Expert view: Has cooking always been a dying art?
Oct 21 2008 by Val Javin, Huddersfield Daily Examiner
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been in Rotherham trying to get local people cooking. But is this inability to rustle up simple meals something new? Dr Rob Ellis, senior research fellow, School of Applied Sciences, University of Huddersfield investigates
LOOKING at the television schedules, one might be forgiven for thinking that we have somehow lost not only our cooking skills but also our taste for fresh, unprocessed foods.
Programmes such as What To Eat Now (currently being aired on BBC2) remind us to eat seasonally, taking us on a “mouth-watering adventure through the very best of autumn food”.
This emphasis on seasonality is regularly championed by other broadcasters including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and it seems to be capturing a particular mood. The growing popularity of organic food and growing waiting lists for allotments both seem to point to us wanting to know more about the food we eat and where it comes from.
Yet, the latest programme from Jamie Oliver presents an altogether different picture of Britain’s eating habits.
Filmed in nearby Rotherham, the programme charts Jamie’s latest attempt to wean people off processed and take-away food.
His aim is to teach a selection of new recipes to a small band of recruits, who can then become evangelists for healthier eating.
At the start of the programme, his prospects looked bleak. One woman’s diet includes 10 packets of crisps a day and one of the young mums on the programme admits to regularly giving her young family kebab meat and chips from her local takeaway.
On the whole the participants cite very modern reasons for their poor diets. Some work long hours and do not have the time, some have little money and the alternatives are seen as more expensive and less convenient.
Significantly also, many of the participants lack even the most basic cooking skills.
One doesn’t know how to turn a hob on, one doesn’t know what boiling water looks like and there is some confusion about what the word ‘simmer’ means.
The overall aim of Jamie’s campaign is to get people cooking again, but should we be surprised at these examples of modern day kitchen incompetence?
The short answer is not really. In the nineteenth century, Mrs Beeton’s Household Management sold a couple of million copies within its first few years of publication but, just as now, book sales by “celebrity” chefs do not tell the whole story.
Although standards of living have changed, concerns about people “forgetting how to cook” have been a recurring theme.
William Cobbett, for example, complained that “to buy the thing ready made is the taste of the day: thousands, who are housekeepers, buy their dinners ready cooked”, and that was in 1830!
Clearly, the emphasis here is on women and expectations about their role within the home but, for many people, affording the ingredients of a satisfying meal was a major problem.
One survey of the poorer labouring classes in the 1860s revealed that the diet of some families in Yorkshire consisted mainly of tea, bread and milk, with portions of bacon rationed throughout the week.
Despite these austere circumstances some felt that the practice of domestic economy could make limited resources stretch much further.
One Yorkshire medic suggested class tuition for the many wives and future wives “who would be puzzled to boil a potato in a creditable manner.”
Jamie’s own classes have been inspired by the advice and guidance provided by the Ministry of Food during the Second World War.
The success of the Ministry depended on a number of factors, not least a greater understanding of the science of nutrition.
While many were happy to take advice on cooking with new products, such as whale meat or dehydrated foods, this does not mean that the message always got through.
Records reveal that less than half of the fruit juices available were taken up during the war and one woman wrote to the Ministry to complain about the National Wheat flour that had replaced less nutritious but much more popular white flour.
After sieving the flour through some old stockings, she boasted “I got all your vitamins out and gave them to the pigs.”
So far, the residents of Rotherham haven’t gone quite that far but it clear that not all of them share Jamie’s commitment.
Others in the town have complained that its portrayal as a culinary desert is unfair.
For these people the lost art of cooking was never lost. For others, it seems, it has been lost many times before which must make us wonder if there ever was a golden age of cooking.
Of course this isn’t just about one town in South Yorkshire and nor is it simply about our twenty first century relationship with food. To understand this it seems that history books are as important as recipe books.