually I have two friends like this, whose mothers deliberately didn’t teach them to cook in the 1970s so that they would not end up as housewives.

Jacqueline Church:  Almost universally, when I am talking to people, their reaction is, “I wish I knew how to cook.” There is a generation of people—maybe it was a middle class thing where moms were going back to work, the latchkey generation—who don’t know how.

Maryn McKenna: So how did you two did you learn how to cook?

Jacqueline: Middle school home economics. I actually tried to not take it, which is kind of ironic; I wanted to take shop because I thought it was much cooler to build things, but the principal said, “Only boys can take shop.” So begrudgingly I took it, and it turned out, of course, I really liked it. But both of my parents did like to cook, and I found a copy of Julia Child in the closet under the stairs, and I just started trying to do things that I saw her do on TV.

Maryn: So you weren’t standing on a stool chopping next to your grandmother?

Jacqueline: No. My grandmother, who was beloved to me, didn’t live near us because we were in the Air Force moving around. I did actually get her to show me a couple of things that she did, Japanese dishes, but that’s not how I learned to cook at all.

Charlotte: I also did not learn to cook from my grandmother, who was famous for having given us all food poisoning at one point or another. I learned to cook from my mom. She taught both my brother and I, quite deliberately, as little kids. I remember cooking a soufflé for a Girl Scout badge. And then my first real job out of college was for a tiny book packager in New York. We did the Best of Gourmet books, and a terrific little repackaging job for Glamour magazine, which was entry-level: how to cook dinner for a date if they came over, or how to make yourself something simple.

Maryn: I didn’t learn from my grandmothers either, because they were of the postwar “convenience foods are the coolest thing” generation; my mother’s mother’s party dish was chicken fricassee involving cream of chicken soup. But in college I lived in a little experimental dorm for artists that had a kitchen, and I kind of taught myself. I love that your original cooking texts were Julia Child and Gourmet; mine was the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

Jacqueline: In college, people always wanted an invite to my house to eat.

Photo of a tea date.

Students host a tea party during home economics class. Photograph courtesy Cornell University Library

Charlotte: Yeah. I wound up cooking in college because I didn’t have much of a meal plan. People were always shocked that I went to the grocery store and bought food, and then made something to eat.

Maryn: Oh, me the same. After college I was really poor, living in a basement, so I couldn’t afford to go out to dinner. But I could afford groceries and I wanted to see my friends, so I would make a vast pot of soup and a salad and have people over.

Charlotte:I find people are afraid of cooking. They’re afraid even to try because they think some disaster awaits. Or they think shopping for food is a fool’s errand because it will all go bad in the fridge, so you might as well go out and let a trained professional feed you, or order takeaway.

Maryn: Jacqueline, when you teach people to cook, how do you start?

Jacqueline: I have a management training background, so I start out with a needs assessment. Sometimes someone has been told they have to lower their cholesterol and they have no idea what that means, or they’re trying to lose some weight, or they want to learn how to cook from the farmer’s market. In each meeting I pick two recipes that we do in a 2- to 3-hour session, and I include nutrition tips, recipes, cookbooks that I think they might be interested in.

Maryn: Do they not physically know how to do things—like, how to cut things up without like slicing their fingers off? Or is it more conceptual, that they don’t understand what goes into a dish or a meal?

Jacqueline: Most often people lack the basic knowledge that I think we all take for granted. That you read the recipe through several times so that you understand what you’re going to have to do, make sure you have the right ingredients, know what “dice” means. Some people have a fear of even holding a knife.

But sometimes people say, “I want to start out cooking a beef Wellington.” So I start them with: Let’s make biscuits. Because if you know how to make biscuits, then you can learn how to make pie crust, and that gets you to puff pastry.

Maryn: That kind of step-by-step learning is how cooks learn professionally, and it’s how we all taught ourselves. But what would be your vision, each of you, for creating something that taught that to other people?

Photo of food conservation.

