We don’t do washing up

My 1970s washing up lesson

Cynthia has been getting the empty room next to mine ready for some new cookery classes planned for the start of the year. Newly equipped room and a new part time teacher. There’ll be some fun cooking for the sixth form to help them when they leave school. They sniff the meaty smells and fragrant baking as they pass my room and now a gang has asked the headmaster for special lessons.

Cynthia brings in a pile of saucepans, jam tart tins and baking trays and dumps them on my demonstration table. Then leaves the room and returns with an armful of bowls and cooking tools.

‘Jenny. They’ve been leaving their dirty washing-up in the new room. They must be swapping it for the clean things in the cupboards.’

At the end of each lesson students stand by their workstation as we march round and check that all their equipment has been left clean and ready for the next class. Cynthia has stuck drawings of tools in each drawer and the cupboards have a checklist of equipment. All sharp knives must be returned to the knife rack. No-one leaves until all the slots are filled. Paring and cook’s knives cannot be snaffled out in their duffle bags. There’s no telling what they will be used for.

At the end of some busy lessons they rush out as soon as the bell goes. 

‘Bye Miss. All tidy. Can’t be late. Mr Smith in Maths will give us a detention.’

This is the time when Cynthia and I tour the room searching in hidey-holes. A burnt frying pan stuffed behind a cooker, an unwashed saucepan tucked behind the folded tea towels, and the favourite place where they shove mucky baking trays.  Stuffed down the back on the cupboard next to the exit. A sort of burnt baking tray post box.

‘Jenny. You’ve got to stop this. They’re really bad at washing up. Probably don’t do it at home.’

She’s right. Yuk. We need a special lesson. They’re going to hate it. I send a message out to all their class tutors.


They slump on the stools around my demonstration table. It’s piled with stuff that Cynthia found next door. And a plastic washing up bowl, a wooden brush with stiff bristles, a new pink Brillo pad and some Fairy Liquid. Well it’s not really Fairy Liquid. Just cheap stuff from County Supplies that comes in gallon-sized plastic containers. Like war-time jerry cans. Cynthia dilutes the soapy liquid with water then refills the Fairy Liquid bottles using a plastic funnel. Staff have kindly brought in the empty bottles for us to fill and they stand beside each of the butler’s sinks. We have to be thrifty as the headmaster says that cleaning stuff for my room comes out of my allowance. I wonder if the PE department has to pay for the playing fields to be mowed.

In my childhood home my brother avoided washing up with one simple trick. One evening my mother told him to wash up and he did it so badly that she grabbed the wet dishcloth, shook it over his head and shouted.

“Go away. You’re useless. I’ll never ask you again!’ So he’d won. And he didn’t. Ever wash up.

Today I’m picking on the boys as I reckon they are the main culprits. 

‘Some people in my classes have been hiding their dirty washing-up next door. Does anyone know anything about it?’

Silence. Eyes down. Scanning the floorboards.

‘OK. Seems you all need a washing up lesson so we all know how to do it properly. Tom – put an apron on and come and help with the demonstration.’

I’m ready in my pink nylon overall and matching pink Marigold rubber gloves.

‘Tom can you fill the bowl with hot water please?’

He shuffles over to the butler’s sink and runs the tap, splashing water over his jumper. His usual spark of humour is dampened by this dreary lesson.

“Is it hot?’  There’s no steam so I know the answer. ‘Start again. Hot.’

“Class. Why do we use hot water for washing up?’ 

They don’t want to know. Jill puts her hand up to break the silent stupor.

“Miss it helps to get off greasy food but you need washing up liquid too.’

‘Quite right Jill. Well done. Just one squirt will do. No more.’

I squirt my fake liquid from one of my Fairy Liquid bottles. 

‘Do you know the song from the Fairy Liquid advert?’

I’ll cheer them up by singing the memorable lines.

‘Hands that do dishes will be soft as your face. 

With mild green fairy liquid.’

Sam puts his hand up.

‘Miss. Why are you wearing rubber gloves? Don’t you want soft hands?’ 

Firstly I can’t tell Sam the stuff in our Fairy Liquid bottles is an industrially fierce fake and secondly it’s not mild and green but pale blue. My hands will feel like sandpaper if they wash up as often as I do.

The biggest bugger is these bloody Fairy adverts with a woman stuck at the foamy, bubbly sink in her pinny encouraging her little daughter to admire the bubbles all over the family plates. And then stroking her hands still soft after hours of washing up. Women’s work! Bah humbug!  Where are the men and the boys in this household?!! No wonder the boys in my class don’t know how to wash up.

