Category Archives: Foods of the 1970s

Pickled onions and chutney

My school food budget of £50 is so small that I’ve asked for donations of spare fruits and vegetables for our preservation lessons. London gardens spill out their windfall apples and pears and we get plenty of beetroot and onions from the pickings of allotments. The keener students bring in blackberries and crab apples gathered in weekend forays round Epping Forest and from the derelict building sites around the area.

As the class shambles in, the tables are piled with boxes of apples in various stages of dilapidation. There is a large sack of very small onions.
They settle on their stools.
‘These lessons are about preserving things so that they will last longer. How are we going preserve these apples and onions so that they last over winter?’
Silence. They don’t care.
‘Come on, what shall we do with them?’
‘Put them on the compost heap, miss – them apples look rotten.’
Terry is good in the school garden so he should know.
He’s right – we need to remove the battered and bruised fruit but I must inspire thriftiness in this throwaway world.
‘We’re going to use the apples to make apple chutney and pickle those small onions in vinegar.’
It is clear from the grumbles and shuffling that they’d rather do scones like last week.
‘Hurry up – you have to make a choice! Apple chutney or pickled onions?’
They divide by sex. Girls choose chutney, boys the onions. This separation often happens. They are not choosing what they want to cook. The boys and girls just don’t want to work with each other.

On a school training day we were told to mix up boys and girls and make them sit next to each other and work in mixed sex pairs. That night I’d gone past the deer in the park. The female deer huddled together and the giant stags patrolled the boundaries. No one made them mix up. And when they chose to it was on their terms and only for a few seconds on special occasions.

In the classroom the girls cook in clean, organised workplaces and the boys create a messy nest of ingredients and cooking equipment which soon spills onto the floor and ends up being kicked under the tables.
Big boys preparing tiny onions make me laugh as they peel away the withered, brown skins, then top and tail the onions and put them in salted water. Gradually the tears flow.
‘What’s up Terry – does this lesson make you sad?’
Terry rubs his fists into his eyes. Now his whole face is pink and blubbery.
‘Class – don’t wipe your eyes with oniony hands – the juice gets in and makes the crying worse.’ They blink at me, their eyes reddened and bleary.


I should have warned them earlier but they never listen to instructions. And crying is such a cissie thing which would never happen to these tough guys.

‘Me nan peels her onions under water so she don’t cry.’

Bill dumps his onions in the butlers sink full of cold water. A stream of dribble runs from his nose, over his chin and plops down in the water. Pickled onions and snot – now how are we going to make that safe to eat?

Squeals come from the girls who are peeling and chopping the pile of windfall apples. Liz has chopped through a slug and its innards ooze onto the table.
‘Err miss – look at this slug – I ain’t using them apples – they’ll poison me.’
They gather in disgust to watch the slug shrivel in green slime. Liz pokes the slug with her knife and holds it up for the class to see and share their revulsion  at using this less than perfect fruit.
‘OK. Throw those apples away and clean down the work surface to remove the mess. We’re still going to use the rest.’
‘Miss, I ain’t eating food that has slugs in it.  Why do I have to do this lesson anyway?’

Liz unties her apron, slings it on the table and stomps out of the room.  This is her afternoon trick  to meet her boyfriend at the school gates. He might not find the smell of vinegar, onions and rotten apples so attractive this time. But Liz wants to make babies and thinks school, and my lessons in particular, are rubbish.

