There are some advantages to having a son who does not cook. For one thing, our house remains largely intact. One reason we may have fallen short in encouraging the boy to cater for himself is a fear of returning home to find him standing outside with his hamster cage and computer, as fire crews damp down the ground floor.
However, I have to say that he has not required a lot of dissuading. Aside from the swearing, we see little evidence of the next Gordon Ramsay in him. “That’s just boys,” said a colleague, as I lamented my son’s culinary exploits, but his indolence, combined with his aversion to fresh food, leave me worrying about his diet. Alone at home one day, he was making himself supper as I returned from work. Having bought a pizza for lunch he had branched out with a cheese toastie for supper, either unaware or unconcerned that this was, in effect, also pizza – but without the health-giving ingredients in tomato concentrate.
Part of me does not worry too much. Surely he will learn when he goes to college – not even he can spend three years living on bagels. Failing that, there is the whole single-guy-learning-to-cook thing that overcomes men in their twenties, when they realise that it is the best way to entice a woman into their flat at night. Smart, world-weary women will still, it seems, abandon all cynicism for the promise of a chicken parmigiana and a crème brûlée.
Until recently I had higher hopes for the girl, who seemed interested in both cooking and salad (if we truly are what we eat, then the girl is a tomato). But this weekend, she and a friend announced they were going to make their own supper and would I give them the money to go to the shops. I duly shelled out so they could go to Waitrose (or source their ingredients locally, as I prefer to put it). They returned with two cartons of sweet and sour chicken which, they explained, they would be microwaving all on their own.
I was left reflecting on the spawn’s culinary skills when I read the other day of the demise of home economics as a GCSE subject. Few will shed tears for a little-utilised course that seemed fairly sexist in its distribution. But it is sad that handy household skills are falling through the cracks. The food technology course remains but many will be steered away from such subjects unless they are heading into the food or hospitality trades. The mistake, I think, is in treating this as an academic matter rather than a life skill. It need not require a GCSE course to make an omelette but it would be quite helpful if all kids emerged from school knowing how to prepare a few healthy meals, not least with all the political wittering about the obesity epidemic.
I do not expect Cordon Bleu quality but it would be nice to see some appreciation of healthy food and a culinary range that extended beyond toast. Partly this is down to the pressure on schools to offer more academic and vocational subjects although, perversely, they seem to persist in religious studies. It’s not much use the boy knowing that man cannot live by bread alone if he has yet to acquire any alternative recipes.
What is clear is that we cannot rely on the schools, which are all busy teaching Doctor Faustus by rote in case Michael Gove pops in for a surprise inspection. So, this summer, we are resolved to tackle this. Just as our ancestors taught us how to make fire, I will teach the spawn my recipe for lamb and apricot burgers. Previous efforts to enthuse them have fallen flat because what seemed like fun when they were three now seems like extra tuition. (They may also have spent too much time watching Downton and become wary of mixing with below-stairs staff.)
But we are undeterred. I will teach the boy the basics of man-cooking, such as hanging around the barbecue with other men, as protocol dictates. After this will come the Spanish omelette which got me through college – as tasteless today as it ever was but almost edible with enough Tabasco. Once we have cracked this, we might move on to washing up – though this may well prove a bridge too far.
Illustration by Lucas Varela