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Did famous Food writers learn to cook at school?

Grace Dent in her best selling memoir Hungry says home economics was the one lesson where she could shine. Nigel Slater was the only boy in his domestic science class but it took a long time for Miss Adams to teach him to cook.

So do other famous food writers value their cooking lessons at school? The Guild has nearly 500 members who are authors, broadcasters, columnists and journalists and they are passionate and knowledgeable about food. I asked if they learnt to cook at school and if not why not.

65% of respondents said yes and 35% said no. 

Many were not allowed to but why? The message was clear. Cooking was not considered an academic subject and clever students, like some Guild members, had to study Latin or science instead. They were actively discouraged from learning to cook. In high schools and grammar schools only the less academic were allowed to learn home economics. Several begged to take the subject but had to wait until they left school to study for themselves. A level Domestic Science was not accepted as a qualification for university and others, like me, had to take more exams to make up for this. Clearly, for Guild members, learning about food is their passion and they have a hugely diverse range of job opportunities open to them.

Here are replies from members who loved their lessons. 

Liz Trigg says ‘I absolutely loved it and had a great inspiring teacher Mrs Susan Hopps. I then went on to study a Bsc in Home Economics at Cardiff University’. 
Liz has a successful food media career as a food editor in magazines and writing cookbooks.

Lorna Rhodes replied ‘I loved domestic science at school and did the new course at Salford Tech for Home economics for higher education – led onto a job with Cadbury’s and then freelancing writing and food styling.’
Lorna’s website says ‘Food has been the story of my life!!  I have had a successful career as a cookery writer and food stylist for over 30 years having trained as a home economist.’

Charlotte Pike is Chair of the Guild of Food writers and is an award winning cookery writer, teacher and chef.
‘I did GCSE Food Technology in 2001. I was told off for taking my Mum’s copy of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course in by my teacher! Food Technology was dull.’

Lynsey Ainley/ Hollywood is the manager of the Food & Drink Business Development Centre and Course Director for the MSc Food Design and Innovation at Ulster University Business School.
‘I look back on my HE classes with really fond memories and am genuinely so appreciative of the topics I was taught relating to sustainability, health, budgeting and nutrition as well as the skills I gained in cooking and research.’

Jennifer John runs Ceres PR, a specialist food and wellbeing PR and marketing agency
‘I did O level & A level HE then the National Diploma was a brilliant education all round – in so many subjects!’

Jane Milton writes about the food industry and often appears as an expert on television programmes representing the industry.
‘I did O’ grade and Higher Home Ec. In my higher studies chemistry and Home Ec were time tabled against each other as ‘if you are clever enough to do chemistry, you would not do Home Ec.’ The School year book says – Course of Higher Education as they could not bring themselves to say I had gone on to do a degree in HE! ‘

Sam Bilton is an established Food Historian, writer and cook. 
‘I did Home Economics as an O level in the 80s. I had a very enthusiastic home economics teacher so I enjoyed it. No one suggested I do Home Economics as an A level. I wish they had as I’m sure I’d have got better results!’  

Clare Gordon Smith is a food writer, stylist and editor. 
‘I did Home Economics at school, but had to change school to get there as the previous school didn’t think it much of a subject!’

What are the views of food writers who did not study cookery at school?

Angela Clutton writes award winning cookery books and runs food events for Borough Market and the British Library and regularly appears on TV.
‘At my school you did either Latin or Home Ec – and this was a decision made by the teachers, not the pupils. The ‘clever’ girls did Latin… Ridiculous and makes me sad even to write it here.’ 

Liz Wright, editor of the Smallholder Magazine, replied
‘I’d like to have done more but I was academic so they wouldn’t let me – didn’t do me a lot of good, left school at 15 because I hated it.’

Kay Gale ‘I went to a direct grant girls’ school in the sixties. No domestic science, no sewing. The headmistress apparently didn’t approve.’ Kay has been a book editor for many years and runs a travel gourmet blog.

Not all are glowing about their cookery teachers. Some replies made me chuckle.

