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.

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.

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!

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


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