What goes on in the home is at least as important as what goes on in national parliaments or the council chamber of the United Nations, says British culinary expert Prue Leith OBE. Ms Leith is the founder of Leith’s School of Food and Wine, a well-known media commentator, and the author of 12 books on cooking as well as three novels. Here is an excerpt from her presentation to the Excellence in the Home conference, entitled “ Is Home Really Where the Heart Is?” in which she insists on the importance of professional standards in the home.
How come we have such neurotic standards for the professionals and none, or very few, for ourselves? In the matter of hygiene for example, how can it be that when supermarkets have to trash food many days before it would poison anyone, we allow mould to grow on last month’s gravy in the fridge? And allow mugs, complete with floating fag ends, to accumulate under teenage beds?
We’d consider it criminal if the waiter breathed onto a wine glass to polish it, or licked a spoon and dried it on his apron. But we do, or some of us do, that sort of thing all the time. We taste with a finger or dip a spoon into several pots, merrily cross-contaminating as we go.
Our houses are pretty filthy too, unlike Sweden’s, where they go to the other extreme — you have to satisfy the purchaser of your house that all is spotless behind your fridge, in your oven and under your bed before they’ll sign the deal. This can take several “could do better” reports before completion.
I’m moderately house-proud, and I have lots of help. But recently I let my house for the summer and the amount of “spring cleaning” we had to do was shaming. The bottom of the frying pan was so grim I had to buy a new one, ancient non-functioning gadgets were stuffed in cupboards, there was a veritable treasure trove of long-lost items in the sofa, and the cellar floor was dotted with unrecognisable dead fauna.
Yet I would be absolutely disgusted if I found a single hair in a hotel basin. Why do Marriott and Hilton have better standards than me?
As with hygiene, so with design and maintenance. I’d avoid a hotel with peeling wallpaper and worn carpets, but if the carpets were threadbare and the paint peeling in a friend’s house, I’d probably think it shabby-chic and a fashion statement, or I’d consider them admirable unworldly with their minds on higher things.
I am not exactly making a plea for the scrubbed doorstep of the forties, for mum brushing her daughter’s hair 100 times, or for pristine knickers in case you get run over. But isn’t there something amiss when down-trodden jeans, encrusted with dirt round the hems, are cool? And is ironing to be a thing of the past? Or only to be encountered in the starched napkins of a top restaurant or the sheets of a posh hotel?
If order, clean design, a good state of repair and well-mannered personnel are signals of a well-run business, why not of a good home?
There’s no doubt that having things in order saves time, gives peace of mind, confidence and a sense of pride. Think of a dinner party: if the table is perfectly laid, the house is clean, the towels in the loo are fresh, the flowers look lovely and the cooking is under control, then the hosts feel great: they are relaxed when the door bell rings, able to talk to their friends and enjoy themselves.
Fast food — expensive, but what can you do?
Cooking, though not vital, is a useful life skill. Frankly, I am not concerned about you and me — the middle classes. If we cannot cook we will gallop down the Waitrose shelves, or drop into the farmers’ market and buy fresh pasta, a chilled ready-made sauce, a packet of pre-washed arugula and a lump of parmesan. We will eat very healthily and very well indeed.
But if you are less well-off and cannot cook you are, frankly, stuffed. You will not have the confidence to try new foods, you will not be able to afford the expensive parmegiani and rocket, the prosciutto venison. You will not know how to make a nutritious soup out of a bit of ham-hock, a handful of pulses, some root vegetables and a cabbage. You will certainly not dare to risk your benefit money on trying something that you have never done before and you are pretty sure your children will not eat.
So of course you buy chips and KFC, pot noodles and cheap frozen pizza. It’s expensive, but what can you do?
The obvious answer would be to teach parents to cook. But for many it may be too late. I’ve never met a mother, however poorly she feeds her children, who did not believe – I expect she has to believe – that she is doing her best for her children. She may be overweight, with diabetes and emphysema, but she will tell you that chips and fags never did her any harm.
Such parents are very resistant to being taught. The chances are that school was a bad experience for them and they feel training courses are something for children and would be demeaning for them. Of course, some schools run cooking clubs for mums, and we need more of that. But I would like to see the supermarkets demonstrating easy fresh healthy dishes that are more assembly jobs than scary cooking, that would encourage parents to have a go. A National campaign, with telly and radio, pubs and libraries — all and sundry — involved, would be, I think, an effective use of public money. Just think of the savings in health service costs alone. Last month the International Forum on Obesity predicted that if current trends continue 40 per cent of Europeans will be obese in four years time.
Teaching a new generation to cook
We must do what we can with parents, but it is more effective and cheaper to get to the children at school. And the tide is moving our way. The government and opposition have at last, at very long last, and with the help of Jamie Oliver, woken up to the fact that poor food affects physical, psychological and mental health, hinders learning, costs a fortune and does no one except junk food manufacturers any good.
