Cookery practical exams in the 1970s


The summer term of 1973 brings the final test for my teaching skills – the cookery practical exam. I have to get 60 students to cook an elaborate and edible meal, with hot drink, flower arrangements and all the other exam tasks that they throw at us. This feat takes place over several days as each student is allowed their own cooker and sink, which is unheard of during the rest of the year. And I provide all the ingredients. The headmaster has agreed that since it is an exam, the school will cover the cost!
These are some of the tasks.

‘Cook a two course lunch for 4 people and prepare an evening dish for someone coming back from a fishing trip. Clean a pair of muddy football boots.’

‘Prepare a hot breakfast for a family of four who are going out for the day. Make a packed lunch and some cakes and a drink for them to take with them. Wash and starch some napkins.’

‘Prepare an evening meal for a family with a teenage girl. Make sure that the meal is rich in iron and calcium. Bake some pasties for a packed lunch. Wash and iron a shirt.’

On the day of the practical exam, I switch from helpful teacher to the role of THE EXAMINER and I march round the room with my clipboard, watching my students peel and chop vegetables, prepare pastry, bake cakes, biscuits and bread. I take off marks for poor cooking skills, messy worktops and general flustered bumbling.

They’ve had lots of practice at learning what loses marks. I peek over shoulders, open up saucepan lids, bend down and peer into ovens, and rootle in the rubbish bin and take off marks for food wastage.

On rehearsals before the exam, I bark out warnings.

‘John – don’t cut away all that potato skin– use a potato peeler.’

‘Claire – don’t peel the apple with the cook’s knife!’

‘Alice, turn the pan handle in – someone could knock over the boiling water.’

‘Martin – use your fingertips to rub the fat into the flour – if you squeeze it anymore it will be a soggy lump’

‘Jane – don’t throw those bits of pastry away – make some jam tarts – we have to use everything – no wastage!’

Licking loses loads of marks.

‘Don’t lick your food – I won’t taste it if you do!’

Privately I love licking. My favourites are spoonfuls of fluffy margarine and sugar, beaten to pale creaminess for Victoria sandwich, and the foamy, whisked eggs and sugar which make a Swiss Roll. With just a dash of sweet Marsala wine, whipped eggs and sugar are only a stir away from warm zabaglione served at the Italian restaurant on Camden High Street.

Savoury and sweet dishes have their own bizarre serving rules. Savoury flans and cheesy scones are cooked and cut with PLAIN rings and cutters.

Sweet tarts and lemon meringue pies must have FLUTED edges. These are the RULES laid down in some Victorian kitchen and they are not to be BROKEN.

Years later I am shocked when I see a Sainsbury’s savoury quiche cooked in a fluted flan case. This was an unforgivable sin committed by the food product developers.

D’oyleys follow savoury and sweet rules too – plain d’oyleys for savouries and frilly ones of sweet scones and cakes. The penalty for the wrong choice – half a mark lost and a scowl from me.

On the exam day they work in silence.  Questions are for emergencies.

‘I feel sick miss.’

‘Just keep on cooking Angie – we can’t waste these ingredients.’

‘I’ve dropped my eggs on the floor miss.’

‘Dan, here’s the mop – clear up and start again.’

I only come to their aid if there is real danger.

‘Paul – can you put the lid on your frying pan quickly and so that it doesn’t catch fire. And take the tea towel off the top of the cooker before it catches light too.’

I deduct marks from the chart on my clipboard. Paul looks forlorn.

‘Please miss, it was an accident.’

I press my finger to my lips. No speaking, no excuses, this is the real test.

The exam lasts for  two and a half hours. That is a lot of cooking and cleaning. They must keep to time and follow their plan and produce edible food on the table.

‘OK class you have 20 minutes to finish.’

They gasp in dismay.

‘I’ve burnt the cake miss.’

‘Jack, just cut off the black bits and cover it with icing.’

‘My chocolate mousse is all wobbly.’

‘Mick – stick it in the freezer, quickly.’

They fluster and scurry round the room, boiling up water for the hot drink and tarting up the dishes with garnishes of parsley for savoury and sticky glace cherries for sweet.

And suddenly it is over.

‘Time’s up – present your food.’

Amazing pies with crisp, golden pastry appear hot from the oven.

Steaming dishes of perfectly cooked cabbage and carrots sprinkled with chopped parsley and topped with a knob of melting margarine.

Soft mounds of creamy mashed potato, decorated with a sprig of parsley.

Pineapple upside down cake with glistening glacé cherries and shiny rings of tinned pineapple served with a jug of hot Bird’s Custard.