Steff Hafferty is a no dig gardener, garden and food writer, teacher, consultant. ‘It was dreadful, taught by a psycho maths teacher and a psycho nun. I learned nothing about making good food’

Sally Butcher says she’s a crazy cornershop keeper. Restaurateur. Masquerades as a chef.
‘My home economics teachers were appalling. I couldn’t wait to drop both classes.Kay Gale ‘I went to a direct grant girls’ school in the sixties. No domestic science, no sewing. The headmistress apparently didn’t approve.’

My conclusions?

Since I started teaching in the 1970s, home economics, domestic science, cookery or whatever else you want to call it, has been challenged. The Guild members describe the enjoyment many found in cooking at school, yet others were stopped from taking the subject and told they were too academic and had to do other things. Learning about food deserves more respect. Well done to those Guild members who found a way in later life to get qualified and earn their living working with food.

In 2021 there is a shortage of people needed in the hospitality and catering industry, our weekend papers are packed with food news and recipes, and the public demands good quality food in supermarkets and restaurants. But our food teachers still struggle with lack of technician support for their busy classrooms and need help funding ingredients so that all students in their classes can cook. Somehow we need to wave the Food flag and hope that schools of the future give students a chance to learn about this amazing subject that has been such an important part of my life for the last fifty years!

You can read my story teaching cooking in 1970s east London in I taught them to cook.

Interview with Chloe Edwards

In this interview I want to find out what cooking skills Chloe thinks are important for teenage students to learn and what dishes she’d like them to discover. Chloe runs Seven Sisters’ Spices in Lewes where she teaches cookery classes, creates recipes and supplies exciting takeaway dishes to lucky local people. She’s passionate about raising food awareness and tells me her food ‘recaptures the flavours of her multicultural London upbringing.’ I’m keen to find out more.

Me – What important cooking skills do you think a 15-16 year old should learn?
Chloe – There are so many possibilities – learning how to cook rice is a great start. There are many sorts of rice to use. They can make Pilaffs, Biryanis, Risottos – make a delicious meal in one pot. They could learn to cook by focussing on commodities like breads and dips.
Me – What other ingredients are important?
Chloe – Spices! Learn how to temper mustard, cumin and coriander where you heat them in oil to extract flavour – known as tadka, tarka or sometimes tarkha. It’s a transferable skill for so many dishes and you must discover how to prepare them without burning and then design your own spice mix.

Dishes in a thali

Me – Other ideas?
Chloe – Make bread. Simple unleavened bread that you can serve with dhal, or try parathas that can be stuffed with a mix of vegetables. And other breads too.
Me – What is essential for them to learn?
Chloe – to get good flavours, aromas and textures on a plate.
Me – for GCSE students choose a dish to show skill. How would you test them?
Chloe – Meals can be made up of so many things that could be served together, not just one dish – ideas like thalis and the list below.
Baked pakoras or samosas served with home made pickle and spinach dhal.
Dhal, which shows use of spices, served with home made chutney, flatbread and raita.
Food from the Middle East – Hummus with bread, quickly made pickles and a baked savoury filo pastry dish.
Rice – think of all the sushi dishes you can make.
Me – How would you sum up these skills?
Chloe – These ideas show a diverse way of challenging their skills and making something purposeful – it is the foundation for their future home cooking. If they make a meal composed of different dishes, it tests their timings and shows many skills in each part. 

Thankyou Chloe, much appreciated.

This video shows her work

Guild of Food Writers Awards

My blog I taught them to cook is one of the 3 finalists in The Guild Awards Online Food Awards 2021 so I’m very pleased as it’s the first year in my 20 years of membership that I’ve entered for anything.

Food textbooks are the secret world of food writing. Each one takes a year to write and must match curriculum requirements and be up to date and accurate. Then we need to source all the charts, photos and drawings. The good news is that publishers sell loads.
So Thankyou Guild for seeing the value of school food education. After 50 years I am a piece of its history! And thankyou Satellite PR for sponsoring this award. Hope you don’t mind my tatty old site!