Apple chutney is a piquant compote of apples, onions and sultanas gently simmered in vinegar and brown sugar and the girls stir the spicy broth as it softens and thickens.
The boys pack their onions in hot kilner jars and pour in hot, spiced vinegar.
The fragrance of cooking wafts into the school corridors and attracts wandering staff and students who sniff the air and go Ah! like the Bisto ad.
Biff is a frequent visitor to my room. He gets sent out of most lessons to drift around the school in search of mischief and sources of entertainment.
‘Miss – this room always smells lovely – when can I do cooking with you – please let me in.’
‘One day – maybe – now get on your way. I expect the headmaster is waiting to see you.’
Steaming apple chutney is piled into jam jars, with a circle of waxed paper on top and covered with cellophane and an elastic band.
The labels on the jars are designed to impress for the highest marks.
Alice’s Amazing Apple Chutney 1973.
Paul’s Perfect Pickled Onions.
Maybe some are still maturing in a secret east end cupboard somewhere, waiting for discovery. And maybe, like Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce, they will become a mass produced delicacy found on future supermarket shelves.

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Victoria sandwich

Serves 8-10

200g soft butter or margarine
200g caster sugar
4 eggs
200g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder 3g
2 tbsp milk 30ml

Butter cream icing
200g icing sugar
100g butter
A little milk
100g strawberry jam
Icing sugar, for dusting


  1. Pre heat oven to 180°C/Fan 160°C/Gas 4.
  2. Grease and line 2 x 20cm non-stick round sandwich tins with baking parchment, then lightly grease the parchment.
  3. Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl.
  4. Cream butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy.
  5. Beat the eggs and add gently – if the mixture begins to curdle, add a little flour.
  6. Gently fold in the flour with a metal spoon in a ‘figure of 8’ to keep air in the mixture. Stir until there are no lumps.
  7. Share the mixture equally between the 2 tins and bake for 25-30 minutes until the cake is golden, risen and springs back to the touch. Test with a skewer – if it comes out cleanly, the cake is done. If any cake mix comes out on the skewer, cook a little longer and test again.
  8. Leave the cakes to cool then remove the cakes from the tins, and leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
  9. Peel off the baking parchment and spread bottom cake with jam, butter cream or cream.
  10. Place the other cake on top. Sprinkle icing sugar on the top.

Butter cream icing

  1. Beat the sifted icing sugar and butter or margarine together. Add flavouring if you have chosen any.
  2. You can spread the butter cream on top of the cake, or pipe it through a star nozzle.

This cake is made by the creaming method – the all in one method is quicker!

All in one method
Put all the cake ingredients in the bowl at once and beat with electric whisks, a wooden spoon or a food processor. The butter or margarine must be soft so that the mixture mixes easily. Extra baking powder (1 tsp) is added to make up for the air that is not beaten in during the creaming method.
This method is quick and easy!


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Filed under Food science, Foods of the 1970s


Teaching pancakes was a lesson firmly on my school calendar – the date changed along with the Easter holidays but we knew it was coming when Jiff lemons appeared in the shops.

As a child on Shrove Tuesday, my mother would stand by the gas stove and make pancakes just for me. She only stopped when I had enough and this could mean cooking and tossing up to ten crisp pancakes which were folded, sprinkled with fine caster sugar and squeezed with half a fresh lemon.  No Jiff lemon for us – she never believed in processed food!  By the time I’d finished eating one, the next was tossed and frying in the pan.  I had my own cooking servant, and a very good tosser.

My mother promised  we’d go to the Olney Pancake race outside Northampton. I’d  read about the Olney ladies dressed up in their aprons and hats who run through the streets tossing pancakes in their frying pans, but we never went.

So, like a juggler with a three ball juggling trick, I’m going to share this impressive skill with my class. Tossing pancakes is a risky business and the class gets noisy with excitement.

I tell them how pancakes are made on Shrove Tuesday so that the last of the fatty and rich foods could be used up before Lent, when people  restrict some of the foods that they eat. And eggs and milk were once considered rich foods for many people.

 Now my class is ready for our pancake making session.  We’ve made the batter from eggs, milk and flour. My old school frying pans are non stick after years of wear, so the pancakes should slide out when cooked.

‘Melt a knob of lard until the fat has a smoky blue haze, and pour in a thin layer of batter.’

Why are the boys laughing again – oh, its knobs. But what else do you call it?

