I’m sick in bed today, and even though I slept until 11:30 (that’s UK time), I still have to fill the hours until I can quell the sniffles and headache with another massive dose of sleep. So I snuggled down under the comforters and played 4 episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, in reverse order, from a British TV website. Having just come back from LA, I was miserable that I was missing the season.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Jamie’s: I love his casual attitude in the kitchen. Look, on one episode, a kid dropped a frying pan full of chicken on the floor, and Jamie said, “Three second rule!” That’s my kind of home cooking. I think he’s charismatic. And when his Italian restaurant opened in Oxford when I was in grad school, it was one of the few establishments in that town where I actually wanted to eat. I wish he could do something about Oxford dining hall meals! But why I particularly support his Food Revolution is because I remember so vividly the food we had at my elementary school growing up.
Every day we sat in two neat, pressed, prim little rows, down long indoor picnic tables. And somewhat Harry Potter-like, a spread, a feast, would appear, in a long train down the center of each table. What I remember most were the whole, crisp, buttery-golden roast chickens. All around were bowls of cooked carrots, rice, buttered green beans. Bowls of apples, oranges, and bananas. Yes, there were pizza days, but they were like Christmas. And the days when we got waffle fries were like Christmas squared. Of course, kids love pizza and waffle fries. I still love them both! But we knew they were a treat. And I always loved lunch time, because we sat down in little families, and ate good food. My friend Caroline and I used to compete to see who could eat the most green beans in one sitting, and the kitchen staff would get in on it, and bring out extra bowls. If that’s not a supportive school, I don’t know what is.
There was a salad bar that you graduated to in middle school. That was an event. You were old enough to choose your own vegetables. If you want kids to eat more vegetables, make it a treat, a privilege. There was never any soda on campus ever. We had frozen fruit popsicles for dessert, and bowls of fruit and graham crackers and low fat plain milk for snacks. In science class, I remember we weighed clementines to learn how to use the scales, and then we could eat them little bright juicy segment by segment.
I’ll be the first to admit, it was a privileged school. But it was also a school that deeply prided itself on education for life. An all-girl school, it taught not only rigorous courses in Latin and algebra, but also dance, drama, botany, religion, music, were all mandatory. They were trying to cultivate the Renaissance woman. The Jacky Kennedy who could feel at home in every conversation, every situation, and prevail with cultivated sangfroid. And I was sad, when I recently went to an alumnae event and discovered that so much of what was once deemed mandatory was deserted. Too old-fashioned. And I was disappointed. Because as a woman who went through the Ivy League, who graduated with honors from an MBA program, I often feel that the best, most valuable education I ever received was the one I had earliest on, one that taught me poise, interest, and accomplishment in what might today be considered a very old-fashioned, not quite politically correct way.
What does that have to do with food? As I’ve started Working Girl Dinners, I’ve been thinking more and more about why it is that so few people today know how to cook. And I don’t mean dinner party cooking; I mean square meal cooking. Something on the table to eat. And at the risk of treading on the toes of feminism, I think it has something to do with the very opportunities that we women now have. We have broken free of the shackles of the kitchen. Grown up to do whatever we wanted. And I think we might be the first generation whose mothers also broke free, if with more struggle, from the apron strings. No one, once freed from prison, ever wants to go back. Now that we can get MBAs and jostle with the men on Wall Street, we see basic household chores as beneath us. Unsuitable to be taught in schools. Even degrading. Now that we are awakening to a world where food is once again exciting, and where awareness for health is not only necessary, but at times really fun and engaging, we are looking around our diploma-studded walls wondering how we forgot to learn how to do man’s most basic chore: put fire to food, and cook.
I believe I remember Anna Wintour’s 2008 Vogue comment referring to Hillary Clinton some years ago when she said, and I’m summarizing, that a woman doesn’t have to wear a man’s suit to be successful, to be powerful. I, for one, pride myself on an fairly intense level of femininity mixed with Princeton-approved success. Because that to me is the true self-sufficiency that we sought a generation ago. Paying the bills, and putting dinner on the table. If you can do both those things, no one has any power over you whatsoever. You are master of your fate–and your plate. That, to me, is real power.
So, I commend Jamie Oliver for saying that we should have culinary education in our schools. If we want a country that can stand on its own two feet, we need to learn more than quadratics and policy. We need to learn how to boil water.