BASIC INGREDIENTS

Many years ago, one of my most successful former students – she had been in a few of my undergrad classes at a previous institution – called me in a panic. I had heard from her fairly regularly on the internet, and our conversations were a mix of me giving her pep talks for the difficult first few years post-graduation and her regaling me with awesome Washington DC insider stories ("I saw ____ vomiting in the bushes last night.") But here I could tell something else was wrong.

Long story short, it turned out to be rather amusing (from my end). She had met a young man she liked, and had "panicked" and invited him over for dinner. Now in the cold light of day she was realizing that she didn't actually know how to cook anything. So, with considerable help from Rachel Ray I talked her through a basic action plan and the problem was solved.

Later, after I thought about the implications, I asked her: out of curiosity, you've been living independently for something like five years. Without even the most basic cooking skills (she really was at Ground Zero; I sent her a copy of the invaluable How to Boil Water cookbook) what the hell had she been eating all this time? Obviously a Young Professional is getting a lot of carry-out and delivery food, a lot of restaurant meals, and so on. But you have to make something to eat sometime. At least occasionally.

The answer: "Healthy Choice frozen meals. And nachos."

It was at that moment that I became convinced that American schools need to devote a semester or two during K-12 to teaching kids how to cook. Home Economics classes get a bad rap because of their historical role as something "For Girls" intended to shepherd young women into a lifetime of uncompensated domestic labor. But think about some of the problems that could be solved if every student left high school with the basic skills and knowledge to make 10 to 15 simple meals with ingredients costing between $5 and $10.

I know there are a lot of other problems, like the cost and geographic availability of food. But the knowledge simply isn't there in a lot of cases, and the blithe assumption that young people are learning to cook from their families or from osmosis or from the internet isn't helping. Imagine how much the dependence on low-priced fast food or high-calorie garbage food (Doritos can be a meal if you have a 2-liter with them!) if young adults were flung into independence with at least some knowledge of what to do with the kitchen part of the apartment other than fill it with chips and granola bars.

How hard would it be for each school district, combining contributions from parents, students, and teachers, to come up with a dozen things suitable to local preferences and spend less than schools routinely spend on less useful pursuits buying the ingredients? Hell, you could probably get half of it for free when the grocery stores are getting ready to throw it out. Or hell, just have the state pony up the money after admitting that this is going to save millions in the long run.

It seems uncontroversial enough, but I'm sure there's something I'm missing that would turn this into a pitched battle in the culture wars.