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No cooking for old men?

Posted Apr 13 2012 7:47am

One foot in the gravy: the rise of cookery classes for older men Could cookery classes for older men reduce their dependency on cuts-hit Meals on Wheels and luncheon club services?

Thus the question posed by the Guardian. The question I’d pose is why is it that old men can’t cook? How did these old farts – mostly my age and older – get to the age they are without learning how to cook? (Clearly, since they’re able to attend classes, we’re not talking about those who are too ill or disabled to fend for themselves.)

I belong to the generation which, allegedly, never learned to cook because first our mothers, then our wives, cooked for us. That’s bullshit. For that to happen you must either be bone idle and/or believe that cooking is beneath you; it’s women’s work. In either case, you deserve to go hungry.

In my case, I started messing around in the kitchen at 10, and by the time I was 12-13 could cook a roast dinner as well as anybody. Now, at the age when these guys would apparently starve if somebody didn’t feed them, I say let them, they’d figure it out soon enough!

But going back to my teens, my mother didn’t cook for me, I cooked for her. At 12 my father died, and my mother had to work full time, on shift work. The choice was go hungry or learn to cook, which was no choice at all.

And I’m lucky. I have a – what? A talent? A knack? Don’t know, but whatever it is I know instinctively how various combinations of ingredients will work together to give me the result I want. It’s not infallible, but it is extremely reliable.

And when I was married, my wife didn’t cook for me, I cooked for both of us, because she couldn’t cook (she had a good reason, which is irrelevant to this narrative). That was OK – I liked cooking, and I can’t understand people, men or women, who manage to go through life failing utterly to pick up the basics. Hell, there are things you can pick up simply by being exposed to other people doing them (boiling/frying eggs, making toast, or chips, boiling potatoes or making roasties) – any of the very basic kitchen skills can be absorbed pretty much by osmosis – if the will is there. Often, in far too many men, it isn’t.

I know an entire, wealthy, family, who have zero cooking skills between them. Why? Because they once had servants, including a cook, and thus never had to learn. Then people decided they didn’t want to be servants any more, and instead of  seizing the moment and learning at least the basics – these were by no means stupid or lazy people – they chose to stock up on ready-meals instead. I don’t understand that, especially as the nearby village, and the organic farm shop a mile away, were a foodie’s paradise. I’d move there at the drop of a hat, given the chance.

When I was in junior school, in Manchester, in the fifties, the girls went off to the “Cookery” once a week, an asbestos building – eek! – at the far end of the school property, as you can see in this pic.

A brief digression – the ground is thick with snow, the roofs of the houses in the background are covered in snow, but on the school building there is not the slightest trace of snow. How? This pic was taken the winter after I left Manchester, in the summer of 1954 – odds are I knew these kids.

So the girls got to learn the basics, the boys didn’t. That attitude was repeated when cookery became domestic science – girls only – a clear assumption that men would be waited on later in life and which perpetuated a pattern going back centuries. Quite possibly millennia…

Then, in old age, left alone, thrown upon their own resources – never mind the pattern set by society – that through sheer inertia, idleness, or “it’s not my job,” the old guys didn’t have the basic skills to feed themselves adequately.

But here’s the thing – and this is what seriously pisses me off – age is no barrier to learning new skills. Nor, for the most part, is illness or infirmity, as I know from personal experience. Indeed, learning new skills is an excellent way to keep your brain active and your wits sharp – use it or lose it.

I’ve been making my own bread since my late fifties, and in my sixties broke into sausage making, flirted with Japanese cooking (the dire health warnings on sea vegetables were discouraging),  mastered digital photography, and Photoshop (the essentials, anyway), and, more recently developed an interest in Spanish cooking. I’ve already made de Burgos-style morcilla, improved on the basic Fabada Asturiana recipe (though purists will be deeply unhappy, no doubt), and this weekend, providing I’m well enough, I intend to make my own chorizo (I find the standard version too leathery, I want to make it softer). If  I’m not well enough, rather than waste the meat, I’ll be having roast pork shoulder, and the belly pork will go in the freezer. I now have an electric mincer, a noisy bugger but it takes the grunt work out of the job, so rather than sausage-making taking 2 or 3 days, as it did in the past (mostly recovery time), it now takes one day.

So, OK, teaching old codgers to cook is laudable. That they need to be taught at all is deplorable. Cooking is a fundamental skill that everyone should learn.

It doesn’t have to be fancy – I have no artistic skills – just well cooked and nicely presented, and that’s something anyone can learn if they have the will to do so, and it really should be part of the school curriculum for everybody. There is simply no excuse for any man to hit his three score and ten and, provided he has his wits or is not seriously disabled physically or mentally, be unable to feed himself.

But then, there never was.

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