My first full time teaching job in 1970 was in a large north London comprehensive school, just east of Finsbury Park. Schools in inner London were under the control of ILEA – the Inner London Education Authority, and I’d been interviewed for the role at their vast headquarters at County Hall over the river, opposite the Houses of Parliament.
The walk down the endless, gloomy corridors to the interview room was long and daunting but my interview was quick and the result instant.
‘Do you want a job teaching home economics in London?’ said the people behind the desk.
‘Yes’, I replied.
‘Can you start in this school in September?’ said the people.
‘Yes’ , This interview was quick and easy.
‘Then we will find you a school and send you the letter of appointment with the details.’
No more questions, no interrogation, no ‘come back next week for your second, or third interview’, and certainly no ‘will you teach a sample lesson for us.’
I was ushered back down the corridors, past the benches of other interviewees sitting in the dim light and out into the summer sunshine, beside the sparkling river Thames, ready to start my new career.
No-one in authority had asked me if I knew how to cook, nor if I was good at keeping discipline in the classroom.
My new students challenged my ability to keep order, and my classes were known for being noisy, which I felt was just teenage excitement and my enthusiasm when we produced something edible. The families in the north London catchment area came from many parts of the world, especially Trinidad and Jamaica, and I wished someone had educated me more about the culture and recipes of the Caribbean. Students told me of their famous dishes of ackee and salt fish, rice and beans, jerk pork, curried goat and cassava dumplings, and I longed to try these out in the classroom. But I had to stick to the recipes from our class sets of Good Housekeeping Cooking is Fun with its endless cakes, biscuits and scones.
The bread lesson is the one of the first tests of my limited culinary skills.
I’ve never cooked bread before but as the new teacher in the department, I don’t want to show my ignorance in front of the team of very experienced cookery teachers. They already find my miniskirts and noisy classes bothersome.
On my way to school I pop in for advice from the Jewish baker who works at the Manor House Bakery. He’s swaddled in large white overalls, and wrapped with a floury apron.
‘Help! Please help me with this class – how do I make bread, how do I use fresh yeast and have you got any for sale?’
The baker knows many of the students I am teaching as they surge into his bakery before school, hungry for bread and cheese rolls and doughnuts for their breakfast.
He opens the huge fridge and takes out a beige yeast block carefully wrapped in soft white paper.
‘Just crumble a piece of this it into the bowl of flour and salt and mix it to a dough with warm water. And keep all the windows closed. You need a really warm room for the bread to rise.
Good luck Jenny– let me know how you get on.’
Fresh yeast has a strange smell like the whiff of a damp basement. I break off beige crumbly lumps and line them up on a tray. In ILEA schools we provide all the ingredients and students pay ten pence a lesson. Everything must look the same in size and shape otherwise there is a squabble.
‘You chose the boys first, last time. The girls should be first this lesson.’
Grace lives up to her name, but she sometimes has a fierce side.
‘His is bigger than mine, Ma’am, it’s not fair.’
Tex is bigger than anyone, but he’s not going to bully me into a larger lump.
For some reason female teachers in inner London have to be addressed as Ma’am. If the entire class is calling for me, it sounds like a sheep field.
Ma’am, ma’am, mum….’
The class gathers around my demonstration table, waiting for instructions. There is the usual well meaning pushing, but they are eager to get on.
‘Weigh out your ingredients and take a piece of fresh yeast. Make sure your hands are really clean – any muck will get into the dough.’
They crumble the yeast into the flour, and add warm, sugary water which is carefully measured.
‘It smells like me dad’s beer kit’.
Dan sometimes helps me clear up after school.
‘The yeast is fermenting with the flour, Dan, to make carbon dioxide and alcohol, so it’s like beer making.’
‘So can we get drunk on bread Ma’am?’
Dan and friends chuckle at the prospect of an alcoholic snack.
‘No – as it cooks the alcohol evaporates.’
‘Now class, work this dough with your hands. The more you squeeze and knead, the better it will be.’
For boys this squelchy stage is magic. Girls would rather stir elegantly with a wooden spoon. Sticky, doughy hands are distasteful.
‘Tip it out onto a floury table and knead it.’
I demonstrate how to pull and push the dough. The room warms as they punch and stretch the mixture.
‘Ma’am, help it’s slimy.’
Tex as always has not followed the recipe, and has taken more than his share of flour, and then guessed at the amount of water he needs to make the dough. His great sloppy mixture oozes over the table. I shake on more flour as a rescue remedy, but this means that Tex gets more cooking for his money, something his classmates have come to resent.
‘Now divide the dough into six and roll into balls to make your bread rolls.’
I’d forgotten to say divide equally. Balls come in all sizes. We end up with bread rolls the size of ping pong and tennis balls but it’s too late.
‘Onto the baking trays and cover with a wet teatowel. Then into the drying cabinet to let the bread rise.’
These are the days before tumble dryers. Schools have large gas fired drying cabinets where I hang washed teatowels and dishcloths each night to dry. One weekend I was sure I’d left the gas cabinet on and couldn’t get back into school to check. I was right and on Monday morning my teatowels were crisp and dry – but also burnt to a brown crisp. I was lucky the school buildings didn’t join them.
My recipe bible, Cooking is Fun, says that when the rolls double in size, they are ready to bake. Someone has scratched out the word Fun and written Cooking is Horrible on one of the book covers. By the end of this lesson I might agree.
Under the teatowels, nothing is happening, but we must get baking.
‘Put your rolls in the oven and sit round my table.’
In this stonking hot room inside a London school surrounded by busy roads, roaring traffic and concrete buildings, I bring out my bundles of wheat, barley and oats picked from the quiet Northamptonshire summer fields far away up the M1.
‘Class, where does the flour come from that we use for our bread?’
They gaze back silently. We can smell the bread baking.
I hold up the stems of wheat.
‘See the grains in the top?’
I squeeze them out and pass a handful of seed around the group.
‘We crush them to make flour.’
‘Have any of you ever seen barley? It’s used in beer and whisky making.’
There is a mild rustle of interest.
Barley is golden and spiky and the spikes make good darts which stick to your clothes, but I’m not telling them that.
‘Do you know what this last cereal is called?’
This stem is tall and dangly, with the seeds hanging on tiny threads.
Not a glimmer.
‘Oats. You know about oats?’
They do, but they’re not letting on what kind.
‘Made into porridge which you might have for breakfast.’
Breakfast? What’s that?
Enough! The rolls must be ready. They take solid, crisp lumps from the oven and put them on wire racks to cool.
‘This bread ain’t much good Ma’am. It’s too hard.’
Dan is fed up. He is proud to take his cooking home and this time it’s awful. The whole class has baked awful, hard lumps of dough. And it’s my fault.
They bag up the hard balls, pack them in their satchels and shuffle out the room. I hear the boys scuffling in the corridor and see a lump of dough arching into the air.
On my way home, I pop into the bakers.
‘How did it go?’ he asks hopefully.
Sadly, I show him the lumps from my demonstration which I plan to throw out when I’m far away from school.
‘Jenny, you didn’t prove them properly’
I explain about the hot drying cabinet and the rush to get things cooked before school ends.
‘Turn the cabinet temperature down next time and don’t be in such a hurry.
Letting bread rise is like life. Take it nice and easy and you’ll get a good result.
Rush at it and it just gets hard.’
At home, I toss my bread rolls into the garden. Even the hungry pigeons peck and go.