‘Tom – can you show us how you would wash this dirty pudding bowl that Cynthia found next door?’

He smirks at the group and we watch as he struggles to get the dried up Victoria sandwich mix off the sides.

“See how hard it is? You need to wash things up straight away. Thanks Tom. Rinse it in cold water in the sink and leave it to drain then sit down.’

It’s time for a few more washing up rules.

Wash the cleanest things first – the water gets dirtier as you progress.

Then wash cutlery and cooking implements.

NEVER PUT SHARP KNIVES IN THE BOWL. How many times do I put plasters on cuts from knives hidden in washing up bowls?

Wash baking trays and cooking pans last and try to get bits off with a brush or Brillo pad.

Rinse then let things drain on the draining board then dry up and put away ready for checking.

It’s time to pick on Sam. I reckon this pair could be the culprits. They sometimes ask to use the lav after cooking is finished, then hurriedly leave the room. I hand Sam a jam tart tin encrusted with burnt jam and dried up pastry.

‘Try and get this clean Sam.’ He scrubs and brushes to little effect.

‘See – if it’s left it’s so hard to clean. You need to let us know if there’s stuff burnt on then we can soak it in hot soda water in the sink.’ 

That is a dangerous task that Cynthia and I dread and too harmful for them to do.

‘So now for some written work so that you can remember how to wash up after your practical lessons and you might get a question in the EXAM! Turn to the page on `Care of Kitchen Equipment’ in Cookery for Schools.

Oh God! It starts with ‘An efficient housewife not only produces attractive dishes but uses all her equipment well.’ I bet she has soft hands from all the Fairy Liquid she squirts in her washing up bowl and never wears pink Marigold rubber gloves. These ghastly sexist textbooks need burning on Bonfire Night along with the practice exam papers that ask about housewives doing everything.

‘Class – answer question 7 for homework – it’s from a real exam paper.

‘How would a housewife clean the following a) a burnt aluminium saucepan, b) a kettle encrusted in fir, c) a fish kettle, d) a greasy frying pan and e) a greasy cooking stove?’ 

Help! Help! Let’s see who knows about fir and if anyone can find a fish kettle in the local junk shop.

See article on Daily Star Dec 2021

Toad in the hole

Toad in the hole has sauasages in it!

Excerpt from my next book on teaching cooking in a 1970s London comprehensive school

Today we’re making Toad in the hole, a thrifty dish made from cheap pork sausages and pancake batter. The batter bakes to a crisp, golden crust encasing sizzling sausages but if the recipe goes wrong, you get a gloop of indigestible dough which gets scraped into the bin.

Growing up in the Midlands, Yorkshire pudding is a staple food. My mother served Yorkshire pudding before our evening meal  – a cheap way to fill us up when we returned home from school. She didn’t serve snacks so we were hungry when we sat down to eat. Yorkshire was served with gravy made from meat and vegetable juices and thickened with flour. Never Bisto for gravy. My mother knew it was coloured with caramel and didn’t like us eating too much sugar or ‘muck’. 

‘It’s very nutritious. I’ve used four eggs to make it.’

She’d learnt about nutrition during her war-time teacher training but never seemed to enjoy family cooking. She taught in a busy junior school, cooked an evening meal for three kids and my father and did the housework at night so was no doubt exhausted.

My father took a slice of cold, leftover Yorkshire pudding for his lunch which he ate on a park bench below my posh Northampton school. One day I passed him as I walked with classmates to our tennis lesson.

‘Look at that old tramp on the bench.’ muttered my friend Stephanie.

Wearing his old shabby raincoat, he sat with his battered metal sandwich tin and a flask of tea. I didn’t say hello.

There’s a great debate on the correct way to make Yorkshire pudding. My grandmother believed fresh air was essential and took her mixing bowl and ingredients outside in sunshine, rain and freezing weather and beat until the batter plopped. 

‘It’s the fresh air that makes it rise, you know.’

She used Bero flour, Saxa salt, the freshest eggs and the creamiest Jersey milk. And melted a large lump of dripping in a roasting tin in a very hot oven, poured the batter into the sizzling fat, closed the oven door and waited.

‘Don’t open the oven door until it is ready!’  

Her Yorkshires always puffed to golden crispness and she served chunks with meaty gravy. A taste of childhood deliciousness.

