The summer term of 1973 brings the final test for my teaching skills – the practical cooking exam. I have to get 150 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. 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 lots 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 unforgiveable 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. 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 cornflour 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 us all 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.