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The nation that can't boil an egg

Can't cook? Won't cook? Moves are afoot to get 'microwave generation' Britons back into the kitchen, writes Rose Prince
DELIA SMITH, cookery tutor to the nation, has gone back to basics. So deficient are we in rudimentary kitchen skills, she believes, that we need tuition in the elementary rules of cooking. We may eat Moroccan couscous in fashionable restaurants, buy chilled scallops in white wine sauce in Marks & Spencer and sup bouillabaisse on Mediterranean holidays, but many of us barely know how to boil an egg properly.

Delia's latest book, How to Cook, to be published in the autumn, and its accompanying TV series, will include such fundamental information as step-by-step instructions on how to go about poaching an egg.

Delia is not the only food writer addressing the problem: Mary Berry's latest book The New Cook is an illustrated guide for beginners with recipes for essentials such as roast chicken and apple pie. Similar recipes are to be included in Nigella Lawson's forthcoming book How to Eat.

No wonder. We no longer learn to cook at our mother's knee because there's a strong possibility that our mother can't cook either. So now we have to find out by watching television. In the 1950s girls learned to cook from their mothers and in "domestic science" lessons at school. Today cookery does not form part of the national curriculum, except as part of design and technology or home economics courses. It specifies only that students "should be given the opportunity to work with food". In the home economics syllabus for GCSE, it is not even necessary to cook. The pupil only has to learn to heat ready-made food.

Worthy as these courses may be, they do not teach children about the place food occupies in our social lives and the sheer enjoyment of eating with family and friends. Judy Davis, who taught cookery in schools from the 1950s until her recent retirement, was horrified: "Students can use all manner of packets, tins and prepared foods when preparing a meal for an exam question. You can just reheat a tray of frozen food if you wish and that counts as cooking.

"When I started teaching in the 1950s, we were showing students techniques such as rubbing butter into flour for rock cakes, but all of that has been gradually phased out.

"Primary school teachers have said that it is not unusual for some children to be unable to eat with a knife and fork because they are unaccustomed to eating at a table with adults."

Home cooking skills have been all but killed by a number of sociological changes that have taken place since the 1950s. First there was the emergence of the self-service supermarket and with it prepared recipe meals such as tinned baked beans with sausages, and Angel Delight - a fluffy pudding made from a powder into which one whisked milk. No one dared to imagine what was in it, but at the time foods such as these were regarded as progressive. The number of supermarkets in the UK increased from 500 to 5000 between 1950 and 1959. The home workload for the housewife was lightening, and she was increasingly going out to work.

Jobs for women and the nature of those jobs have had the most devastating effect on home cooking over the past four decades. In the 1970s there was a significant increase in women going out to work, and many were in the type of employment that took them away from their families at meal times - for example nursing, catering and hotel service. More recently the relaxation of the Sunday trading laws can be held responsible for the demise of Sunday lunch, with jobs in superstores being largely occupied by women, who in the past would have been at home preparing the family meal. With less opportunity to practise cooking, the confidence of the cook diminishes. The more you cook, the better you cook, the more you cook.

Humans ritualise eating. We choose decorative tableware and lay the table precisely, prepare our food in a great variety of ways and employ table manners while we eat. Traditionally these rituals are carried out in a family group. Our approach to food as individuals is different - we treat it as mere fuel and do not make the time for its preparation. We are now more likely to end up eating it off our lap in front of the television. The excuse given for not cooking is always not having enough time - and microwave ovens, supermarkets, delivery services and fast-food restaurants have made it easy for us by providing an ever-growing range of foods that can be eaten in a hurry.

This all seems to be at odds with the so-called food revolution in Britain. Are people using cook books or are they keeping them on the coffee table? Are the five million or so viewers of Rick Stein's latest fish cookery series on television learning anything or just being entertained while eating take-aways? It is obvious from the quantity of cookery books on the shop shelves, the pages devoted to food in magazines and newspapers and the hours of cookery programmes on television each week that there is a new and genuine interest in cooking. But some people - particularly those on lower incomes - find the glamorous, glossy photographs of mouthwatering dishes intimidating, and these increased standards of expectation diminish the courage required for cooking the recipes shown. It is a fact that those who can least afford it spend the most on processed, ready-prepared foods.

But all is not lost. The most practical scheme to get people cooking at grass-roots level is Focus on Food, a five-year project run by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce whose aim is to teach children at both primary and secondary school level to cook, chiefly by targeting their teachers. The campaign's director, Anita Cormac, says the important thing is to help teachers learn about food and how best to teach cookery. "They can then convey the message to the hundreds of children they teach. Preparing, sharing and enjoying food does much to increase communication skills. Food is also a window to many other subjects such as geography, chemistry, maths and history."

Campaigns such as these rely on private funding and enthusing head teachers so they take matters in to their own hands, but any scheme to get the nation cooking would be greatly helped by cookery finding a place of its own on the national curriculum, which is due for review in 2000. Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said: "We are neutral on the subject of changes to the curriculum as regards food and cookery, but we do support the work being done by the Focus on Food project."