‘Class! Today’s lesson. Toad in the hole. We’re going to make a Yorkshire pudding batter and cook it in your roasting tin with the sausages you’ve brought along.’

I scan faces of the aproned boys and girls sitting on their stools around my demonstration table. Tim has his hand up. 

‘Miss. I ain’t brought sausages or a tin.’ 

I knew it. Other boys shoot their hands up. I’m ready for them.

‘Can you pay me for a foil tin and the Toad ingredients if you want to cook?’

Yes! Yes! Boys hate bringing baskets to school. They rootle around and thrust out coins.

‘Later. Now watch. Turn on the ovens, put a knob of lard in your roasting tin with your sausages. Dripping is the best fat but the butcher didn’t have any. Now heat the tin.’ 

We don’t care about saturated fats. It’s the quality of the end result that matters.

‘Tim – in the oven please.’

I hand him an oven glove and my tin with a wary scowl of ‘No knob jokes, please.’ The boys exchange grins. They’ve had a smirk at making Turd in the hole, and now it’s prods about knobs and dripping. Another glower from me. This class must not drift into smutty chaos like last year.

‘Watch. I’m making the batter.’

The greatest Yorkshire pudding debate is whether to make and bake the batter or leave it to stand. In London and the south, people leave it to rest, but I’m teaching the northern way – make, bake and eat. I sieve the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl, crack in two eggs, beat rapidly with a wooden spoon then slowly add the milk. ‘Plop, plop.’ The batter flops against the sides of the bowl with memories of sitting in my grandmother’s Kettering garden preparing this triumph.

‘OK Tim, put the hot tin on this chopping board. Don’t burn the Formica tables like last year’s lot.’ 

At my start-of-term safety lesson we stood in sadness around a burnt ring on one of my Formica tables which added to the general shabbiness of my room.

‘Tim! Use an oven glove to take the tin out. One mark lost if you don’t.’

Our oven gloves are thick woven cotton cloth with pockets for each hand. Years of use have worn away the edges and it’s easy to burn your fingers through the holes.

‘Put the batter in a jug then pour it over the sausages.’

There’s a sizzle and spit as the liquid hits the hot fat. 

‘Into the oven for 20 minutes. Don’t open the door while it’s cooking. Now it’s your turn.’

They rush to their places and the room hums with beating batter.  

‘Get your tins out and show me that your jugs of batter are ready.’

Tim points his jug at the girls. 

‘Miss wants to see your jugs.’

Glower. Scowl. Cooking is littered with rude instructions.

‘Batter into tins ready for check.’

They stand alert like parade soldiers. Cynthia and I dance round the tables then nod for the baking to begin. There is a scramble to get their tins on the top shelf. Hot air rises and the top shelf cooks fastest. But Yorkshire puddings 

‘Don’t open the doors till I tell you!’

My Toad is ready and I carry it aloft from the oven. Da da. Brown, shiny sausages surrounded by a well risen, golden, crispy Yorkshire pudding. My grandmother would be proud. Now they are ready. Out come tins of golden, crusty Toads waiting for their marks. Not a pale, solid, leaden, doughy London pudding in sight. Grandma is right. Beat it, bake it and eat it. We sit down and share our lunch with some caramel coloured Bisto gravy.


Toad in the Hole 

Serves 4

25g lard

200g sausages

100g plain flour

Pinch of salt

2 eggs

200ml milk

200g sausages


  1. Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7.
  2. Put sausages and lard in a baking tin and heat in the oven while you make the batter.
  3. Sieve the flour and salt into a bowl, crack in the eggs and beat until smooth.
  4. Gradually add the milk to make a batter and pour into a jug.
  5. Pour the batter into the tin with the hot fat and sausages.
  6. Bake for 35-40 mins until the batter is well risen, crisp and golden.


Christmas cooking 1972

This is the story of my lessons for Christmas at my east London school when we made Christmas cakes, peppermint creams and coconut ice. Well some of my students did and others caused a bit of bother!

Christmas cake 

Dave Smith did this wonderful drawing of my school Christmas cake.

For days, pungent smells of cinnamon and nutmeg have wafted out of my cookery room as we mass produce mince pies for carol services and Christmas parties.

Marzipan fruits, coconut ice, chocolate truffles and Christmas logs are made for special gifts. Rich, dark fruit cakes have been stacked in my storeroom to mature and every week Cynthia helps me stick skewers into the cakes to dribble in brandy to add more flavour. This is not just any brandy. This is Hennessy finest cognac that Mark brought round to the front door of my bedsit house, but I didn’t ask him to stay. 