And a pot of tea with a strainer, jug of milk and sugar bowl.

And a rose in a polished vase.

And a clean pair of football boots.

They file out the room leaving sinks heaving with dirty plates, bowls, burnt pans and sticky baking trays.

Now for the tasting session.

Students watch this ritual peering through the outside windows. I have a tasting tray with knife, jug of boiling water, tasting spoons and teatowel.

The judgement begins. All dishes must be tasted – unless they have been made by LICKERS. My face remains deadpan. Once when I tasted a ragout of kidney, I realised the student had used icing sugar instead of flour to thicken the sauce. I remained impassive but gave the dish no marks. It was inedible.

For a thorough examination, pies are cut, fillings tasted, cakes are sliced in half and puddings relished. Are the vegetables overcooked? Has the egg custard curdled? Are the bread rolls crisp? Is the Shepherd’s Pie well seasoned? I poke and prod, taste and appreciate. It is delicious.

They have done me proud.

The tables groan with food fit for a king or queen – after all there is no sex discrimination in cooking.

The marking is over and they surge in to photograph and fuss. Friends come in to congratulate and commiserate.  But mainly to eat. Then pack up, wash up, and leave with a wave and ‘Thanks miss – I enjoyed that!’

I have taught them to cook and they have learnt well.

4 Comments

Filed under Cookery exams in the 1970s, Jenny Ridgwell

4 responses to “Cookery practical exams in the 1970s

  1. jennyridgwell

    How amazing 46 years on and still the same questions!

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  2. M colquhoun

    Just like the CIE iGCSE I have chosen to teach instead of food prep and Nutrition. Same sort of exam briefs and practical exam, but no housework tasks to complete. Preparation for real life and home cooking, nothing fancy needed, just a skilful quality finish.

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  3. jennyridgwell

    What a brilliant comment – how wonderful to hear the other side of cooking for the exam from your point of view. In the late 1970s and 80s I was an A level Home Economics examiner visiting schools from Kings Lynn to all around London.
    Perhaps I terrified you as well as the students I was testing. I had to taste all the food and I remember one girl mixed up her icing sugar and flour so she stirred the icing sugar into her stew and tried to make a meringue from egg whites and flour – I wondered why the meringues looked so peculiar but it was when I tasted the stew that I knew what had happened.
    Students used to glare at me through the glass windows when I was tasting their food. And I checked the bins to see what they had wasted! Marks off for throwing away extra pastry.
    I had warned them if they licked food I couldn’t taste it, but I did my best. As you said, candidates had to present an elaborate table groaning with all the food they had cooked and using the correct doyleys. Middle class testing – maybe, I hadn’t thought of that. AsI was in my twenties, with no dinner service, I used to drive back to my parents to collect dishes to use for the exams in my school since some of my students ate their meals from trays and didn’t have serving dishes or flower vases. What a hangover to a bygone age. I wonder what Jamie would think of what we were marking!
    One examining day I drove to Kings Lynn to mark the practical for the largest group of A level Home Economics students in the country – can you imagine how many dishes I tasted that day? And they were making mayonnaise from scratch. After tasting nearly 140 different foods – in order of savoury to sweet then onto the next one – I drove home to my local WI and judged the Madeira cakes by cutting them in half just like I did in the exams. The women were horrified especially when I caught one whose slice of candied lemon had fallen to the bottom of her cake.
    Do tell me more – we did teach them to cook yes. I gave birth to my daughter, Annabel, in Whipps Cross hospital and one of my teenage students was in the ward too – I thought at the time, she knows how to make shepherd’s pie and bake a crumble! Jenny

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  4. Julie Griffiths

    Laughter and tear as I read this extract, not only do I remember being a pupil and going through the ‘O’ level ritual, I had the cooked breakfast and afternoon tea. I think I burnt the toast under the grill 3 times!! Then I went on to the ‘A’ level, preparation time on one day, Dad had to take two days of work to ferry all the china, tableclothes, winegalsses flowers etc. Then the cooking day, 3 of us in the room and an external examiner!! Terrifying. A four course meal for 8, ending with petit fours & coffee. So exhausted at the end I had a migraine headache and spent the next 2 days in bed.
    You think I would have had enough but no I went on to become a teacher of Home Economics, and yes, I do remember that straight edge cutters, oval plates & oval papers for savoury, fluted edge cutters, round plates and lace d’oyley for sweet, and woe betide anyone who got it wrong.
    We were accused of instilling middle class values on our pupils but at the end they could competently COOK a good nutritionally balanced meal. How many can say that today!!

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