Time to put the glorious culture of food on the school trip menu

People have had life-altering experiences with food during the crucial teenage years

At some point during every food conference, culinary congress, grub camp or agricultural symposium, a well-meaning panel member or audience member will stand up and say: “We can’t get real progress on health/diet/obesity/illness/well-being until young people in school are introduced to and educated about a real food culture”.

And everyone nods and agrees, and suggests that we need transition year programmes and compulsory cookery classes and real nutrition advice and school gardens, and until we get these things, nothing much will change.

Meantime, whilst all the talking heads are nodding agreement, the annual school trip to Tralee Waterworld for Jack and Sarah’s national school is under way, or the third years in Ballymuck Community College are having a day up in the city seeing how the Circuit Court conducts its business.

Time for lunch
And look, is that the time already? It's time for lunch.


So everyone clambers on board the bus again, and the bus drives to the car park of a fast food restaurant. Or the teenagers are told: “Everyone back at the Hugh Lane in 45 minutes, and we’ll be doing the Francis Bacon next”, and off they go to KFC. Twenty minutes later, junk finished, everyone is back on the bus again, or walking back to the museum, ready for an afternoon of culture.

The dilemma of the school trip that is designed to introduce our children to the culture of our society – artistic, bureaucratic, political, recreational – but which also makes the concession of bringing them to a fast food stop is not just a bad joke. It is not even just a serious missed opportunity. It is a screaming contradiction.

On the one hand, we are saying to the children: look, here is culture. Here is how the Dáil works. Look at the happy pets on the pet farm. Get involved in the debating society. Campaign for electoral reform so kids can vote at the age of 16. What do you really think of Francis Bacon’s canvases or Harry Clarke’s glasswork?

Then we are saying: go and have a burger and fries and a milkshake in a bland, anonymous plastic room where badly paid people undertake mechanised work and serve “food” that has no discernible culture whatsoever. I mean: come on.

The pity of this disjuncture lies in the fact that very many people have had life-altering experiences with food and culture at precisely these impressionable teenage years.

"When I was 15 I had a life-changing cookery lesson", writes the great food writer Diana Henry, who hails from Co Down.

"At the kitchen table of a cottage in rural France, with Plastic Bertrand screaming Ça plane pour moi out of a tinny radio, I watched a master at work. My penpal Clothilde rubbed a cut clove of garlic around the inside of a china bowl. She then added Dijon mustard, wine vinegar, salt, pepper and a sprinkling of chopped chives. "Always chives?" I asked.

'Always olive oil'
"No, sometimes mint, sometimes parsley. Ça dépend. But always olive oil," she said as she deftly added a stream of Provençal olive oil, whisking all the time with a fork."

"I still remember the meal that turned me on to good food", Paul Flynn, of Dungarvan's Tannery Restaurant, wrote in his first book, An Irish Adventure with Food.

“I was 14 and in France with the scouts. There was a welcome dinner for the Irish scouts – we were served roasted chicken legs in a white wine and tarragon cream sauce with pilaf rice. I took one mouthful of that chicken, with its flavours and textures which were so strange to me at that time, and I was hooked.”

My own experience was less emphatic than Ms Henry’s or Mr Flynn’s, but no less profound.

I used to backpack and ride the trains around the European capitals, swallowing up museums and galleries like an unquenchable culture vulture.

And then, one day, I realised that the culture I was looking at on the walls was dead, and that there was a living culture exhibited on the plate in front of me on the table at lunch and dinner, a culture that actually told me something about how people actually lived their lives in Rome, or Paris or Istanbul.

Now I can appreciate every teacher’s retort to my suggestion that school trips might feature a food experience as part of the day out.

Is everyone in class 3B going to head downstairs to Chapter One for lunch as part of a trip to the Hugh Lane? Are the transition year boys and girls going to be entertained in the Dáil café after listening to some debates? Come on: get real.

But let's not kid ourselves that we can encourage and develop a real understanding of food and healthy eating amongst our children if we say to them: this is culture, and it is important. And this is food, but it's just fuel.

John McKenna is author of The Irish Food Guide www.guides.ie