Jayne Dowle: It’s not just ‘the poor’ who don’t know how to cook

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MY son’s friend comes to our house for his tea almost every other day. He says he likes eating with us because we have “proper food”. We’re hardly talking cordon bleu – it’s usually some variation on meat and two veg. And a lot of potatoes. In today’s world though, anything that doesn’t either come from the takeaway or appear out of a microwave probably qualifies as “proper food”.

He’s a nice lad, from a modest family. And he’s just one of the children I know whose parents never seem to make a proper meal. Kebabs and crisps are the staple diet in more homes than you might imagine. And there’s not even a table in quite a few of these homes.

That’s why I have some sympathy for Lady Jenkin. The Tory peer has landed herself in hot water with her suggestion that “poor people can’t cook”. She argues that large numbers of individuals rather less privileged than herself are turning to food banks because they haven’t got a clue in the kitchen.

“The poor do not know how to cook,” she lamented at the launch of Feeding Britain, an all-party Parliamentary report into the increasing number of people using food banks. “I had a bowl of porridge that cost just 4p this morning, while the poor had to make do with a sugar-coated cereal that cost 25p.”

Oops. Talk about foot in mouth. She really should have thought twice before using those precise words, but she’s got a point. And before you rush to dismiss her as too privileged to have a clue, bear in mind that she has probably visited more food banks than you and I ever have. She might not be scratching round for coins down the back of the sofa, but let’s give her credit. She does have some understanding of what she is talking about.

Two things definitely need saying though. We have to consider what she means by “poor people”. There are many, many families in genuine need who haven’t got much more than a tin of beans in the cupboard. For them, food banks are not a free supermarket, but a matter of life and death. However, I do have to agree with Lady Jenkin. I suspect there are also those who are using them as the easiest option; ready-meals for free? Saves making the tea.

I’d like to make the point that it’s not just “poor people” who don’t know how to cook. I bet if you did an analysis of the typical home delivery from Ocado you would find a scary percentage of ready-meals lined up to feed a family where both parents are out at work all day. You can have all the trendy cookery books in the world, a top-of-the-range range and Le Creuset pans, but if you don’t use them you’re no better than a mother sat watching Jeremy Kyle while stuffing her kids with biscuits.

Food banks are one thing then. Food itself is quite another. Food banks, set up with the best intentions, are in danger of becoming political shorthand for something far wider and more divisive.

When historians look back at this period in time though, they will marvel at how we managed to survive. The basic skills of putting a meal together are not being lost, they are lost. And although it’s great that home economics is being revived as a subject, it is not enough to put the responsibility entirely at the door of schools. Individuals have to educate themselves. I think this is what Lady Jenkin was getting at. How to do it though?

Unfortunately, our society has become too anxious not to offend. As soon as anyone says it like it is, they are lambasted. It is hard for Lady Jenkin, privileged member of the political classes as she is, to open her mouth without appearing to be patronising. I can see her dilemma. It’s all very well for those of us who do understand how to mash potatoes attempting to pass on our knowledge to the rest of the world. Try to do it though and it’s a minefield.

For example, my daughter came home from school the other day with an invitation to “share” our favourite home-cooked meal with the class, perhaps by submitting a recipe or sending in a photograph. I could see what was going on here, but I didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted. Pleased because I am glad that her primary school is taking an active interest in food, or insulted because it felt like I was being coerced into some kind of social experiment. If I felt cornered, how would I feel if I was feeding my family on reconstituted soup?

Lady Jenkin later retracted her comment, saying: “What I meant was: as a society, we have lost our ability to cook.” She’s right. That though, is only half the tale. As a society, we’ve lost our ability to think logically about food, to shop carefully, and to organise ourselves into putting a meal together.

Let’s concentrate on tackling that, instead of trying to make political capital out of pot noodles.