Credit: Mary Wycherley /

Darina Allen Serves Up Some Home Truths To Norma Foley

Darina Allen is something of a national icon representing rather old fashioned values of home cooking, home growing and local sourcing. But her philosophy can’t be dismissed as nostalgia for bright copper kettles and crisp apple strudels.

Science is firmly on Allen’s side. The World Health Organization also preaches the importance of wholesome food for children’s health and development. It is ironic that in a world where so many children lack nutrition for reasons of poverty, WHO and other health agencies also focus attention on the poor quality of childrens’ diet in the affluent developed West.

This week Darina Allen took an interesting and rather unusual initiative in a country that prides itself on its prime food exports by announcing that she is going to lead a campaign to persuade Norma Foley, Minister for Education, to introduce mandatory cooking courses in Irish schools. For all pupils, not just girls. Darina Allen has been beating this drum for quite a while and it says something about the thinking of our government that they have to be hard sold the idea that there are dots to join between Allen’s food philosophy and the concerns they piously raise about Ireland’s growing problem with obesity.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Darina Allen is not using the abstract, guarded language of policy papers. In her down to earth, grandmotherly style she just repeats age-old, handed down wisdom that has somehow been lost along the path of women’s emancipation.  It seems in many ways that fast, convenient food is accepted as the necessary price of gender equality in the workplace.  It can be a difficult subject to raise even though everyone knows there are links between the manic busyness of young family life today and the growing reliance on fast food and its detrimental effects on both physical and mental health. The fact is most working parents cannot afford a housekeeper unlike high flying professionals who tend to be exercised more by equality ideology than, quite literally, the bread and butter challenges that accompany it for most families. Those who set the agenda need to take a broader view of the collateral negative impact of progressive policies on society’s weaker members.

Given the government’s eagerness to introduce mandatory courses on sexual health and safety at the behest of organised pressure groups, it seems somewhat strange they have to be badgered about the value of a healthy food culture and the importance of imparting basic cooking skills to the young.  The consequences of poor diet, from rising obesity to poor concentration levels, certainly get enough emphasis these days.  Darina Allen and other chefs, including Jamie Oliver in the UK, have also pointed out that fast food isn’t necessarily such a time saver as people might be inclined to think. If you have to drive to collect it or queue for it, the time involved could have been spent, with just a little bit more organization and probably a lot less stress, turning out a casserole. And of course there is the added satisfaction of a job well done. The psychological benefits of cooking your own food are not insignificant. Lifestyle guru, Edith Shaeffer, in her classic book, The Hidden Art of Homemaking, wrote how domestic creativity and craft can heal us from ‘the alienation from the fruits of our labour’ which can be such a feature of modern working life.

The issue of sustainability is also very much part of this discussion. While packaging is becoming more eco-friendly and degradable, fast food necessarily involves transportation and a significant carbon cost however the food gets to the consumer.  Almost certainly many of the ingredients will be sourced overseas as well which carries a further, even heavier carbon footprint.

Again, joining  the dots from promoting a strong local food culture and simple culinary skills to addressing environmental pollution and its impact on climate should not need to be suggested, let alone preached, to our politicians.  So what is the problem exactly?

Well, apart from the delicate matter of offending struggling, juggling parents who don’t need any more dollops of guilt added to their daily fare of early rising, commuting, endless shopping and organizing, drying tears, settling disputes, following up notes from schools, making doctors’ appointments and the myriad other lesser tasks that crowd their daily schedules, there is one other thing. That centers on the question of how much the virtue signalling political class really care about the issue at all or indeed any of the issues they opine about so sanctimoniously?

Take Eamon Ryan, Minister for the Environment and Climate, who like Norma Foley isn’t great at joining dots either.  He is dead keen on checking our domestic fuel spend by imposing onerous carbon taxes but has no problem importing compromised supplies from abroad when need arises. Former campaigner against nuclear power that he is, he is nevertheless prepared to cover energy supply gaps by importing cheap, nuclear electricity from France. This has been made possible by a billion euro interconnector between the two countries agreed between Simon Coveney and his French counterpart in 2018.  A  sort of political nimbyism. So the obvious question is how much greener and safer is it for Ireland to develop and maintain such a facility for back up energy instead of drawing from readily available supplies of gas at home ? If sourcing locally makes sense environmentally for food then why not for energy too?

We should at least be debating these points and their inter-relatedness as well as other anomalies like importing peat while closing down our own production facilities.  Carbon and toxic pollution from manufacturing doesn’t respect borders. Ticking carbon target boxes in Ireland is just a vanity project if we do it by first exporting the problem and then importing it back again, packaged and ready to pop in the oven.  Importing vast quantities of merchandise from China to feed our obsession with what Schaeffer calls ‘plastic newness’ is perhaps the issue we most need to confront if we are genuine rather than simply ideological about environmental issues.

Norma Foley’s response to Darina Allen’s campaign shows the same lack of coherence we get from Eamon Ryan.  She points to PE and Social, Personal Health Education as providing adequate education on healthy diets. But what use is theory when the skills to apply it are lacking ? We have arrived at a point where the generational transmission of domestic skills has been broken.  The only way now to restore lost knowledge is for children to learn it in schools, bring the knowledge home and hopefully restore the chain of generational transmission.

The fact that Darina Allen and a host of other renowned food gurus, are household names shows that the lost domestic idyll of growing and cooking what you eat remains a captivating idea. But the virtual world of celebrity cooking is little more than escapism and indulgence if the vision behind it doesn’t find its way into the hub and hobs of our own busy lives.

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