Sunday 6 May 2012

Feeding Frenzy

One of the big items on the news today was that our most famous cook, Jamie Oliver, together with our most famous Scouser, Steven Gerrard of Liverpool FC have declared action against obesity and demanded cookery classes in schools.  Whether either of them could put together a decent dish of scouse is another matter.

Jamie was born in 1975 and Steven in 1980, more or less around the time when the combination of manufactured packaged foods and supermarket development had begun to dominate advertising and change eating habits in the UK

In this “Brave New World” (as in Aldous Huxley’s book) we could all eat the same delights as the richest one way or another.  The colourings, preservatives and flavourings made for dishes easy to cook and serve and more attractive to the eye. 

Sweetness was guaranteed and the marketing boys told us it was healthier and better for us than the old way of eating with foods with dull colours and duller monotony of taste which had sat around our old larders for days.

For the modernists in education and especially the feminists it meant that the old cookery classes and “domestic science” from the previous half century could safely be ditched to be replaced by “food technology”.  Schools as well as the marketing men decreed that new commercial was good, old and hand made was bad.

What was forgotten entirely in this drive for modernism was why Domestic Science had arrived in schools in the first place.  At the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries there was real concern over the health and capability of the nation, especially the working classes.

Whilst there had been an awareness of the poor diet of many of the lower classes it became apparent when the military found itself turning away large numbers of volunteers because they were unfit for service, notably for the Boer War which began in 1899. 

Also as hospitals and care had advanced in the period post Florence Nightingale it was clear that many mothers were physically unfitted to carry children, many births were deformed and in many homes children were badly fed.  The rates of infant mortality were high and disturbing.

There was also real concern about the quality of food, notably in towns and the increasing dependence of many on manufactured foods and products which had been seriously adulterated and even poisonous.  Put G.K Chesterton’s “The Grocers Song” into search and enjoy the serious humour.

Over the next decades there was a drive to put “Domestic Science” into schools to ensure that the basics of nutrition, food preparation and household management were taught to all girls and in quite a number to boys as well.  The catering trade was still a real form of employment for many men.  Note in the picture above the post of cuts of meat on the wall.

There were some first class colleges both for teaching and institutional management not only demanding good qualifications but also with broad curricula covering social work as part of the course and food chemistry.  The DS teacher by the 1950’s was not just a practising cook but had a broad background for their work.

By the 1980’s all this was being swept away as we went into a new age of eating and living.  The way we eat, the way families eat, what we eat and how it is made and marketing have been transformed.  This has occurred when many of us now have a much less active lifestyle.

So we have a population with many children who are overweight, have health problems that may shorten life and are physically not much use in terms of both capability and experience.  Also, there are now two generations who have limited experience of natural tastes or textures in food.

It is very difficult to see how it can be changed in the short term, if at all.  In our area there are no shops where local produce can be found, if you want it you have to drive out to the few places where it is available.  There are delivery firms which specialise in particular foods but this is not cheap, you will pay more.

Moreover, traditional cooking and eating takes time, a degree of effort but critically knowing how to do it and being able to accept the complications and the uncertainties that home cooking presents.  There is also the need to manage and make use of other things, like making chicken stock and then using it.

But in today’s working and leisure world just how many people can do without the speed, ease, colour, taste and sweetness or spice that have become necessary to how we live.  You cannot do social networking or surf the channels easily from the kitchen.

As in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” we are conditioned to a very different way of being to that of the past.  Almost the whole infrastructure of delivery, storage and production is geared to the way we live now and probably it would take another two generations to change that. 

Unless we really have to and we might remember that the whole structure is dependent on petro-chemicals for agriculture, transport, manufacture and for much of the colour, taste and texture of the food in the package.

And that is another story.


  1. I agree, but take heart (not really literally, but we could) - my grandmother taught me; my mother my children (from 3 and 4); my grandchildren can cook proper food well, learning from an early age. One grandchild is a star because of her proper oooking in their uni. rented house. We may not be a majority, but there are plenty of us out there.

  2. An exchange of comments in the Mail online (on the issue of children with SEN) led to the preposterous - but unchallenged - statement that 'most people can't afford to give their children an additive-free diet'.

    In a similar vein, my mother has recently had to employ a gardener (following a back injury) to help her care for her productive quarter-acre or so and, being a generous sort, has shared some of the produce with her.

    Despite her horticultural qualifications, the gardener had to ask how to cook many of the vegetables from scratch - she was actually surprised to learn that she could stew and puree apples for her baby rather than buying pre-packaged jars.

  3. My mother-in-law was a good traditional cook. Roast beef with Yorkshire pud followed by apple pie and cream. Now she's no longer with us, we'll never taste the like again.

    Good food doesn't have to be time-consuming to prepare though. Fresh home-made bread, good cheese and real ale - delicious!