Cookery is a life skill that belongs on the school curriculum

In a world of distractions, cooking helps us to engage fully with the world

The ability to cook for oneself and one’s family is the single most enduring skill that every school-leaver should have mastered confidently before heading off to college or into the job market. Photograph: Thinkstock

The ability to cook for oneself and one’s family is the single most enduring skill that every school-leaver should have mastered confidently before heading off to college or into the job market. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

The debate about what subjects should be included in school curriculums drags on endlessly and repeatedly.

So let’s cut to the quick and make a radical suggestion. Along with daily physical exercise, there is truly only one subject that should be mandatory for all children who attend our schools: cookery.

Call it home economics, domestic science or whatever you like, but the ability to cook for oneself and one’s family is the single most enduring skill that every school-leaver should have mastered confidently before heading off to college or into the job market.

And the instruction in that life-giving skill belongs in our schools.

If that seems like an exaggeration, consider the example given in his new book, The World Beyond Your Head, by philosopher Matthew Crawford.

Crawford is discussing the issue of “a certain understanding of how a person encounters the world beyond his or her head”. He is concerned, above all, with the multiple distractions that today’s hyper-speed technologies use to distract us from being immersed in the task at hand.

And what actors constitute his “case studies of attention in various skilled practices”?

Why, the motorbike rider, of course. And the organ builder. And the short-order cook. That’s right. The guy who is making your Americano right now, behind the counter, while you wait in line reading this on your smartphone, is a classic example of a person who is fully engaged with the world.

As Crawford writes: “A humming kitchen . . . may be regarded as an ecology of attention in which the external demand of feeding people in a timely manner provides a loose structure within which the staff themselves establish an internal order of smooth, adaptive action . . . this is consistent with a shift taking place at the frontiers of cognitive science, in the [still somewhat dissident] movement toward a picture of human beings as having ‘extended’ or ‘embedded’ cognition.”

You thought the guy making your Americano was a barista, yet it turns out he’s actually a philosopher at the frontier of cognitive science. Who knew?

Actually, a lot of people know that cooking – like building organs, or playing music, or riding a motorbike – offers myriad philosophical satisfactions.

“When we watch a cook who is hitting his flow, we see someone inhabiting the kitchen – a space for action that has, in some sense, become an extension of himself,” as Crawford writes.

But that sense of inhabiting the space, of being immersed and engaged with the world and its philosophical potential, can also happen in less pressured spaces than a professional kitchen.

In his foreword to Sandor Katz’s classic book, The Art of Fermentation, writer and food activist Michael Pollan says Katz’s book “is much more than a cookbook . . .

“Sure, it tells you how to do it, but much more important, it tells you what it means, and why an act as quotidian and practical as making your own sauerkraut represents nothing less than a way of engaging with the world.”

Chew that line in your brain in the same, slow way you might chew a tasty piece of pork crackling: “nothing less than a way of engaging with the world”.

Who can ever spoon some fermented shredded cabbage on to their dinner plate in the same mindless way again, after reading that?

Of course, our curriculum arguments marginalise cookery, viewing it as an essentially domestic act and scarcely a professional pursuit.

But if we can broaden our aperture, and see cookery for the philosophical act it is, and respect the profound engagement with the world that the art of cookery delivers to everyone who understands it, then we might begin to consider that those extra 25 points in the Leaving Cert belong not to mathematics, but to cooking.

The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, by Matthew Crawford, is published by Penguin.

John McKenna is editor at guides.ie

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