Scoff by Pen Vogler

I used Pen Vogler’s book for research for the History section of my book. Why did we call the midday meal school dinner and why did we have dinner ladies? Yet my textbooks talked about packed lunch? It’s all to do with the great north-south divide and our class system. The working class had their main meal at midday and so called it dinner and the industrial revolution was happening in the north of the UK. To distinguish themselves from their workers, the upper classes had their main meal at night and called it dinner. As there was a long gap between their midday and evening meal, they invented Afternoon Tea which became increasingly elaborate. Read my piece on the Governor’s tea and see how many dishes I served. Two sorts of sandwiches, scones and jam, brandy snaps and butterfly cakes!

White Eggs

In the seventies, most of our eggs had white shells but gradually brown shelled eggs appeared in the shops and people thought they were healthier. In 2021, during the pandemic, white eggs were back in the supermarkets and sold for half the price of brown ones. The reason? Specific breeds of hen lay white eggs and these breeds can be kept in very large flocks as the hens are not as aggressive as brown egg laying hens. The white shelled eggs are therefore cheaper to produce and used by the food and catering industry. The pandemic closed many of these companies so there was a surplus supply of white eggs which supermarkets are selling at reduced prices. There is no nutritional difference between white and brown eggs although my 1970s students insisted there was and always wanted my brown eggs.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Marguerite Patten

Marguerite Patten’s Cookery in Colour was my first cookery book and I used it for all my cooking exams in the 1960’s. In 2009 I visited her at her home and got my well used book signed. Marguerite was as busy as ever, and at 93 years old, she regularly contributed to BBC discussion programmess on current food issues. We talked about the challenges of cooking in war time, and all the changes in equipment and ingredients that came during the following years.

Marguerite Patten signing my copy of Cookery in Colour

Marguerite gave me a copy of A Century of British Cooking, as I was writing a memoir of teaching in London schools in the 1970s. She has written an astonishing 170 books, which makes my 70 titles seem like a starter. Marguerite worked on the launch of the new pressure cookers which saved fuel in the 1950s – interesting how many things are becoming topical today. She demonstrated the Kenwood Chef when it was invented, and promoted many of the food initiatives in the 50s and 60s – using more wholemeal flour and the soft margarines for cake making.

We talked of offal – Awful Offal my students called it- and remembered stuffed hearts, liver and bacon, and grilled kidneys. Marguerite was involved with many food initiatives, and believed that food should be well cooked and delicious. We sat down to a tea of smoked salmon sandwiches and asparagus rolled in brown bread with cream cheese, followed by homemade fruit cake.

Marguerite was an inspiration to anyone wanting to learn to cook, or write about food. So optimistic, generous and hard working, with a database of stories and memories. I value sharing her memories and sensible opinions on the food we eat.

Marguerite died in 2015 at the age of 99. Jenny Ridgwell

Photo by Jenny Ridgwell

Metrication

Schools went metric in 1971 – that’s over 50 years ago! I threw out the scales measuring ounces and pounds and the jugs with pints and fluid ounces and changed all my recipes to grams and millilitres. Now fifty years ago the UK is still selling milk in pints and beer in half and full pints. Our recipe books are written in metric and imperial according to the Guild of Food Writers whose authors are publishing for 2021.

You can read about my struggle to teach in metric on this link

Students would bring in treasured recipe books with the old measures and tell me that the cake wouldn’t work unless it was measured in ounces! Please can someone decide that we should go completely metric and measure in cm and drive in km!

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Chicken

I

In the 1950s, Britain produced just 1 million chickens a year – today 2021 it is over a billion.

Intensive farming methods were imported from the US and in the late 1960s the price of chicken dropped by a third. During the late 1970s government campaigns advised people to eat less fatty, red meat and choose chicken as a leaner, healthier alternative. By the 1990s nearly a quarter of meat eaten in Britain was chicken or turkey.
In 1972, the year of my memoir, chicken was still too expensive to cook in school and none of the textbooks wrote about it or asked questions in the dreaded exams so I didn’t include it in my teaching. You can read about my chicken lesson here.

Today chicken is the most popular meat around the world – in 2021 there were 25 billion farmed chickens. Most poultry is intensively farmed but the price of chicken is now affordable and popular.

Photo by William Moreland on Unsplash