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Cooking skills: a diminishing art?
Cooking skills: a diminishing art?
Much attention has been directed towards cooking skills and their exclusion from the National Curriculum in England and Wales. As a result, home economics has been "optionalised" and incorporated into a more theoretical and technological framework of "life skills", the implications of which have led to a social policy debate focusing on health implications, skills competency and inequity in the food choice debate.
In Northern Ireland and Scotland, home economics has been retained in the curriculum, with practical cookery remaining a main element of the syllabus at key stage 3, including, for example, preparation of food commodities, healthy eating themes and food preparation using different cooking techniques, e.g. stir frying. Elsewhere in the UK, this "hands-on" approach has been removed from the curriculum to the extent that "home economics" no longer appears, with food being one of the materials studied in technology.
The literature contains commentaries on the de-skilling, de-domestication and redundancy of traditional cooking skills (Caraher et al., 1999; Caraher and Lang, 1999; Stitt, 1996), with the general consensus that there are few baseline data from which information regarding how often and what people cook can be obtained (Caraher and Lang, 1999).
It has been stated that health is unequivocally linked to food skills and cooking (Caraher and Lang, 1999). For example, alongside a lack of confidence when preparing food is the reliance upon pre-processed and cooked foods with their high levels of fat, sugar and salt. Similarly, without cooking skills, control over what one purchases and eats is diminished and somewhat manipulated by the growing power of the retailer, irrespective of the high cost of such ready meals.
For people as individuals, "food and mealtimes are imbued with social and cultural meaning" (Leather, 1992). Therefore, central to that theory is the ability to prepare a main meal rather than merely reassemble a ready meal. To this end, the theory of social exclusion can be applied.
Social exclusion refers to the "segment of the population unable to participate in British economic, political, social and cultural life" (The Economist, 1997). We have already identified our common food culture and "diet can be both a material and social psychological mechanism for social exclusion" (Caraher and Lang, 1999). The cost of succumbing to the norm and routinely purchasing ready made meals is a barrier to food choice. The argument also exists that poor cooking skills may intensify the sense of social exclusion that may already be felt by the lower-income or de-skilled consumer.
However, there is another integral debate. As it is largely the female partner who is responsible for provisioning and feeding the household, the return to meals cooked from basic ingredients could mean the female householder being shackled to the kitchen in this age of sexual equality.
Are women still doing the cooking?
Social trends have changed. Murcott has conducted research into this area and has written that finance "... is not the only limit to 'choice' ... there are examples of social, non-financial constraints on food choice" (Murcott, 1998). She reports that women are still responsible for provisioning, organising the kitchen and doing the household's cooking and that men who are not in gainful employment may well conduct the household shopping trip but are armed with a list devised by their employed wives (Murcott, 2000). Murcott reported Williams' (1998) findings that women in all age groups were primarily responsible for household cooking. The same is true in the case of age groups approaching and after retirement since women undertake more of the domestic work than their husbands. This inequity is redressed somewhat among younger counterparts whereby younger unmarried women undertook on average just ten minutes more housework (including cooking) a day than unmarried men. Similarly, Vaines (1999) has stated that food is gendered: women are mainly in charge. Anderson (1996), in her report on the "marriage menu", concluded that in over half of the couples it was the female partner who bore responsibility for buying and preparing the food. The "marriage menu" provides illustrative data of present day household trends. Initially one may consider that the image of the exploited domesticated female is outdated and that a more equitable division of household tasks is the norm. However, in 13 of the 22 couples surveyed it was the female partner who reported sole responsibility for meal provision, two of the male partners undertook sole charge of the kitchen while among the seven remaining couples the task was reportedly evenly divided.
A more recent study consolidates the above findings. In Kyle's (1999) study, 14 of the 20 male partners admitted that it was their female counterpart who cooked while simultaneously noting increased comprehension and involvement of the multiple facets the task of cooking incorporates behind the scenes (for example, menu planning, budgeting and purchasing).
An increasing trend has been to eat out more often as a substitute for cooking main meals from raw ingredients. For example, expenditure on eating out accounted for 28 per cent of the 1997/1998 food budget. Similarly, the UK spends approximately 2.1 per cent of its total food expenditure on ready meals (NISRA, 1999). Whether the above phenomenon is attributable to changing lifestyles or to inability and disinclination to cook is open to interpretation.
Other demographic trends may play an intricate part in changing skills competency. For example, there is a gradual ageing of the population and associated decreasing physical ability and dexterity with age may contribute to inability or lack of motivation to cook. There is an increase in the proportion of one-person households and reduction in large households (households with more than five individuals). Interpretations may reflect on a lack of enthusiasm or desire to be bothered to cook for one person or reduced household sizes when ready meals are ever available and require less effort in this era when microwave ownership is the norm (NISRA, 1999).
This is a phenomenon which has been allowed and indeed often encouraged by industry with an increasing selection of high quality, ready meals offering a mealtime solution in minutes and merely requiring assembly of the meal on the plate. Time is becoming the currency of the future with the growing notion that it can be better spent elsewhere than in the kitchen.
Furthermore, there is an increasing female participation in the workforce and augmented financial independence making processed foods more economically feasible and affordable. Cooking ultimately means a dual role for women. Social trends have changed and there are currently more women who are mothers and who have a career. McRae (1987) shows that women are almost always responsible for meals, even when they work a longer day away from home than their husbands. However, the gap between lower and higher socio-economic strata are widening and this is appreciable in the increase in lone-parentage (25 per cent of Northern Ireland families are now headed by a lone parent) which may result in less time and finance being available to this consumer group for cooking meals from unprocessed ingredients.