‘Class – you’ll find your first pancake never works. It sticks to the pan and cooks into a gluey glob. So scrape it in the bin and start again.’

I hope even the hungriest boy is not tempted to eat it, as this uncooked dough is not easy to digest. Somehow the frying pans remember their task. The lard melts and smokes, the batter sizzles, and the thin pancake crispens, bubbling with little craters , ready for turning.

I challenge the group.

‘You need to toss your pancakes into the air and they must land in the middle of the pan cooked side on top.

So who is a good tosser?  If you don’t think you can do it, turn with a palate knife.’

The boys give each other a knowing glance.

What have I done now?  Is this challenge too great?

I learn later that tosser is a vulgar word, but what else do you call someone who tosses a pancake? Miss has been doing more rude cooking again.

Boys really love this lesson. Tossing a pancake appeals to their competitiveness and there’s a round of applause if their pancake lands in the pan after it has somersaulted through the air.  Some do a double flip  and take a bow, but I do wonder if the pancakes that drop on the floor are a deliberate tactic to enhance the game and increase the laughter. The girls are more reticent and safely flip their pancakes with a palette knife.

We keep our pancakes in a hot oven until we’re all ready to sit round the tables for eating. Quickly. No time to take our aprons off or throw on the seersucker table cloth or get out the doyleys. Our pancakes must be eaten now.

I  serve them like my mother did and with a sprinkle of sugar a squeeze of  lemon and then roll them up. Only we can’t afford fresh lemons. Our lemon juice comes from the bright yellow, plastic Jiffy lemons which corner shops  display in large wire baskets as Pancake day approaches.  Jif lemons are better than the real thing with no pips or bother.

The TV jingles out its advert.  ‘Don’t forget the  pancakes on Jif Lemon day’ .

I wonder if we will lose the plot on what food is real or not.

‘Eat the pancakes with your hands.’

The boys push in mouthfuls and charge out to their next class.

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Peppermint creams – Christmas cookery lesson 1972

For days pungent smells of cinnamon and nutmeg have wafted out 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, and rich, dark fruit cakes are stacked in my larder ready for their final shroud of marzipan and royal icing.

Decorations are green holly leaves and blobby red berries made from fondant icing then the cakes are tied up with red ribbon tied in a giant bow. It’s the modern TV look to keep up with fashion.

Liz, as always, arrives late and dives in her bag to bring out a lump wrapped in grey tissue paper.

She plonks a grubby, plastic Father Christmas sitting on his even grubbier sledge on top of her cake. The plastic reindeer pulling the sledge need a good scrub. A faded red tinsel band is tied round the cake’s waist and Liz presents her cake triumphantly amidst the starker offerings of holly and berries.

‘We always have ‘im on our cakes, Miss and decorate it like this.’ She points to the battered tinsel.

Mr Bush the headmaster come in to judge my Best Christmas Cake competition. I’m showing him that I don’t spend lessons cooking my supper, or doing my washing in the school machine.

Liz, with the plasticly decorated, common Christmas cake, wins. She raises a fist in triumph. Some people have no taste.

On my last lesson of term, the boys are making peppermint creams as a Christmas present for gran. – or more likely they will eat them on the way home.

Gavin is back from his week’s suspension for bullying a younger boy.

I’ve been dreading the moment I have to start educating 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. Get yourselves ready and sieve your icing sugar into your bowls.’

Gavin thunders down to my desk and towers over me.

‘I’m going to make rum creams, Miss. Don’t like peppermint. And anyway rum is more Christmassy.’

He eyes me provocatively and sways unsteadily. His right hand clutches a bottle of rum. Half of the contents are missing.

How did Gavin know what we were cooking today?

Perhaps pinned a small boy to the wall with threats.

‘Tell me what she’s cooking else I’ll kill yer.’

Through clouds of sugary dust I wait.

‘Gavin – get ready to cook and leave the rum on my desk!’

Gavin ties on his apron and places the rum bottle gently on my pile of marking.