The Cornell home economics department played a vital role in teaching the local community how to best preserve food surplus during World War I. Photograph courtesy Cornell University Library

Charlotte: I’m a huge proponent of bringing back Home Ec. I think Home Ec should be gender-neutral and involve all the stuff that you have to do in your house: Here’s how to feed yourself. Here’s how to unclog your sink. Here’s how to do basic home repairs. Here’s how to manage a checkbook and a budget. Here’s a sewing machine and how to make straight seams and a zigzag stitch.

Jacqueline: I would love to build a template that schools can use, that is interdisciplinary and pulls in science and math, and geography and cultural issues. So you can pick a dish like, let’s say, tagine, and that allows you to learn about North Africa —while you learn about braising, which is something you can do in a crockpot with an inexpensive cut of meat that can feed a family.

I know that you can teach people to cook, in a fairly short amount of time, something they have never tried before and they’re really proud to enjoy. I taught a group of 6- and 7-year-olds how to make whole wheat rolls. One tugged on my sleeve and said, “Can you tell my mom what we call this again?” I told the mom, and she said, “She eats whole wheat??”

Maryn: I’m totally with both of you that Home Ec needs to come back, in a non-stigmatizing way. So it’s not the pretty girls making cookies for the football heroes, which is what I experienced in high school, but it’s also not where kids get shunted who are assumed to not be on an academic track.

But what do we do for people who are past high school? The Small Business Administration has a program where retired executives can volunteer to advise new entrepreneurs. I kind of envision that for cooking: Ask retired people—of whom there will be a lot fairly soon, unless we’re all so poor that we can never retire—to teach younger people how to cook. A grandmother corps, I guess, only it doesn’t have to be women.

People who have had a lifetime of feeding themselves, or feeding a family, have an instinctive set of skills about shopping, and cooking. They know how to go to a farmer’s market or to the supermarket without a recipe in hand and come out with a meal plan for their week. So let’s get them to share that knowledge. I think Mark Bittman used the phrase first, but that’s what I think of as a Civilian Cooking Corps.

Photo of food conservationists at work.

A group of food conservationists work in the home economics building in 1917. Photograph courtesy Cornell University Library

Charlotte: You guys are both in cities. Here we’re a fairly small community. Our adult community education program is really vibrant, and if I wanted to, I could sign up to teach a class. But in bigger cities what venue would you use to get to people?

Jacqueline: Something like AmeriCorps, but geared towards life skills?

Charlotte: I picture it as like a non-dating dating activity. The kind of classes you take in your 20s because people say, “Oh, go sign up. Maybe you’ll meet someone.”

Maryn: It feels to me that there ought to be a point of entry in the hipster DIY movement; the Etsy crowd. People who want to do something because it’s homemade, anti-corporate, rough-edged.

So if you won the lottery, or someone gave you a year to work on this, how would you start?

Charlotte: I think my point of entry would be community gardens, especially for urban professionals.

Jacqueline: I like the idea of tying it to schools. Kids are being graduated without an essential life skill, and without knowing the joy of making something yourself from scratch, and knowing that you can.

Photo of servicemen eating in the home ec cafeteria at Cornell.

Servicemen eat in the home economics cafeteria in 1917. Photograph courtesy Cornell University Library

Maryn: I would love there to be a way for people to universally learn 8, 10 simple dishes — a basic canon of feeding yourself. Boil pasta, sauté vegetables, roast a chicken. And I wish people could be exposed to what happens when you are cooking, and then eating, with other people: the feeling of hanging out talking while you are making something, especially if it includes your kids.

Charlotte: That’s what my friend keeps saying to me! “You’ve got to teach me to roast a chicken.”

Maryn: Which is the easiest task there is. Chicken, pan, oven; one hour; done.

Jacqueline: So simple. And learning to perform something simple gives you confidence. Which is my elevator pitch: “I teach people to cook food they love with kitchen confidence.”

Maryn: So maybe our Civilian Cooking Corps is a Roast Chicken Corps? That is an education effort I could get behind.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.