Spag bog I’ve decided to modernise my lessons, bring them into 1970’s and cook a dish I’ve seen on TV – spaghetti bolognaise. I’ve never cooked spaghetti before but Zena Skinner, the TV cook , has told us to ‘Throw the spaghetti at the wall – if it’s cooked it will stick’, so if it works for Zena, it will do for me. The nearest I’ve come to cooked pasta is my grandmother’s macaroni pudding which she makes from full cream milk, macaroni and sugar, sprinkled with nutmeg and baked in a slow oven for two hours. The creamy macaroni is topped with a brown, chewy skin which is my favourite. Other pasta offerings of the 60s include canned spaghetti in a gluey, orange tomato sauce. The spaghetti is soft enough to mash to a pulp with a spoon. Fussy eaters like Alphabetti spaghetti – tiny pasta letters in the same globby sauce. Bored children who have to sit at the table until the grownups finish their meal, can push letters around the plate in the hope of spelling rude words.
Our local shops don’t sell pasta, so I visit a delicatessen in north London and buy several large packs of dried spaghetti wrapped in soft, dark blue paper with a red and white label providing Italian instructions. The class is excited at preparing this new food. First is the bolognaise sauce made from just four ingredients – butcher’s cheapest mince, lard, onions and tomato ketchup. Lard and fatty meat are everyday food. We don’t worry about saturated fats – we don’t even know about them. Garlic, tomato purée and oregano are also off the menu. For children from the east end of London, these fancy foods just mess things up. Bert has already warned me. ‘Me dad won’t eat it if you put that rubbish in – he’ll give it to the dog, miss.’ We fry the mince and onions in lard until brown, stir in some tomato ketchup and add enough water to make a sauce then leave it to simmer. Next we put large saucepans of boiling water on the stoves then twirl in the spaghetti, letting the stiff strands soften and cook, then wait until it’s time for the Zena Skinner ‘stick to the wall’ test to see if it is done. ‘Miss, the water’s too hot – I can’t get the spaghetti out.’ Bert sucks his hot fingers. I’d forgotten basic rules of health and safety. Don’t pick the spaghetti out with your fingers. Boiling water scalds. They choose some poking tools and fling long strands of pasta at the nearest surface. By the end of the lesson, the beige walls and cooking stoves are glued with snakes of spaghetti. Stiff uncooked stuff drops behind the worksurfaces and cupboards, to be retrieved by visiting mice, or swept up in the annual room clean at the end of term.
Now for the presentation. Cooked spaghetti is piled into their take home dish, a mound of sauce spooned on top and sprinkled with grated Cheddar cheese. Parmesan cheese is off the shopping list too. It’s another exotic ingredient that would send the meal dogwards, and anyway, we can’t afford it.
They bring me their cooking for a mark out of ten to reflect effort, enthusiasm and most importantly, how much of their washing up has been done. Then it’s covered with foil. No cling film is available in the classroom yet, and into their shopping baskets for collection at home time. Except for the boys. East end boys don’t carry shopping baskets. Buying cookery stuff is another embarrassment. And they must certainly never be seen taking their cooking home .
‘Can we eat it now miss? We’ll clear up honest.’ Bert and Barry spend lots of time in my room, and often swap a mound of washing up for a toasted cheese sandwich. So while other teachers meet to gossip, snack and smoke in the staffroom, my cookery room transforms into an eatery. The tables are set – blue checked seersucker tablecloths, pastel green Beryl Ware plates, and smart knives and forks. This is a proper sit down meal.
‘This foreign food is nice miss. I’m going to cook it for me mum.’ Alan and his friends clear away and charge out the room. The bell goes and it’s time for my next lesson – lemon meringue pie and jam tarts and all before tea time.