Can't cook, won't cook? So what?

'We cannot boil an egg. We know more about nutrition than ever. Our diets have never been so unhealthy. This is indeed messed up.'
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The Independent Online

Once upon a time, as part of a newly liberated generation of educated, professional women, Fay Weldon toiled in advertising. Her best-known coinage exhorted the nation to "Go to work on an egg". It was sound enough advice.

Later, as the feminist novelist so many came to know and love, Ms Weldon elaborated on the general theme. In fact, she made it pretty damn crystal clear that such tasks as the preparation of simple hot breakfasts were no longer gender-specific. The assumption, loosely, was that in a brighter future, everyone would be going to work, and on their own eggs. But something has gone horribly wrong.

Now, if the Girl Guide Association is to be believed, the ancient craft of egg-boiling is all but lost. The keepers of the flame (that's gas mark eight for the uninitiated throng) are a mere 60 per cent of girls aged between eight and 15.

Yes. In the dear old days the condemnation "couldn't boil an egg" was bandied around with an assumption of sarcastic hyberbole. Delia Smith, poor love, was roundly condemned for supplying such an obvious set of instructions in a cook book.

Now, it transpires, her only mistake was to refrain from spelling out how one should liberate water from the "tap" in the "kitchen" and remove a "pot" from the cupboard next to the "cooker".

Clearly we are coddling our children too much, and our eggs not nearly enough. Further, the survey, conducted among 400 girls by educational psychologists, uncovered other telling statistics. One in five girls never or rarely has a family conversation. Less than one in five regularly saves some pocket money. Two in five never cook a meal at home. These shortcomings, and a host of others, suggest that the future looks bleak for the nation's womenfolk. The Girl Guide Association has decided that remedial action is necessary. It is therefore designing activities to teach Guides the abilities that today's females sorely lack. These are, apparently, the "three Cs": communication, cash management and caring.

I suppose the egg thing would ideally come into all three. Which explains quite well why it is that Delia Smith is in the dictionary and Nigella Lawson is a secular saint. These two women manage to combine all three of the Girl Guide Association's Cs with dazzling ease.

Ms Smith, I think it can be judged, remains within the association's womanly remit. But Ms Lawson adds a few Cs of her own – like cleavage, corset, come-hither and so on. No wonder women cite Ms Lawson as the foremost progenitor of dinner-party anxiety. Following a Nigella recipe isn't just about cooking. It's about being the perfect woman – girl guide and celebrity, a saint and a whore.

However, those among us ladies who cannot make a lucrative career out of cooking, must abandon the cash management and communication aspect of egg-boiling and cook simply because we care. The news that in the next generation four in 10 girls cannot boil eggs is another way of telling us that women – and their daughters – are spiritually moribund, literally past caring. We are a poor lot now, and getting poorer.

Why might this be so? Expert analysis tells us that it is because of divorce, working mothers and a restrictive school curriculum, which spends too much time feeding the minds of girls, and not enough telling them how to feed their families. Expert analysis? Reactionary propaganda, thank you. Nice to know that in a changing world the Girl Guide Association I knew as a lassie has not altered at all.

The truth is that our heightened, fetishistic interest in the preparation of food is indeed the other side to a story that sees us developing an less and less healthy relationship with it. We are obese, we are anorexic. We never stop watching food programmes on the telly. We cannot boil an egg. We know more about good nutrition now than ever. Our diets have never been so unhealthy. This is indeed messed up. but it's not a problem for women only, one that will be banished with some remedial teaching of feminine skills. It's a problem for everyone to tackle.

Because the idea that the release of women from the home and the kitchen has caused it is quite wrong. One problem is that women have never quite been given permission to believe that spending less time cooking and more time being cooked for is perfectly reasonable. And this latest little survey is telling them that again. Crude analysis such as this adds to the difficulties we face, far from lessening them.

Like all the most effective propaganda, though, this stuff has some truth in it. But the analysis is unremittingly negative, because all those concerned with its dissemination for some reason like to kid themselves that there was some golden period in the past that can be recaptured. Instead, the parlous state of the egg-boiling nation is, in some respects, good news.

Because, actually, it would be a pretty poor show if the nation's eight-, nine-, and 10-year-old girls did know how to boil eggs. Quite a few of them would by now have managed to scald themselves and would have the nasty scars to prove it. Far more children used to be injured like this in the past.

But we are more conscious of our children's safety these days. When I was a child, a line of three concrete paving slabs would be placed under swings so that children's feet wouldn't make a hole in the earth underneath. Now there's an outcry if the special squishy surface in the playground doesn't have coloured pictures set into it.

We are more conscious too that adult responsibilities come soon enough, and tend to let children stay children for as long as it is possible. Outside the immediate family influence, the whole world conspires to process children into fully fledged, grown-up consumers. This is the real war that parents take part in every day, offsetting the tide of advertising designed to sell to children the things and the values they do not need. The girl guides have no strategy for dealing with that.

There is nothing to suggest that the girls in this survey will remain forever unable to boil an egg. Some day, they may decide to avail themselves of the information. It is unlikely that it will prove to be beyond many of them.

Maybe their boyfriends will show them. Because despite the reactionary guilt-tripping, we are less likely now to divide children's activities strictly by gender. Perhaps fewer girls can boil eggs now than they used to. Perhaps more boys can. It may well be that the sum total of egg-boilers will in the next generation be greater than history has even known or dreamed of.

That's not likely to be the case, though. It is true that many old skills are being lost. Just as girls can no longer boil eggs, boys can no longer tell when a potato plant is ready for digging. People no longer have time for these once central aspects of life. Gardening is fetishised now just as much as cookery, even though we buy vegetables flown halfway round the world now, rather than growing them.

People do sense a gap in their lives that has been left by the older, less sophisticated, more grounded ways. But this is not women's doing. Both genders are being squeezed by the demands made on them as consumers, and so are the children of both genders.

Earning money and spending it. These are our first duties, all Western governments are agreed. But being a consumer is expensive and exhausting. It would be terrible if the activity crushed the human spirit so comprehensively that we could no longer even produce as much as an edible egg.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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