The continual consumption of convenience food, however, ignores the range of other meanings and satisfaction which cooking can provide. Cooking a meal from basic ingredients has an associated sense of accomplishment and creativity and fulfils the psychological needs of familial and social cohesion (Murcott, 1986; Dixey, 1996). It is a lifeskill with a social aspect. Similarly, convenience is relative to the consumer and control is paramount since the cook has the control over ingredients and ultimate food safety. Fundamental to the argument (and indeed to human rights in general) is the individual's right to choose, which has been somewhat diminished if one's right to learn such a lifeskill is removed.
Indeed is Northern Ireland atypical of the UK or European picture as far as cooking meals is concerned. Certainly Northern Ireland consumers spend more on food to be eaten at home than do mainland UK counterparts. In Northern Ireland, £62.90 is spent on food compared to £55.90 on the mainland, and Northern Ireland consumers similarly spend an average of £7.80 per household per week eating out in restaurants while mainland consumers spend up to an average of £9.47 which would suggest that Northern Ireland is more home cooking oriented than is the mainland UK (NISRA, 1999).
But is the Northern Ireland situation as negatively affected since practical cookery has been retained? In response to a dearth of baseline data, this study attempts to discuss data from a Northern Ireland perspective, interviewing a sample of 732 heads of households in Northern Ireland. Data were drawn using stratified random sampling and an interviewer-assisted questionnaire. The questionnaire enquired into gender, age, occupation, household income, household size, whether or not the respondent studied home economics at school, how he/she would rate his/her cooking skills and the most likely mealtime solution for the household. The data were analysed using SPSS for Windows Version 9; correlations were determined using the chi-square test and results are outlined below.
Results and discussion
The demographics of the respondent sample base were 29.8 per cent male with a fairly representative spread across all age categories with the modal age category being between the ages of 25 and 34 years. Over a quarter (28.5 per cent) of the sample were from social class E or social grading V as defined by the Registrar General and the majority had a household income of £200 or more.
A total of 55 per cent of the respondents studied home economics at some stage in their school experience and 53 per cent self-reported a degree of competency when cooking whilst agreeing that they similarly enjoyed cooking. Conversely, 13.1 per cent suggested that they were good cooks but did not enjoy it; almost 16 per cent claimed that they were not good cooks while 17.2 per cent reported that they never cook or cook only when they have to.
Following on from the above, the respondents were asked what a typical mealtime routine would entail. A minority of almost 2 per cent answered that they would routinely order take away food for their main evening meal; 14.5 per cent would defrost a ready meal; over half (51.4 per cent) would cook a meal using a mixture of both raw and processed ingredients while almost one third would cook meals from basic, unprocessed ingredients.
Statistically significant relationships (using the chi-square test) were revealed between sex, age and occupation of the respondents and their cooking ability and mealtime routines. Gender was found to correlate significantly with having ever studied home economics at school, which was, as might be expected, skewed significantly towards female uptake (X 2/3 = 146.57, p < 0.001). Likewise, self-reported cooking skills among females were greater (X 2/5 = 94.45, p < 0.001). Despite this fact however, the statistical test also revealed that females disliked the task and perceived it as a chore.
These findings are in keeping with Caraher et al. (1999) who suggest that cooking culture is gendered, and again with Lang et al. (1996) who report differences in cooking skills associated with income, gender and social class.
Age seemed a determinant as to whether or not the respondent had studied home economics in his/her school career. The older respondents had reduced opportunities for studying home economics (X 2/15> = 104.31, p < 0.001) whilst the younger respondents had the opportunity to study home economics at school. These findings are particularly poignant considering the current endangered state of practical cookery in the UK.
Occupation was shown to have a statistically significant relationship with usual mealtime routine since a larger proportion of the higher income consumers habitually purchased takeaways and ready meals for their main evening meal (X 2/25 = 9.36, p < 0.001). As degree of competency when cooking increased, a parallel decrease in reliance upon takeaways and ready meals was distinguishable (X 2/25 = 182.39, p < 0.001) with a subsequent shift towards food preparation from basic ingredients using a mixture of both processed and unrefined foodstuffs.
Results from this study have shown that despite the lack of baseline data in Northern Ireland two thirds of those surveyed rated their cooking skills as good, with 83 per cent routinely preparing a main meal from raw ingredients. Cooking skills have also been shown to be correlated to age, gender and social class. Therefore, future work and associated social and health policy needs to concentrate on the inequity of the situation bearing in mind that reduced skill coincides with reduced choice and health status.
This cooking skills competency study is part of a broader study currently being conducted by the research team into the existence of "food deserts" in both rural and urban areas of Northern Ireland.
As has been suggested above, cooking skills may impact upon food choice and if food choice is further inhibited by lack of easy access to fresh food, expensive produce or poor availability of the same then the consequences may be far reaching. However if fresh food is available but the individual does not have the skills to prepare it nutritiously with confidence then the result also impinges upon food choice and ultimate health status. (The food desertification study is a timely study in light of the arrival of the UK multiples into the Northern Ireland grocery market.)
Sinéad Furey, Heather McIlveen, Christopher Strugnell and Gillian ArmstrongUniversity of Ulster, N. Ireland
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