Now the cakes have been topped with marzipan and enrobed in fondant icing and today we’ll finish them with green holly leaves and blobby red berries moulded from the icing. Then we’ll tie round the sides with a red ribbon in a giant bow. It’s the modern TV look to keep up with fashion.

Vicky, as always, arrives late, dives into her bag and plonks a grubby Father Christmas and his grubbier sledge on top of her cake. The man, his reindeer and the sledge need a good scrub. She wraps a faded red tinsel band round the cake’s middle and sticks a pin in to hold it in place. 

‘Our cake always looks like this and we have ‘im on our cakes, Miss.’ 

Mr Shield the headmaster is invited to judge my Best Christmas Cake competition. This time, surely, he’ll realise that I don’t spend my lessons cooking my supper or doing my washing. He accused me of this a few weeks ago. He glances round the tidy cakes then makes his announcement.

‘The winner is Vicky.’ The room cheers. So the common looking Christmas cake decorated with a plastic toy wins. Vicky raises a fist in triumph. Some people have no taste.

Dave Smith’s images of men in the Loose Box wine bar

My evening outings to The Loose Box winebar have been successful and I’ve been on a few dates as part of my manhunt. The trouble is, we can’t phone each other to fix or change a date since my bedsit has no phone. Dawn, the school secretary, is getting increasingly crabby taking personal calls for the young teachers who are working at the school. She does not want us in her office, however serious we say the call is. Being late for a date means I don’t need to prop up some wall outside a busy pub and wait, looking like I’m a prostitute touting for business. There was one date when the man never came. 

Peppermint creams 

It’s the last week before Christmas, and we’re making peppermint creams as a Christmas present. More likely they’ll eat them on the way home, or throw them at each other for target practice. Gavin is back after another week’s suspension. It’s not clear what he’s done, but some think that prison is his destiny. I’ve been nervous about starting to educate Gavin again. Well not exactly again. I can’t make any claim to have educated Gavin, ever.

‘Hello everyone, and welcome to the peppermint cream lesson. Now you’re ready, sieve your icing sugar into your bowls.’

Gavin lumbers down to my desk. He seems to have grown bigger.

‘Miss, I’m making rum creams. Rum is for Christmas.’

He eyes me provocatively and sways unsteadily. I see he’s grasping a small bottle of rum with most of its contents missing. The room fills with sugary dust as the class shake their sieves. I stand up, ready for conflict.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is davew-gavin10.png

‘Gavin – get your cooking things ready and leave the rum on my desk.’

Amazingly Gavin puts the rum bottle on top of my marking and ties on his apron. I face a class of surprised faces.

‘Gather round – I’ll show you how to crack an egg to separate out the white. Then mix it into the icing sugar with some peppermint essence and green colouring. OK let’s start.’

Where’s Gavin? I hope he’s gone home. The rum bottle is still on my desk. They sieve and mix and roll out balls of green dough. A sudden movement catches my eye. Gavin rises from behind his table and stamps his boots together. One of my pudding bowls is on his head and his right hand is raised in a Nazi salute.

‘Miss. I told you. I am using rum.’

The group is silent. No one wants to be noticed by Gavin.

‘Gavin – we can’t use alcohol in the classroom. It’s forbidden and you are under age for drinking.’

‘You let them girls put brandy in Christmas cakes last week. Are you picking on me?’

Gavin puffs up like the Jolly Green Giant on those adverts for tins of sweetcorn. Only Gavin seems bigger. And not jolly, green or friendly. And not singing ‘Ho, Ho, Ho.’

He’s right about the girls and their brandy. But wrong that I would pick on him. Not in my cookery room with the door closed. The group makes lines of peppermint creams in a kitchen silent with tension. Gavin stumbles to my desk and grabs his rum. I must deal with him or there will be trouble. His great body thuds down in my chair and he lets out a noisy yawn.

‘Gavin – the room’s hot – you must be tired. Put your head down and rest.’

He spreads out his fleshy arms, and seems to doze. But Gavin can’t be trusted – I wait for the storm. The class quietly clears away. We smile together, wrap up the sweets in greaseproof paper and tie each bundle with a green ribbon. I send Len off to the office to get Mr James who comes in quietly and removes a dozy Gavin from my desk. Whew. That was easy. Perhaps he’ll go to another school next term. And in a week it’s the Christmas holidays.

Next day a packet is left on my desk.

‘Hello Miss. I’ve moved into another group. I’ll be in your O level class next term. Happy Christmas, Alice.’