Amazed, I face the class of surprised faces.

‘Gather round – I’m going to show you how to crack an egg to separate out the white.’

They stand by my table except for Gavin.  Perhaps he’s gone home. Thank God.  But the bottle of rum teeters menacingly on my paperwork.

They sieve and mix icing sugar and egg white into a dough.

‘Now  add drops of peppermint essence and some green colouring.’

A sudden movement catches my eye. Gavin rises from behind his table and stamps his boots to attention. On his head is one of my pudding bowls 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 the drinking age.’

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

Gavin puffs like the Jolly Green Giant on adverts for tins of sweetcorn. Only Gavin is bigger.

And not jolly, not green and not friendly.

And not singing ‘Ho, Ho, Ho.’

He’s right about the brandy, and quick witted for a drunk.

But wrong that I would pick on him. Not on my own in my cookery room.

The group rolls and cuts out the icing dough into green shapes. A factory line 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 more trouble.

His great body suddenly thuds down on my chair and he lets out a gigantic yawn.

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

Obediently he spreads his fleshy arms on my desk, rests his head on his bulging forearm and begins to doze.

I turn to the class, industriously packing up their sweets and clearing away. We smile together.  Peace is restored. I have won. And next week it is the Christmas holiday.

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Filed under Boys cooking, Foods of the 1970s, Home Economics in 1970

Spag bog 1970’s style

Spag bog I’ve decided to modernise my lessons, bring them into 1970’s and cook a dish I’ve seen on TV – spaghetti bolognaise. I’ve never cooked spaghetti before but Zena Skinner, the TV cook , has told us to ‘Throw the spaghetti at the wall – if it’s cooked it will stick’, so if it works for Zena, it will do for me. The nearest I’ve come to cooked pasta is my grandmother’s macaroni pudding which she makes from full cream milk, macaroni and sugar, sprinkled with nutmeg and baked in a slow oven for two hours. The creamy macaroni is topped with a brown, chewy skin which is my favourite. Other pasta offerings of the 60s include canned spaghetti in a gluey, orange tomato sauce. The spaghetti is soft enough to mash to a pulp with a spoon. Fussy eaters like Alphabetti spaghetti – tiny pasta letters in the same globby sauce. Bored children who have to sit at the table until the grownups finish their meal, can push letters around the plate in the hope of spelling rude words.

Our local shops don’t sell pasta, so I visit a delicatessen in north London and buy several large packs of dried spaghetti wrapped in soft, dark blue paper with a red and white label providing Italian instructions. The class is excited at preparing this new food. First is the bolognaise sauce made from just four ingredients – butcher’s cheapest mince, lard, onions and tomato ketchup. Lard and fatty meat are everyday food. We don’t worry about saturated fats – we don’t even know about them. Garlic, tomato purée and oregano are also off the menu. For children from the east end of London, these fancy foods just mess things up. Bert  has already warned me. ‘Me dad won’t eat it if you put that rubbish in – he’ll give it to the dog, miss.’ We fry the mince and onions in lard until brown, stir in some tomato ketchup and add enough water to make a sauce then leave it to simmer. Next we put large saucepans of boiling water on the stoves then twirl in the spaghetti, letting the stiff strands soften and cook, then wait until it’s time for the Zena Skinner  ‘stick to the wall’ test to see if it is done. ‘Miss, the water’s too hot – I can’t get the spaghetti out.’ Bert sucks his hot fingers. I’d forgotten basic rules of health and safety. Don’t pick the spaghetti out with your fingers. Boiling water scalds. They choose some poking tools and fling long strands of pasta at the nearest surface. By the end of the lesson, the beige walls and cooking stoves are glued with snakes of spaghetti. Stiff uncooked stuff drops behind the worksurfaces and cupboards, to be retrieved by visiting mice, or swept up in the annual room clean at the end of term.

