As my wife followed the latest Jamie Oliver series, on promoting healthy home cooking in the junk-food loving back streets of Rotherham, I caught a few bits of it too. Beyond the formulaic reality TV mixture of sad and happy stories of everyday folk, there was some thought-provoking stuff, too.
Although Mr. Oliver's remarkably poor way with words, for a professional broadcaster, has discouraged me from watching his previous programmes, there can be no doubt that he has a flair for creating recipes that will be a pleasure to eat, underpinned by a sound understanding of basic nutrition. Moreover, and this is what I really admire him for, he is passionately committed to using his celebrity status to promote the cause of healthy eating, for the general benefit of Britain's public health.
While I have only praise for young Jamie's work, there must have been a long-term, large-scale failure by many others, for there to be a problem for him to tackle. Three generations ago, the British government ran an unprecedented campaign to teach its citizens how to cook well with the meagre ingredients available at a time of national hardship. The pioneering celebrity chef, Marguerite Patten ( who made a brief cameo appearance in Jamie's programme) did her work well enough for the post-war baby boom generation to grow up as the healthiest and best-nourished in all of history. But, somehow, that knowledge has not stuck. At least the girls of the baby boom were taught cookery at school, maybe under fancy titles such as home economics or domestic science, but, by and large, they do not seem to have passed it on in turn to their own daughters, who tend to get a more academic education these days, let alone their sons. There seems to be an element of snobbery or inverted snobbery in the problem: Concern about the quality and balance of one's diet is largely seen as a middle-class thing, and too many working-class people despise it as effete and pretentious, while regarding the consumption of calorie-dense, but nutritionally poor, traditional fare as robust and honest.
We need to come not full circle, but full spiral, to a place above where we were before, in which not just girls, but boys, too, receive a thorough grounding in nutritional principles as a key part of their schooling. Eating well has been a cornerstone of our national well-being through my lifetime, but it is in decline. Every year the obesity statistics get worse and the projections worse still. Today's children are likely to grow up no healthier than their great-grandparents, and if their children in turn are to regain the fitness that the baby boomers took for granted, then understanding food, under whatever title, must return as a fundamental ingredient of the National Curriculum.
Until the day comes that people can cook again, the other thing that needs looking at is the quality of the ready meals they eat instead. The authorities are far too laissez-faire about what may be put into them, and at present even explicitly permit sharp practices in the labelling that are deliberately calculated to mislead the unfortunate purchaser. If we are not going to teach people to cook, at least we could make sure what is cooked for them is good.