When I was a boy, my grandmother would take me for a ride to the fields outside Santa Barbara so we could pick mustard greens. She held her big apron open wide and I filled it. Then we'd go home and she'd make minestra with the greens and some beans and herbs, a light soup that would last us for days.
I have been thinking of my grandmother's soup a lot lately. These days people are actually paying a lot of money to go to Italy and learn from women like her how to cook such humble food, often called "la cucina povera." I thought of her when I watched the new film Fed Up, in which Katie Couric follows four families with overweight children as they struggle to learn what's healthy for them to eat. They don't know how to make dinner except by opening packages, cans, and jars.
Americans have forgotten how to cook. The irony is that, as Michael Pollan has observed, as a nation we spend far more time watching cooking shows than we do actually cooking.
Packaged foods are full of all kinds of artificial flavors and preservatives that my grandmother would not recognize, as well as high in sodium. As Fed Up shows, nearly all of it has sweeteners added to make it taste better. There's an amazing statistic in there: 80 percent of the 600,000 food products sold in the U.S. have added sugar. Americans' consumption of sugar has increased to the point that we now consume on average, 78 pounds of added sugars per person annually. Many experts interviewed in the film agree that this is one of the major culprits behind our current crisis in public health -- of early-onset juvenile diabetes, heart disease, and more.
I believe it. Fortunately, I also believe we can reverse it. We simply need to bring back cooking as a basic life skill that we teach our children.
Remember Home Ec? Let's reimagine it for the world we're in now -- and this time for boys and girls. Maybe their parents can come, too. So many people are struggling with their "home economics." Even though convenience foods may seem cheap, they're almost always more expensive per serving than the home-made version. Our modern-day Home Ec would combine cooking with "food literacy": where food comes from (the Earth -- not the grocery story, and definitely not the gas station!), what to do with it, and how to read ingredient labels.
Being able to cook for yourself is essential to a healthy lifestyle. That's why the Harvard School of Public Health has joined forces with the Culinary Institute of America to teach doctors about the nutritional benefits of cooking real food.
The lack of skilled cooks is also a business problem for me. I run a large food service company that cooks everything from scratch, including stocks, sauces, and soups. We have hundreds of job openings for entry-level kitchen staff all over the country that we struggle to fill. Too few applicants have good knife skills or can put together a flavorful beef stock.
These are jobs that can't be outsourced overseas, that pay more than minimum wage, that don't require a fancy degree -- just some basic skills. Skills we should all have.
It worries me that even many highly educated people have grown up not knowing how to cook. They can crack the books, they can crack code, but they can't crack an egg.
At many schools and workplaces, we offer basic cooking classes that always fill up. We run a teaching kitchen at Washington University in St. Louis for our chefs to use with students, faculty and staff. We've partnered with our client Google in a café at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, that runs cooking and nutrition classes for Googlers every day. (It's extremely high tech, of course.)
It's better to reach them before they leave the nest, however. All over the country, there are pockets of Home Ec 2.0 revolutionaries doing so. The unstoppable Alice Waters launched the Edible Schoolyard project with a few schools here in the San Francisco Bay Area 17 years ago. Now there are more than a thousand K-12 schools that have some sort of "edible education" program, with food gardens and cooking classes. The Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), a wonderful Chicago public charter school, uses food as the foundation for its entire curriculum. I love hanging out with those kids. They are just amazing. So is Debra Eschmeyer, cofounder of FoodCorps, whose young leaders teach cooking as part of their food literacy program in schools.
Despite what you may see on Top Chef, cooking doesn't have to be hard. Even a child can make a simple, delicious meal with inexpensive yet nutritious ingredients -- if someone will just show him how.
Last year I vacationed in Italy and cooked with an old friend, Umberto. Together we made fresh pasta with just flour and eggs, something I've been doing since I was 8. The sauce: dried and fresh porcini mushrooms with shallots, garlic, and white wine. It was la cucina povera, yes, but to me it was incredibly rich. My grandmother would have been proud.