Now for the presentation. Cooked spaghetti is piled into their take home dish, a mound of sauce spooned on top and sprinkled with grated Cheddar cheese. Parmesan cheese is off the shopping list too. It’s another exotic ingredient that would send the meal dogwards, and anyway, we can’t afford it.

They bring me their cooking for a mark out of ten to reflect effort, enthusiasm and most importantly, how much of their washing up has been done. Then it’s covered with foil. No cling film is available in the classroom yet, and into their shopping baskets for collection at home time. Except for the boys. East end boys don’t carry shopping baskets. Buying cookery stuff  is another embarrassment. And they must certainly never be seen taking their cooking home .

‘Can we eat it now miss? We’ll clear up honest.’ Bert and Barry spend lots of time in my room, and often swap a mound of washing up for a toasted cheese sandwich. So while other teachers meet to gossip, snack and smoke in the staffroom, my cookery room transforms into an eatery. The tables are set – blue checked seersucker tablecloths, pastel green Beryl Ware plates, and smart knives and forks. This is a proper sit down meal.

‘This foreign food is nice miss. I’m going to cook it for me mum.’ Alan and his friends clear away and charge out the room. The bell goes and it’s time for my next lesson – lemon meringue pie and jam tarts and all before tea time.

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Filed under Boys cooking, Foods of the 1970s

1972 School trip to the butchers

We’re leaving school today. Not going far, just to the butcher’s shop at the end of the road. He’ll show us how to joint a carcass of lamb and since we’re cooking really cheap meat dishes, he must persuade the class that cheap can be delicious. Large posters showing pig, beef and lamb are pinned on my classroom wall, free from the Meat and Livestock Commission. The animals have cuddly faces but the rest of the picture looks like a chainsaw massacre as their body parts have been hacked it into bits.  Students must learn the names of each cut and know which pieces are tough or tender. We can’t afford to cook the tender bits, like fillet steak and pork chops, but we make tasty choices such as Lancashire hot pot, beef stew from skirt, and find many ways to cook beef mince.

First I need parental permission so that my students can leave the school grounds. No-one should trot up the school drive without a note. I’ve seen the bands of naughty students skiving off through the fence at the bottom of the school playing field, but they’ve been too quick for me to chase for long, especially if I’ve got cakes baking in the ovens.

My note for the butcher outing goes like this

Dear Parent /Guardian
Next week I am taking my group to the local butchers to learn about meat.
Please could you give permission for me to take your son/daughter out of school for this lesson?
Please sign below
I agree that Name of student… can go on the visit.
Signed                    Dated
Miss Whitney Head of Home Economics

The week before the outing is tense. If I don’t get all the signed forms back we can’t go. I suspect that many forms are signed by students, just like their sick notes or the ‘Jimmy could not do his homework because …’ letters.

To raise the profile of my subject and get some school publicity, I’ve asked a photographer from the local newspaper to come to take snaps. I hope my group will impress him so that he will write about the importance of teaching boys and girls how to cook.

We snake down the road in an ordered line and gather in the butcher’s shop.

He heaves a lamb carcass onto the thick wooden block and sharpens his knives on a steel. This is manly, grown up stuff and my group are keen. As he deftly butchers fleshy chunks of meat from the large bones, the lamb is reduced to chops, shoulder and leg, and the cheapest bit that we are going to cook – the rather fatty but very delicious, breast of lamb.

I wait in anticipation for news of our visit in the local paper. Will we make the front page? But what a disappointment. For all my talk of modern men and women sharing tasks in the home and family, the reporter has chosen to put us on page three with the sexist headline

‘It’s not easy for mum, is it!’

Underneath is a photo of my class smiling at the butcher and his dead beast. My interview with the reporter ends with a further piece of sexism:

‘Miss Whitney says that the idea is that the girls should get a visual impression of the cutting up of pork and lamb, in addition to what they learn from their textbooks.’

Oh no I didn’t. But it’s too late, and just reinforces the views that mum does the shopping and cooking, and the challenging questions asked by the dads of the future that day are just ignored.

