The following piece first appeared on Mother Jones. For more great content from Mother Jones Magazine, click here to subscribe.
I was a rotten high school student, a shirker and smart-ass of the first rank. I even found myself purged from a typing class for bad behavior—an event I regret to this precise moment, since touch-typing is obviously a convenient skill for someone in my profession. Afterward, I had to choose another "elective." Naturally, I seized upon home economics—in which, I hoped, I'd spend my time amusing girls with wisecracks and whipping up desserts from boxed mixes. If memory serves, that's exactly how it played out—especially the bit about the just-add-water confections. Mmmm, instant cake.
In other words, I retained just as much from my home ec class as I did from my failed stint as a student of the keyboard: which is to say, nothing. Yet Ruth Graham's recent Boston Globe essay "Bring back home ec! The case for a revival of the most retro class in school"strikes me as spot on. Graham isn't talking about the home ec of my misspent '80s youth, nor that of quaint stereotypes featuring "visions of future homemakers quietly whisking white sauce or stitching rickrack onto an apron."
She means a revitalized, contemporary home economics for all genders, one capable of at least exposing youth to basic skills that so many adults (i.e., their parents) lack: "to shop intelligently, cook healthily, [and] manage money." And I think such a reimagined home ec should move from the shadowy margins it now occupies—the field has been rebranded as "Family and Consumer Science," Graham reports—and become mandatory for all high school kids, and—why not?—even elementary school ones.
I have witnessed firsthand the vexed state of basic cooking skills among the young. When I helped run the kitchen at Maverick Farms for seven years, I noticed that most of our interns couldn't chop an onion or turn even just-picked produce into a reasonably good dish in a reasonable amount of time. And these were people motivated enough about food to intern at a small farm in rural North Carolina. If I had their cooking skills, I'd be tempted to resort to takeout often, just to save time.
It's true that in my home ec class nearly a quarter century ago, we weren't taught how to handle a knife or follow a simple recipe for a from-scratch dish. But home ec wasn't always so vapid. Graham points to New York Times reporter Michael Moss' great 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat, which contains a brief history of the home ec trade in US public schools.
The convenience food industry that's so powerful and entrenched today was just taking root in the 1950s. And as it began to aggressively market its products to a growing US middle class, it "faced one real obstacle," Moss writes: the "army of school teachers and federal outreach workers who insisted on promoting home-cooked meals, prepared the old fashioned way."
Home ec teachers explicitly battled against the industry's claims of convenience, Moss shows. In 1957, he writes, the American Home Economics Association conducted a demo pitting a commercial cake mix against a homemade batter, Moss reports. "As reported in the association's journal, the homemade cake not only cost less and tasted better, it took only five more minutes to prepare, cook, and serve." Plus the batter could be made in advance and stored, "for quick parceling out when a cake was needed." Home-ec teachers also schooled their charges in frugal shopping, teaching them to "avoid buying things they didn't need."