There is abundant evidence that being able to cook influences nutrition. It is no good telling children about “five a day”. I doubt if there is a child or a parent in the country that does not know that they should be eating five portions of fruit and veg. The problem is they are not doing it. One of the ways to get them to do so is to cook with them. I chair a charity, Focus on Food, which teaches children to cook at school. They have hands-on lessons in travelling teaching kitchens — huge cooking buses — and they sit down to eat the food they have cooked.
Children who learn to cook at school, who are taught about nutrition at the same time as physically cooking, become interested in trying the food they’ve cooked, and interested in what goes into their bodies. Cooking with children is a highly effective way of getting them to eat things they don’t think they like. Of course it is not easy to make the time to cook with children, but I am impatient with the idea that it’s impossible.
The average child, we are told, spends five hours a day watching television and the average adult spends 3 hours in front of the box. Could we not manage, say twice a week, to carve half an hour out of that telly-time to cook a quick supper with the children? Matthew Fort, food editor of the Guardian told me his family has given up the Sunday papers because cooking Sunday lunch, eating it and sleeping it off was a far better use of their time!
A memorable French meal
But even if every school in the country suddenly started adopting a whole school policy about food, with healthy school dinners, breakfasts and brunches, local sourcing, growing clubs, farm visits, cooking classes for everyone, no junk food — this will count for nothing if fizzy drinks, chocolate bars and pot noodles are the norm at home.
If children are lucky enough to be taught to cook at home, they become interested in food, eat a wider and healthier diet, and more receptive to healthy eating messages. It was seeing this in action that first got me interested in food. I was a student au pair for a French family. Because my speaking English was an absolute guarantee that anything I cooked would be disgusting, Madame cooked everything herself.
And the 2-year-old and the 6-month-year old had exactly the same supper as the grown-ups, prepared with the same care:
If we were having steak and salad, for example, she would sear two tiny steaks in a blazing pan so they were brown out the outside but still rare in the middle. She’d make a little sauce with fresh chopped tarragon and parsley, a knob of butter and the juices in the pan and pour them over the two small plates of steak. The salad would be carefully torn into mouthful size pieces, tossed in French dressing and heaped beside the steaks. A small slice of fresh baguette accompanied each portion.
Then one of the plates would be tipped into the liquidiser and whizzed up for the six-month-old. Both children sat at the table in high chairs, Mum and I sat with them, one of us spooning the puree of steak, salad and bread into the baby.
That mother knew it was important to feed her children right. She took great pains to do so. And we sat knees under with them and chatted to them while they ate it. It never occurred to her that the children should not eat exactly what the parents ate. And, more importantly, the children ate just about everything: olives, kidneys, spinach — the lot.
You can learn to like anything
Sadly, we have largely lost it with our children. Our grandparents ate everything they were given because there was no option. We ate what we were offered, most of the time, because there was heavy parental pressure to do so. I was not sat in front of the same bowl of porridge until I was hungry enough to eat it, as my mother was, but I wasn’t offered anything else if I refused what I was given. I was much feebler with my children, giving them what they wanted, with the result that my son grew up almost entirely on meat and potatoes.
When he was 19, I heard about the work of Fergus Lowe, the psychology professor in the University of Bangor in Wales. He has discovered that if children are bribed, cajoled or persuaded to eat fruit and veg a certain number of times, they end up liking it. I think it is something like five 2 oz portions for carrots, 7 for broccoli, 9 for spinach, 12 for sprouts. (I am making these figures up, but it is something like that).
Anyway, Daniel, who had become embarrassed by having to hide his vegetables under his cutlery or sneak them into his handkerchief at his friends’ houses, asked me if I thought it would work with him. It did. He resolved to eat everything he was offered for six weeks, by which time he’d have had at least 10 portions of most of the veg he hated. He now likes everything. The truth is once you get a taste for something you don’t get to unlike it. Unless some food makes you ill, you will like spinach or beetroot or broccoli for life.
It is not surprising. When children are tiny babies they put anything in their mouths, but then mother is, we hope, guiding them. As they get more independent there seems to be a natural caution about anything new — maybe it’s a built-in defence mechanism. Children have to be shown by example or persuasion what to eat. Think how hard we all struggled to get a taste for alcohol or cigarettes. It was important to us, so we made the effort. We need to make the effort with fruit and veg, at home.
I am not sure that I can make the same arguments about knitting, sewing and mending. It is no longer true that making clothes is cheaper than buying them. But being able to sew, like being able to cook, does lend confidence to the individual and adds pleasure to life. Even if you never have to, making things is one of the great satisfactions of life, which few of our children will ever experience.
The other day I darned my 30-year-old daughter’s red socks, which for some reason she is devoted to. I got more admiration and gratitude for that long-lost (and, to her, incomprehensible) skill than for stumping up for her expensive education. But darning that sock was something more. It was a tangible expression of love and care. I enjoyed doing it.
It is high time we realised that all this domestic stuff really matters.
Prue Leith OBE is the founder of Leith’s School of Food and Wine, a well-known media commentator in the UK, and the author of 12 books on cooking as well as three novels.