I unwrap the red and gold paper. Inside is a tin of Yardley’s English Lavender Talcum Powder. Now that brings back memories. Thankyou Alice. It’s nice to be appreciated.

You can find my book as Kindle, Paperback and Hardback on Amazon.

My book with pictures

Dave Smith has done some wonderful drawings that have gone into the hardback edition of I taught them to cook.

You can see the images by clicking this link

Food teachers have told me which are their favourite images in the book.

These are their choices and the images.

Simon – ‘No help in the Practical exam’ It reminds me of running so many catering exams with half classes of 12 students making 3 dishes each in 3hrs! I felt like a fireman on standby, a paramedic waiting for his first patient and a counsellor consoling students in tears when their gateaux came out as flat as a pancake and would double up as a spare tyre for a Go-cart. Such Fun!!!
Sara – This reminds of not only me and my best friend in school when we did A level food but so much of many of the girls I’ve taught over the years.
Liza – It’s got to be Angel Delight!!! A favourite in my house and for me growing up. Elizabeth – Angel Delight is my favourite – it takes my straight back to my teenage years and I can almost taste the butterscotch.
Manda – I’ve had a really tough half term and this is exactly how I’ve felt for most of it! I loved your book! I found it inspiring. I read it over the summer and it gave me great motivation to persevere with the new phase in my teaching career. Andrea – Having had no practicals last year I am truly exhausted each night after running round all day doing back to back practicals!
Heather ‘We want to cook – not do theory!’ is my favourite image in your book and made me laugh as it sums up what kids are like most of the time in the classroom when you tell them they are doing theory. So many people have the impression that ‘Home Economics’ is easy and you just do cooking (my biggest bug bare when people say this) so they think it is ideal for those who are not academic, whereas we actually do as much theory as practical and you end up with pupils looking like the person in the picture.
Adele – ‘A mouse watching me cook’ A couple of years ago school had all of the heating pipes & radiators replaced . They left holes in walls where they shouldn’t have been. We got some new pets in the form of mice.
Bea – Liked the mouse story and said ‘I wonder how many circles we have gone around and how many things we are starting to do that you used to and then went out of fashion!!!
Becky I love the drawing of the mini. I just adore them – I’ve got one now.

Video from Oct 2nd BNF conference

I’m having a rant about

Lack of help when teaching cooking

No funds for cooking ingredients

Boys in the classroom but low GCSE entries

Cream horns – we should have stopped making puff pastry in the 1970s. Fossilise the metal tins to make them! 469 kcal per cream horn

We need diversity and dishes for multicultural Britain.

Dahl – it takes skill – Monisha Bharadwaj

It’s important to value skills in school cooking so I’ve repeated an interview I did in 2016 about Indian cooking with Monisha Bharadwaj.

Monisha Bharadwaj
Monisha Bharadwaj

I met Monisha Bharadwaj on a Guild of Food Writer’s Food Trip to Hampshire with Hampshire Fare and it was the perfect time to ask about dahl. I’ve struggled to make dahl that tastes and looks delicious, yet exam boards seem to think is is a low level skill. Wrong! But why not ask the expert?

Monisha is an Indian Chef, TV chef, food writer, author and cookery teacher and she knows a lot about cooking dahl, rice and raita.

Jenny – Do you think dahl is simple dish to make?
Monisha – ‘You’ve got to have a lot of skills to make dahl.  You need to know about sequence, proportion, balance and cooking time. How to cook the lentils properly to get the consistency right – getting the balance of spices and seasoning. There are many kinds of lentils and you need to know which type and colour to choose. Do you soak the lentils beforehand?

How long will you cook them to get the consistency you need – how thick or soupy should it be?

You need to get the spices and seasoning right to get the 6 tastes at the heart of Indian cooking – sweet, sour, salty, hot, bitter and astringent. For hot we use chilli, mustard and ginger. For bitter turmeric and cumin and for astringent turmeric and coriander.

Jenny – So how is dhal made?

Monisha – You need a high temperature frying oil to cook seeds, then onions, ginger and garlic.

Then add tomatoes, spice powder and lentils and cook with water until the lentils are soft. Taste and season with salt. Cook further if the lentils need to be softer.

Serve topped with coriander leaves.

Jenny – ‘When serving with rice – is that easy to cook?’

Monisha – ‘Cooking rice takes skill – knowing what rice to buy, what proportion of water to rice to use, the cooking time, draining and how to get it fluffy.’

