Belfast Telegraph

Jamie Oliver is right to stir it up over cooking lessons in our schools

By Grace Dent

Jamie Oliver speaks a lot of sense. Of course, I would say that, I tend always to agree with him. Oliver's latest off-the-cuff comment - primed to infuriate thin-skinned whiners - pillories the shambolic nature of compulsory school cooking lessons.

"They are not measured or evaluated. Not all teachers know what's required," Oliver says. "We are seeing everything from schools rewriting their entire curriculum around food, to schools that say: 'We do a bit of cooking... we make fairy cakes in year one'."

Oliver's comment will no doubt ruffle the feathers of the teachers who truly are trying to equip kids with the bare basics of feeding themselves.

However, two things we do know about Jamie Oliver are that he says what he sees and that he has long since had a bee in his bonnet about Britain's widespread inability to peel an onion or scramble an egg, and wants to teach our kids.

Kids must be armed with kitchen skills to give them an alternative to quick-and-easy. We fret about the nation's growing obesity and health problems but seem to make little meaningful connection between children "not being able to peel a carrot" and "not eating many of them".

In my dream academy, no child would be permitted to leave school until they could cook a spud four separate ways. Extra points would be awarded for producing a risotto, which we all know is a bit of a faff but is ultimately character-building.

Of course, it's no help that our national attitude to cooking is vastly askew. We are fed an endless prime-time glut of Masterchef and other replica TV trash, where accomplished cooks queue up to make difficult, inaccessible dishes.

A constant reminder blares throughout, insisting that cooking must be perfect, puzzling and conducted under pressure. Sweating chefs smear plates with edible emulsions, then other more lofty chefs stand around slagging it off.

There is little room on television to celebrate and honour plain matriarchal and patriarchal "get-the-job-done" cooking. Perhaps this is why Jamie Oliver has been so successful. He really does try to show "meals in minutes" and encourage us to believe that slapdash is still okay.

But, for the most part, we labour under the myth that cooking must be stressful and that cooking plain dinners - spag bol, chicken saag, pasta bake, toad in the hole, fajitas - is "failing".

There are no trophies in prime-time finals for the home cook who finds 88 captivating ways to serve minced beef to their family over one year. No one gets a prize on BBC One for making cauliflower cheese for six in 45 minutes (which is ironic, as millions of us would find this task utterly impossible).

In this "be the best, or don't bother" atmosphere it's unsurprising many have just given up the stove. But, at more woolly level, I believe vehemently that being able to cook for oneself is an important and subtle act of self-respect.

When the world seems against you, becoming lost in the ruminative process of making a lasagne or a pan of lentil soup can become a highly soothing process.

The chopping, the peeling, the stirring, the thinking. This time without social media, deadlines or other people's input can be very restorative.

Yes, cooking can be sociable - if you're privileged enough to have a large dining table and the requisite gang of loyal mates to clutter it. But, on a day-to-day level, cooking is a simple gesture of self-appreciation. Learning to love yourself is the greatest - and tastiest - love of all.

Belfast Telegraph

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