It’s real name was “industrial arts and crafts.” Administrators believed boys would eventually go into a skilled trade, like carpentry or auto mechanics. This was 55 years ago, when skilled trades were still a desirable profession. In shop class, boys learned how to use hand tools, how to cut metal and use a table saw, how to make simple repairs to an automobile and they learned generally how things work.
Girls, on the other hand, were routinely ushered into home economics, where they learned to sew, to knit and to cook. Administrators believed girls would eventually marry and they would rely on what they learned in “home ec” in order to keep house for their husbands and children.
Times have changed and such beliefs about the eventual careers of teenagers have faded. Shop classes disappeared from high schools and reappeared in vocational schools and community colleges. Home ec classes are still around, although in vastly depleted numbers. Today, such classes are known as “family and consumer sciences,” and topics might include community gardening, composting, or even hydroponics.
I can make a case for the return of both shop and home ec, and I think the registration ought to be open to all genders. But I’ll start with one part of home ec: Cooking. I can’t prove it, but I think the decline of cooking skills among people today is related to the rise of fast food. A steady diet of burgers and fries, tacos and sliders is not healthy, but I think many people indulge because they either don’t know how to cook, don’t want to spend time learning, or believe they don’t have the time. Or they believe it’s too hard or not worthy of their stature. And once you’ve eaten a lot of burgers or tacos, you have a hard time tasting something else.
To be sure, cooking your own food takes some time, both to learn techniques and to actually prepare a meal. But it's worth the effort. And, like anything else, cooking can be expensive. But when you cook, you don't need to front-load your cooking with expensive tools and equipment; you can acquire them along the way, as you grow in experience.
Here's a good recipe for beginning cooks that came from my grandmother; the ingredients are not exorbitant and can be found nearly any time of year. It's an excellent introduction to cooking for children, who, if they help cook something, are much more likely to eat it. I'll tell you how this recipe came to my grandmother in a future column; it's a good story. When you go shopping for the ingredients, look for the freshest beans you can find.
Southern Green Beans (Serves 4-6)
1 pound green beans
4 slices bacon
1 cup chicken stock
1 onion, about the size of a baseball
2 garlic cloves (3, if you like garlic)
Hot pepper flakes, if you like heat
Salt and pepper
Slice the bacon into 1-inch pieces. Lightly spray a pot with non-stick spray. Choose a pot that can hold all the beans and the onion. Place over medium-low heat. Place bacon pieces in the pot to render the fat. They need not be separated.
While the bacon cooks, trim 1/4 inch from the stem end of the beans. Chop onion into pieces about the size of your first thumb joint. Mince the garlic into pieces about the size of a pin head.
When bacon is browned on both sides, remove to paper towels and let drain.
Raise heat to medium. Add the onion to the pot with the bacon drippings. Cook for 7-10 minutes, until onion is translucent. Add garlic and cook for two minutes. If you like hot pepper flakes, add them now. Start with 1 teaspoon and increase as needed.
Add the beans and stir to ensure every bean is coated with the bacon drippings. Add half the chicken stock and reduce heat to low. You might not need the other half cup of stock, but if the stock cooks away, add the other half cup.
Simmer the beans until they are tender to your liking. My grandmother liked them almost falling apart. I like a little more backbone in my green beans. Try them at 15 minutes and again at 20. Season with a teaspoon salt and a teaspoon black pepper. To serve, sprinkle a few pieces of cooked bacon on top.
If you are concerned about the bacon, you can omit it and use 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Preparing a meal will probably endear you to someone, which, in turn, is a catalyst for sharing that meal. Eating together, like “home ec,” is in decline in our society today. Sharing a meal with someone is an event that takes time, just like the preparation of the meal. But again, it's worth the time and effort.
The Rev. Jeff Briere is minister of Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.