Jenny – ‘So how do you cook rice?’

Monisha – ‘I wash the rice, fry spice seeds, add the rice and add 2 times the water by volume. Boil then reduce the heat, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Then leave for 5 minutes to fluff.

Jenny – ‘ Then serve with raita?’

Monisha – ‘Yes you can make it with grated cucumber, salt and pepper and plain yogurt.’

Jenny – ‘So Dahl, boiled rice and raita need high skills all round! Thanks’

Cookery Exam Results 1973

It’s mid August. The height of summer 1973. Hot. Very hot and it’s the day that exam results are released. My Mini Traveller reluctantly leaves the sparkling seas of sunny Sussex and heads north to my east London school which is open just for this one day to hand out exam results to students and staff that choose to attend.

This is a day of reckoning for me. One year at the school. One year of teaching my exam students. One year to get my raggle taggle groups able to cook an edible two course meal, with a cake or batch of biscuits, iron a shirt, clean a pair of football boots and lay out the table, with d’oyleys, cruet set, flower arrangement and serving dishes. One year to drill in stuff for the theory exam, with some of them struggling to read and write. I’ve learnt that at the start of the new term each department’s results will be pinned on the staffroom noticeboard and I’m a department of ONE. One year when I might get named, shamed and singled out for improvement. Evidence of my success or failure in the first year of teaching at this school will be pinned up for all to see.

Today very few staff have turned up. Their six summer week break is sacrosanct. Time to get away. End of term chatter in the staffroom boasted of long family trips to France on camping forays or staying in gites in the Dordogne. No doubt they’ll come back glorifying du pain, du vin and du some delicious French cheese and saucisson. A group of young teachers is taking a trip to America, driving down the west coast searching for the Beach Boys’ lifestyle and told me they’re visiting seafood shacks by the ocean to sample lobsters, crab and fries. Older teachers say they’re just as happy sitting in their Cromer caravan overlooking the icy cold North Sea and watching the wind whip up the waves. A picnic on the beach with brown bread Cromer crab sandwiches and a glass of warm Adnams Southwold beer is perfect. They deserve their holiday and will be back fresh at the start of the new term.

Kind Mr Lewes, who supported me with my class discipline in that first year, sits in the entrance hall at an enormous trestle table filled with rows of brown envelopes, lined up in alphabetical order.  Eager students file past. ‘Surname and exam number?’ They hurry away, tearing open the envelope and pulling out the typed sheet that decides their future. Followed by jumping squeals of delight or subdued shrugs of disappointment. No one from my classes seems to have turned up.

Mr Lewes hands me a large envelope containing two printed lists. One with my CSE results and the other O level and I scurry away to my cookery room to discover my fate.

The CSE result sheet is first and I scan down the familiar names. Out of sixty candidates, fifteen have a Grade 1. That’s amazing. If they’d been allowed to join my O level group they would have a proper O level certificate and grade. How they could have shone. The low expectation from the old secondary modern thinking makes me sad. Many boys have scored grades 4 and 5 and two have got a U which means total failure. My O level results are spectacularly poor and no doubt the headmaster will call me in for an explanation at the start of term.

There’s a timid knock at my door and Alice walks in. The quiet girl who wasn’t allowed to change classes to move away from the boisterous boys and work with the gentle, hardworking O level group. She’s no longer dressed in her prim school uniform and looks surprisingly pretty in her flowery summer dress and bouncy blond hair. Alice may well smile. She’s achieved her goal – a Grade 1 CSE, equivalent to an O level.

‘Well done Alice. This means you can do A level Home Economics with me in the sixth form.’

‘Thanks Miss. I got some really good results. See you in September.’

There’s another bang on the door and in comes a joyous Bert.

‘Miss, I passed. It was the only exam I took and I got it.’ Bert, in his out of school clothes, looks distinctly grown up. ‘Yes Bert – you got a Grade 5.’ It’s the lowest grade before total failure, but we’re both pleased. Bert, whose practical exam was a disaster. His Cornish pasty shortcrust pastry was such a sticky mess that he scooped it into a bowl, mixed in the minced beef, onions and potatoes, patted it flat and baked it. A sort of Cornish Pasty pizza. And his Swiss Roll didn’t roll but he still served the spongy lump with some jam and a jug of custard. If only he’d chosen his favourite shepherd’s pie and apple crumble we would have been in business.

“See you at prize giving day, Miss.’ Bert leaves my room waving his result’s paper in triumph.

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!