“Mucky pup”, is what my Mum and Nan would say to me while wiping my hands, fingers, face, and anywhere else I'd managed to smear my latest creation. A pet name I've thankfully outgrown, but back then getting dirty was a creative triumph. Painting, felt tips, papier-mache and glue were a few of my artistic pursuits. Fortunately, adults had the sense to roll up my sleeves and swaddle me in, bibs, aprons and old shirts like an Egyptian mummy. Playing kitchen helper was when I was happiest however. Even from my highchair I realised food made a great playmate. Mum's spag bol would be flung at the walls and on the floor. My hands, face and hair a squishy mess of pasta, mince, and tomato sauce.
Outdoors, the back garden was my second kitchen. Famous for my mud pies and afternoon tea, complete with plastic teapot, plates and cups. Etiquette was essential – any adult who failed to make the appropriate “nom-nom” noises was unlikely to be invited again. Rolling pastry and sieving jam through an old pair of tights for Nan's yummy jam tarts was another specialty. Years of practice making a floury mess and inedible mixtures thrown out to the birds, and what have I gained? Basic cookery skills and a lifelong love of food. The fun is in the preparation and getting your hands sticky, gooey and caked in crumbs. The programming of a microwave and its finished ping, a poor substitute in execution, taste and quality.
A simple home cook, I cheat and use shortcuts, but prefer to cook from scratch. There's no satisfaction to be found from a ready meal and less so if you're a veggie. At best, bite-sized, bland and calorific – the veg meal, not the veg human. Why then have these cellophane covered, plastic cartons with their small portions grown in popularity? Convenience and pressed for time are the usual response. Could it be we now lack the basic culinary know-how? The latter is closer to the truth. McDonald's is a cut of meat, potatoes are tomatoes, and chopping onions is way too difficult. The kitchen, a room to commence battle or exhibit as decorative art.
The uneducated masses is our plight. How do we make cooking fun and practical to those who have never been taught? To get across the message that cooking is an essential life skill? Education is the answer, the earlier the better. The early bird catches the worm as they say. While this is true, food tech in schools is not enough. Parents, public health bodies and big business need to get involved too. Changes are afoot, but in essence, if the parents feign interest and lack cookery confidence, the kids will too. The elephant in the kitchen, figuratively speaking, is the adult. A safe place to learn and get hands on is the cooking school. Home to great chefs who share their knowledge and passion for food. A winning combination if you can spare the expense, but neglects those who stand the most to gain.
Cooking is child's play. You're never too young or too old to get stuck in and shake those pots and pans. Make like Jamie Oliver and pass it on!