Saturday, September 10, 2011

Home Ec: It's Not Just for Dummies (and it never was)

Embarrassing memory: When I was in high school, I wasn't very respectful of my fellow students who took home economics ("home ec"). After all, I had places to go and I was in a hurry, and my schedule of math, science, and literature did not allow me the time to take home ec.  I'm afraid I was fairly dismissive of what was actually being taught in those classrooms on the second floor that housed stand mixers and sewing machines.

And now? Now I see what a total dummy I was.

Because all those life skills that were taught in home ec either didn't happen for me, or they happened in a haphazard, on-the-fly type of way. You know all those beautiful end-of-summer fruits and vegetables that are currently available? I can only enjoy them in season because I don't know how to preserve them with anything other than the most basic freezing techniques. Canning actually scares me - and I don't scare easily.  I know how to plan meals economically only because I watched my mom do so and I learned through trial and error once I had a family. I've never figured out a cleaning cycle that allows everything in every room in my house to be clean and tidy at the same time. I spend a fortune having my clothes altered. So, yeah, I'm afraid the home ec students are having the last laugh on me.

Of course, many of these tasks can be outsourced, which I, and many of my friends, gladly do. But hiring people costs significant money and without the basic how-to knowledge we can never really oversee the tasks we hire out. In other words, we are at the mercy of the maids, the dry cleaners, the tailors, and the local grocery stores to tell us the best way to clean a bathtub, to remove a red wine stain from an heirloom tablecloth, to hem our  pants or shorten our sleeves so that our clothes look like they were made specifically for us, or to supply a quick meal on the go. We've lost some important control in our lives by not knowing how to do basic life skills.

An interesting article in the New York Times makes the case that bringing back home ec might be good for another reason: to combat obesity. And I think it has merit.

Home ec is where individuals learn the science behind healthy eating - why fruits and vegetables and lean proteins should be the centerpieces of all meals, as well as how to shop, prepare, and store foodstuffs so that a roast chicken enjoyed for Sunday dinner becomes fajitas on Tuesday and finally soup on Friday. That's the economics part of home ec. It sounds like common sense, and it is, but only after you've learned the secrets of cooking and repurposing. Without those keys, your head may be turned by seemingly economical foods (and fake foods) that may offer immediate satiation, but can't go the distance to feed a family for three or more meals.

I come from a long line of home ec'ers. My grandmothers were masters at creating good food for their families with seasonal, local ingredients (their own!) and in preserving those ingredients so that long winters did not mean a lack of vitamins from nutritious foods. My mom,  who holds a degree in home economics/early childhood education, taught meal planning and preparation to women with low incomes and big families. Even my grandfather got involved during the Great Depression and World War II by teaching urbanites how to plant and grow gardens (Victory Gardens!). Side note: times were so difficult during the Depression that my grandfather recounted how families would eat the beans they were given to plant rather than have the patience to plant them and reap an entire crop.

So, even as our schools have become better at AP classes and IB programs, perhaps there is still room in our education system for the life skills that home ec can provide. After all, even if you don't know how to turn on your kitchen appliances, you still need to eat. Fortunately, there are online blogs and resources rushing in to fill the voids in our knowledge. These resources cover everything from tracing the source of a mildewy smell in your home to figuring out how long to cook a turkey. And Martha Stewart is perhaps the most famous home ec'er of all, creating an entire industry around the arts of home making. But you have to seek out those resources rather than have them imparted as part of a well-rounded education. Personally, I think learning the basics of real food vs processed food, how to plan and cook meals, and how to read labels may make a positive difference in addressing the growing roundness of the citizens of this country. At the least, it's food for thought about the tools we all need to live healthy, practical lives.


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