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News We haven't 'lost our grip on cooking', Delia. We just don't want to bake cake | Felicity Cloake
In fact home cookery has never been more popular among adults in Britain. What has changed, however, is our taste in food
Delia Smith may not have won any prizes for that tinned mince and frozen mash shepherd's pie recipe she published a few years back, or the infamous Waitrose fish risotto recipe that Anne Robinson branded "disgusting" on primetime television more recently, but she certainly deserves a medal for self-promotion.
The woman who taught the nation how to boil an egg has given an interview to the Radio Times complaining that we've "lost our grip on home cooking". The problem is, apparently, that no one learns how to cook any more – turns out "you can't just open a book, go into a kitchen; you have to have some lessons". (Try telling that to Heston Blumenthal, or Ferran Adrià – many of the world's most exciting chefs happen to be self-taught, but I suppose there are exceptions to every rule.)
Before you burn your Delia collection in despair however, take heart, because the patron saint of Norwich has recently launched an online cookery school to help remedy the problem. The first term's syllabus appears to focus entirely on cakes, slightly bizarrely. A simple tomato sauce, or roast chicken, or even how to boil an egg would seem a more practical option, but perhaps you only graduate to such complexities after you've mastered the lemon drizzle.
Whatever our skills in the icing department, however, I find the idea the nation has gone off the culinary rails slightly offensive. While I'm delighted the coalition has reintroduced cookery to the national curriculum (from September 2014, children will learn how to make "healthy, wholesome dishes" for themselves from the age of eight), where adults are concerned, home cookery has never been more popular.
And I do mean popular – of course, before the days of ready meals, most people did have to cook for themselves every day (though even the Victorians complained about the pernicious effects of fast food), but I suspect few of them were enthusiastic about it.
Nowadays, 1.79 million people rush out to buy the latest Jamie Oliver book, andnothing can convince me that, in this cash-strapped age, most people then leave the thing to gather dust under a pile of take-away menus. Because we no longer have to cook every single night, we've begun to enjoy it – and our food culture is finally blossoming.
In fact, I know this from personal experience, because every week I sift through 50-odd reader recipes for my column for the Saturday Guardian's Cook supplement. These are personal creations which people are so excited about, and proud of, that they want to share them with the world – and I doubt many of the contributors have had a single cookery lesson in their life.
The offerings vary from the simple mushy peas to laborious Malaysian pot-sticker dumplings, and every single one of them, so far, has worked perfectly. The variety constantly astounds me, and I think this is something Delia, for all her patient good work in the past, will never understand. Many people no longer care about turning out a perfect soufflé, or baking a fruit cake, but they do get excited about learning how to cook their own Vietnamese pho, or Mexican mole. They may not float her boat, but the world has changed.
It would be disingenuous of me to claim that there's no room for improvement: you only have to look at the buoyant sales of fast food to realise that not everyone in Britain is cooking up a storm on a regular basis. Some families don't cook – not because they don't know how to, but because they can't afford it, or simply don't have the time.
But a lesson on how to make fairy cakes is hardly going to have much of an impact on sales of fried chicken. Far better to take the Jamie Oliver approach: put your money where your mouth is, and offer practical help to those sectors of society who need it most. And they aren't the kind of people who'll log on to an online cookery course, however well-meaning.
Love him or hate him, Jamie's Ministry of Food cookery schools teach people who've never even heard of Delia to make their own, healthier, cheaper versions of the kind of stuff they like to eat anyway. "Cracking" burgers, chicken chow mein, vegetable jalfrezi – this is the sort of education we need to get everyone cooking, not a masterclass in marmalade muffins.
Admittedly, you have to know your knife from your frying pan before you can make your first burger, but the idea that your average Brit is so stupid they can't read simple instructions is patronising, to say the least. It's really not that hard. In fact I taught myself to cook, almost accidentally, simply by opening a Nigel Slater book and realising I wanted to eat every single thing in it. Greed, it turns out, is the best teacher.