Amid all the chatter surrounding Common Core standards (what education is essential and what is not), I hear a lot about college prep but not enough about prep for life. I get that there are only so many hours in the school day, and academics are imperative. Today’s students probably need courses on information technology and world languages. But if it were up to me, I’d bring back Home Economics. Not Foods & Nutrition, or Family Consumer Science; I mean good old-fashioned Home Ec, with girls—and boys!—standing at stoves making good old-fashioned gravy. Or seated at sewing machines threading good old-fashioned needles.
Before you imagine me as an ancient crone in an apron and a hairnet, hear me out. Except for the time I correctly answered a question about an isosceles triangle while watching Jeopardy, I have never used one thing I learned in high-school geometry. And since I had to take the dreaded class a second time in summer school, I had ample opportunity to pick up whatever life skill it might’ve offered. Not so. On the other side of the intellectual fence, I took advanced English, with marathon lessons on Silas Marner and Beowulf, which everyone hated and no one remembers. We were more interested in Mister Ed and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.
I can still make a mean all-butter pound cake, though, which in 1960 landed me a blue ribbon, junior baking division, at the Indiana State Fair (my greatest achievement, aside from winning a ceramic beagle in the fifth-grade spelling bee on the word “mortgage”). I learned about weights and measures and can still figure half of 1/3 cup (2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons), or how many sticks of butter equal a pound (four). I could poach an egg perfectly by age 12, and I still use the same white-sauce technique, although now I jazz it up with fresh peas and spoon it over sizzling salmon croquettes. Granted, unless you work in a prison kitchen, you’ll probably never again make creamed chipped beef, but the eighth-grade lesson provided entertaining gagging and camaraderie.
Few adults sew nowadays. But cooking? Nothing is more hip!
I never wore the bib apron I slaved over for an entire semester, but the exercise taught me how to sew a seam, turn the self-belt inside out, and press it smoothly. After college, frugality prompted me to try making a denim jumper. I could trace a pattern, cut the fabric, pin it properly, and stitch a straight line. Even though the shoulders were poochy and the armholes cockeyed, I enjoyed the process. There is something satisfying about taking on a project, from shopping for materials—the best part, like having won an election but not yet taken office—to completing the work. At the end, you have something you created, start to finish. Unless it’s a series of text messages they have written, I’m not sure many junior-high kids of today know that feeling.
Few adults sew nowadays. But cooking? Nothing is more hip! And just as you can’t write a cogent sentence without learning the parts of speech, neither can you partake in the now-popular pastime without mastering the basics. When cooking started to become cool, my husband decided he’d try his hand at a favorite Italian dish, even though he’d never so much as sauteed an onion. He donned a chef-like baseball cap and played Tony Bennett full-blast. The scene was set. He went about throwing olives into some canned Roma tomatoes that were burning onto the bottom of the pan. At the end, we had something resembling pasta puttanesca. He is highly regarded in his field of law. But I haven’t allowed him near the cooktop since.
A friend who traveled to Italy for a weeklong cooking school shared her photos with me, including one of a warehouse-size room with students at full attention before freestanding stoves and butcher-block benches. Home Ec, only with wine! There, folks willing to shell out $2,000 learned to craft linguini and hang it elegantly on wooden stands, chop zucchini for flan, and sprinkle cocoa powder on luscious, multilayered tiramisu. I assume the students in my friend’s class could already sift flour neatly and braise a roast without burning the place down. You can’t paint a masterpiece until you learn to mix the colors.
Traveling abroad for a sexy culinary class is one thing, but excelling in life is another. I’m a good cook; there, I’ve said it. My kids grew up with healthy, balanced meals, and my husband, who has abandoned his dreams of chefdom, swoons over my comfort foods. In the best of times or the worst, nothing goes down easier than tender Swiss steak or a steaming bowl of chili.
Whether the lesson is U.S. history or blanching green beans, students require an expert. I might not have improved my SAT scores in Home Ec, but the teacher discussed cooking times as seriously as if they were important algebra equations. I also benefited from my mother’s prowess. I stood at her elbow as she dipped chicken pieces into a thick batter, bubbled them in hot oil, and left the fragrant breasts and thighs to drain on a grocery bag. Today, through no fault of their own, families with dual-working or single parents subsist on restaurant meals, carryout, and catch-as-catch-can prepared dinners. There are few culinary role models at home.
I’m not suggesting teens forgo Old Navy for a Butterick pattern of a blouse with a Peter Pan collar, or that girls return to outdated domestic roles, where the happy homemaker offers her man a cool drink and fluffs the pillows. However, some of life’s simplest—and oldest—practices are trending again. Folks are putting up preserves, harvesting honey, and raising chickens in their backyards. I can’t do any of that, but I am proud to say I can still roll out a pretty nice pie dough.
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach