I’m visiting my grandmother in her Kettering garden and hoping for free rhubarb for my classroom cooking. The pink, tender stems that she forces under metal buckets are saved for special occasions but she’s happy for me pick the huge clumps thriving on her compost heap. I cut armfuls – leaves and all but Grandma looks bothered.
‘Those rhubarb leaves can poison people!’
She’s heard a story of someone who ate cooked rhubarb leaves, had severe stomach pains and ended in hospital. Grandma uses rhubarb leaves to clean her saucepans. She boils the leaves with water to make her aluminium pans shiny clean and if the leaves strip your stomach in the same way they remove stuck bits of scramble egg, that could be painful.
‘Don’t give those children the leaves! You could get into trouble.’
‘Don’t worry – I’ll warn them.’
Grandma knows about London children. Evacuees from east London were billeted in her house during the second word war. They attended Park Road school , thrived on her cooking and helped with her garden. She’s proud of her certificate from Queen Elizabeth 11 thanking her for this service which she keeps it in a faded envelope with its official stamp in her treasure cupboard.
‘A word before you go. Have you got a boyfriend yet? Time’s passing Jenny. This job is not everything you know! Make time to watch the flowers grow.’
Bah! I’m twenty four, my friends are getting married, I live alone in a dismal Hamsptead bedsit and drive an old Mini Traveller. And I have a job where most of the time I’m dressed in pink nylon overalls, my hair scraped back in an elastic band and I have to remember to take off my Marigold rubber gloves when I leave the room. My evenings are spent shopping for my demonstration food and marking homework! Bah! Time is passing.
Back in the classroom I plonk my huge pile of rhubarb on their cooking tables.
‘Class – to warn you – these leaves are poisonous, so don’t eat them. They can give you stomach ache and some people may have died.’
Who knows if the death story is true. I have their attention.
‘How did they die?’ It’s early and Bert is concentrating.
‘The leaves contain toxic oxalic acid and that means they are poisonous. ’
‘Why does the poison just go into the leaf? What about the rest?’
Bert has a clever point. I’ll have to ask the biology teacher.
‘Miss, can I have those leaves?’
Ah ha! I can see where this diversion is leading. Bert’s after my rhubarb leaf mountain. We’ve just had the school acid attack in the chemistry lab when a boy was sat on a stool covered in sulphuric acid. It burnt the backside off his school trousers and he was whipped off to Whipps Cross hospital to have the skin on his bottom soothed. Next to enter the school gossip could be my rhubarb poisoning scandal. And it’ll be my fault.
‘Bert, I’m taking these leaves home, so just watch my demonstration on Rhubarb fool and stop plotting. Remove the leaves wash and chop the stems, put them in a saucepan and cook in a little water with the lid on until they are soft.’
Most lessons start with a demonstration to show the new cooking skills and what the dishes look like and with such a small food budget I have to pay for the ingredients myself. But I haven’t forgotten the time the headmaster came in at the end of a day when I was packing my demonstration dish of egg mornay to take home.
‘ Jenny I think you come to school just to cook your meals and do your washing!’
I could have thrown my rubber gloves at him in fury.
After several cooking disasters that have landed in the bin, I’ve learnt to give them clear cooking instructions. Robert once stuffed his potatoes, unpeeled into my electric kettle, filled it with water and clicked it on. It took ages to poke out the mushy bits. Seems I’d told him to boil them until they were soft.
My here’s-one-I-made-earlier bowl of Grandma’s pink, cooked rhubarb gets passed around and sniffed.
‘Now to make custard.’
There is a magic moment when you stir pale peach custard powder and gritty sugar with a little milk. Suddenly the mixture turns bright yellow – a chemical mystery which probably holds its truth in tartrazine.
‘To make the custard, pour hot milk into this mixture and mix until it thickens.’
A delicious, golden, glossy custard glimmers in the bowl.
‘Mix your cooked rhubarb, the custard and some drops of red colouring then whisk the egg whites and fold in. Spoon into a glass dish and top with a glacé cherry.’
The red colouring is made from crushed cochineal beetles but I’m not sharing that secret. Imagine the screams.
‘We ain’t eating beetles!’
A section of my food storeroom shelves is lined with tiny bottles of artificial colours and flavourings which prop up our culinary skills and are fashionble to enhance 1970s dishes. Red is for rhubarb, pink butter icing and glaze for strawberry tarts. Green is added to dishes made with gooseberries and cooked apples.
Vanilla essence is the most popular chemical compote added to fairy cakes and Victoria sandwich. Drops of almond essence mix with the semolina I use for Bakewell Tart as ground almonds are too expensive. Rum essence is the ultimate sin, which we dribble into sponges or chocolate truffles. How I long to taste the real thing.
They chop, cook and stir then my table soon has a display of glass dishes in various shades from pink to plum. Each served on a saucer with a frilly d’oyley. Always a bloody d’oyley!
The lesson is over. And we have all made a potion of rhubarb with enhanced colours and flavours which richly deserves the name fool.