Let's Make Home Ec Rad(ical)

The traditional American cooking curriculum should be updated with the growing income disparity and a shrinking middle class in mind.

With obesity on the rise, home ec classes could give millennials the skills they need to eat healthier. (D Services/Flickr)

Oct 15, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

With women more concerned about glass ceilings than preparing for lives as homemakers, and with male chefs dominating the popular culture of cooking, the skills and gender politics that were once associated with Home Economics are beyond outdated.

Still, there’s a wealth of basic cooking knowledge that millennials have never learned, and with a lingering obesity epidemic and other food-related health concerns becoming ever more prevalent, maybe cooking classes, less the sexism, should make a return to U.S. school?

That’s the case Ruth Graham made earlier this week in a story for the Boston Globe, titled “Bring back home ec!”

“Though it may now seem impossible,” she writes of Home Economics as envisioned by Ellen Swallow Richards, who coined the term in the 1890s, “the discipline was originally rooted in progressive and even feminist thinking. The idea was to bring scientific rigor into the home, and to professionalize women’s domestic work, bringing dignity and efficiency to both.”

The story puts forward an approach true to these roots, but updated to address the modern, industrialized food world.

If Richards’ Home Ec was progressive, then the other largely forgotten school of cooking that was thriving in the same years goes a step further—and is more deserving of a revival.

Born just a year earlier than Richards, Juliet Corson promoted a school of cooking that might be better suited to the term Home Economics. The founder of the New York School of Cooking, where she taught cooking classes for the poor, and the author of the 1877 book Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families, Corson’s work was dedicated to finding ways for impoverished people, like herself, to eat and live better despite economic hardship.

The book came out while the American economy was still reeling from the Panic of 1873, when the unemployment rate hovered around 20 percent. As Christine Baumgarthuber writes about 15-Cent Dinners for The New Inquiry, “Many Americans were in desperate need of Corson’s brand of social reform. The economic dislocation caused by rapid industrialization and cycles of financial panics mired millions of families in poverty.”

Corson’s slim book became one of the most popular cookbooks of the era.

Healthiness was inherent to Corson’s approach—dishes were geared at sustaining factory workers through grueling 15-hour shifts—and her thrifty approach didn’t sacrifice flavor. “Dandelion, corn salad, chicory, mint, sorrel, fennel, marshmallows, tarragon, chives, mustard, and wild cresses ought to adorn the proletarian table,” Baumgarthuber writes of Corson’s recipes.

It did not, however, having the lasting power of Home Ec classes, which were codified in school curriculums for decades until they were was eventually cast off in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a relic of an outdated era of female domesticity.

But if we’re talking about reviving a cooking curriculum, perhaps it’s Corson’s approach that should be promoted instead of Swallow’s Home Economics.

The major argument made for bringing back Home Ec in the Globe story has to do with nutrition, with combating childhood obesity, with teaching about the health ills of processed foods. There are brief mentions of budgeting and the recession, but it's a secondary focus.

In today’s still struggling (and maybe soon to re-crash, if the debt limit isn’t raised) economic climate—with growing income disparity, a gutted middle-class, and federal food assistance both stigmatized and reduced—a radical approach to the economics of food, one akin to Corson’s working-class focus, seems fitting. They would no longer be 15-cent dinners, but if today’s poor could manage to eat “if not like a king, then perhaps like his boss,” as Baumgarthurber writes of the promise the book offered in the late 19th century, such a revised approach to Home Economics might very well catch on.