Tucked away in a corner of our originally-a-bomb-shelter middle school, next to the technology lab, stood a room lined with ovens, sinks and cabinets, forming 12 miniature kitchens. Culinary Arts was a mandatory class for all 7th grade students. Twice per week for an hour, we would bake bread and learn to cook simple dishes. We learned practical skills, like how to properly measure wet and dry ingredients and wash dishes.
I think that in the years before our time, the official title for this class was “Home Economics.” By the time our class arrived in 2003, the sewing and domestic science portion of the class had been removed. It was purely a “Culinary Class.” I’m not certain my old middle school still has the Culinary Arts classroom, but I do know for certain that the middle school where I later taught ripped the ovens, sinks, and cabinets out of their own Family and Consumer Science (FACS) room weeks prior to my first year teaching there. That was 2013. Space was needed for additional content classrooms and Culinary Arts no longer seemed to be a priority.
There is not much talk of Home Economics courses these days. In fact, despite my many friends and family members in the teaching profession, I never hear of a single middle school still offering any sort of culinary arts class in 2017. What became of these classes? This entire exiled art form? Why can’t my husband fry an egg? Is it because he has never taken a home economics course? And perhaps more importantly – will my children be able to fry an egg?
My brief investigation suggests that home economics classes were originally developed under a feminist mentality for organizing the home. If this was done efficiently, women would have more time to get an education. However, these “women-only” classes began falling out of favor in the 60s and 70s. Why? Because that is when Women’s Movement began to defy traditional gender roles. Home Ec classes were seen as stereotyping women into home-maker roles.
There’s No Place for Home Economics
Rebranding Home Economics classes as FACS or Culinary Arts classes seemingly made them options for all students. However, these newly branded classes were fazed out completely by the mid 2000s. (Despite the 90s seeing a revival of the DIY mentality with Martha Stewart and a surge of TV shows focused on cooking and sewing such as Top Chef and Project Runway.) The ultimate death of these classes is likely tied with a stricter focus on tested subjects. A shift away from prioritizing the arts as a whole.
In 2015, Chef’s Table, the Netflix documentary where world-renowned chefs reveal their “motivations, challenges, success stories, and failures” began to air. This documentary focuses on the chefs telling their own story. Chef’s Table brought to light the differences between “cooking shows” and a “culinary arts show”. It does this not only through its cinematography but through the intrinsic focus of the show on chefs as artists.
Interestingly, the creator of the show noted “We really wanted to put an emphasis on female chefs for [season 3] because there aren’t enough of them out there. We wanted to give them more recognition. We wanted to diversify.”
When did American society’s view of the kitchen swing from a woman’s world to a testosterone-fueled boys club? Was it a matter of home vs. professional cooking? According to The Nest, only 14% of women hold CEO/Chef/Owner positions in the restaurant industry in 2016. This is perhaps exacerbated by the $20,000 pay difference between male and female chef salaries in 2010. A 2016 study by Glass Door shows female chefs making 28.3% less than their male counterparts. This is the second worst gender gap of all listed careers on Glass Door. I admit, the concept of a gender gap among professional chefs is fascinating. (Especially after discovering that Culinary Arts was mainly fazed out under the pretense of women being stigmatized in the kitchen.)
Not only are women making less but they also seem to be less likely to earn prestigious awards for their work. Of the 211 semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation’s regional Best Chef Awards in 2016, only 30 were women (14%). Despite this disparity, there is also a lack of men going into the professional cooking world. An article published by Mother Jones in February 2017 claims in the last 5 years, America has seen an unpredecedented shortage of people entering the restaurant industry. The Bureau of Labor predicts the need for cooks is projected to grow astronomically between 2014 and 2024.
Easy Does It
The time individuals are spending in home kitchens is also decreasing. Women are traditionally the ones to do the cooking. But now many are working more and therefore, spending less time cooking. In the 1960s, the average time women spent in the kitchen cooking was 112 minutes. By 2008, that number fell to 66 minutes. Men have not statistically made up the difference and are not spending more time cooking at home. So to make up the difference, at least 40% of meals eaten by Americans are from restaurants, take-out, or packaged meals.
NPD Group has been tracking the eating habits of Americans for 3 decades. “We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us,” says NPD Group analyst Harry Balzer. “The next American cook is going to be the supermarket. Takeout from the supermarket, that’s the future. All we need now is the drive-through supermarket.”
The Art of Cooking
Where does the distinction lie between the food available from a drive-through supermarket (cooking) and taking the time and energy to prepare a meal using fresh and natural ingredients (culinary arts)? By definition, culinary art is “the art of cooking.” It allows chefs to express themselves by cutting, mixing, painting, and coloring their meals in the same manner as visual artists. Culinary arts also inherently contains that physical quality of music and dance. Something is being made/performed to be consumed moments later.
In some ways, cooking is perhaps the original artform, coming even before music and visual art. Copying a chef’s recipe, an artist’s painting, or a composer’s music does not make one an artist. So when a person shift from the craft of cooking to culinary art? When they master the tools and resources in such a way that they are able to create an original meal that is pleasing to the palate and eyes, rather than cooking simply for sustenance. The practice and repetition within any artform is what allows for the elevation from imitator or replicator to true artist.
Culinary Arts Matter
So why aren’t we educating our students in a way that fosters creative cooking based on a solid foundation of nutritional science? Offering a culinary arts class (or at least the space and materials for general education teachers to use the culinary arts as a form of integration) seems like it would be hugely beneficial to students on personal and academic levels. Consider all the links between Culinary Arts and chemistry. Food safety. Human nutrition and physiology. International history. Manufacturing. Following directions and reading instructional texts. Not only are women underrepresented in the professional culinary arts world, but fewer meals are being cooked at home by individuals of any gender.
Bringing back Culinary Arts class solely to create greater equity for women in the world of food may not be the correct reasoning (though if that happened as a side-effect, I wouldn’t be opposed). However the correlation between the lack of Culinary Arts offered in American schools and the lack of personal or professional participation in culinary arts as adults may be reason enough to at least investigate the benefits of offering the integration of this artform.
Would offering Culinary Arts class prevent the monopoly of the “take-out supermarket”? I don’t know for sure. But I do know there must be piles of dusty 1970s ovens sitting in storage in school warehouses across the country.
Laura Wixon graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2012 with Bachelors in Art Studio and Art History and English Language. In 2013 she stayed at SMCM and completed the Masters in Teaching Program with endorsements in elementary education, special education, art education k-12, and secondary English education (6-12). She taught as a Language Arts teacher for two years at Bates Middle School before moving into their Arts Integration Specialist position, which she has held the past two years.