One day, I’ll get things changed. One day!

Back at school Sylvia sharpens our filleting knives and the butcher delivers a pile of plump lamb breasts with strict instructions that they must be the same size and not cost more than 50 pence.

Each cooking place has a plastic tray containing a breast of lamb with a pink stamp on the skin stating New Zealand Lamb, which is the cheapest at the time. The boys jostle for the largest breast, moving from tray to tray like a game of musical chairs.

‘Stand still class, this is serious cooking. Stand by your place and don’t mess about!’

Boning meat is a very skilled task and I want no fooling around.

We’re using sharp knives, which are normally locked away, safe from harm.

Sylvia and I count them out and count them back in at the end of the lesson.

No-one dares to leave the room until all knives are returned.

I use my VERY STERN VOICE for this serious task. The rib bones are carefully cut from the flesh of the breast. They gather round.

‘Bert, watch carefully. Only cut the meat off the lamb bones, not yourself. These knives are sharp and I’ll stop the lesson if anyone messes about. So no stupid behaviour, this is really skilled meat boning like the butcher.’

Sylvia and I patrol the group like lions watching their young at play, encouraging, warning, and keeping an eye for their safety. We collect the bones, fat and gristle in a large bin for Mr Davey in history to take home for his dog.

‘Spread the flattened lamb with sage and onion stuffing, roll it up and tie it like this.’

I show them how to tie the joint with string using butcher’s knots.

There are no quips today. This is impressive. No chat back. Miss is deadly serious and she will take no nonsense.

A line of neatly tied and stuffed rolled breasts of lamb appears on my table for marking. The butcher would be proud to sell them in his shop. Beside each one is a clean knife.


‘I’ll cook these for you while you go to your next lesson so they are ready to eat tonight.’

I don’t want anyone munching on raw lamb on the bus home.

They pack and go and once again the room is a culinary haven filled with roasting lamb, and sage and onion stuffing. It feels nourishing and nurturing and I know that these new skills will set them up for family meals in the future – and they might even pass the exam!

Breast of lamb with roast potatoes


1 breast of lamb with the bones in

1 packet of sage and onion stuffing mix

1-2 potatoes for roasting



  1. Buy a breast of lamb in one piece with all the bones still in it. Use a sharp knife to cut round each rib bone. Don’t  pierce through the skin. Take out the rib bones in one piece. Cut off any big bits of fat.
    Make the stuffing with a dried sage an onion stuffing mix or make your own from bread, onions and herbs mixed with egg.
    Put the boned breast of lamb flat on chopping board, with the skin side on the board. Smooth the stuffing evenly over the top. Roll up the breast of lamb starting with the thin end.
  2. Squeeze it into a roll and then tie with string. Rub the outside with salt.
  3. Set the oven at 150 c, Gas 4.
  4. Place the lamb on a roasting tin and roast the joint slowly for two hours, so that the fat melts out and the meat is tender with some crackling skin on the outside. Pour any excess fat into a large glass jar. Do not pour down the sink as it sets solid in the u bend and is impossible to budge!
  5. Put the roast potatoes in after about an hour and baste with some of the fat.

Serve with some green vegetables and gravy.  Carve the meat by cutting into medium slices, lifting them so that the stuffing doesn’t fall out. Put in a warm oven to keep warm until ready to serve.

Food history note

In the 70’s New Zealand lamb sent demonstrators into British schools and provided us with recipe books and teaching resources including large posters to go on the wall. Mutton was also on the menu.

Philip Harben wrote a leaflet New Zealand lamb with helpful hints –

‘New Zealand farmers believe in producing meat which the housewife likes and there are over 15 million housewives in Great Britain. New Zealand livestock has been bred from the best British strains and is hygienically wrapped and preserved in cold, clean air, for transportation to Great Britain in speedy refrigerated ships.’

The brand mark New Zealand was stamped on different parts of the animal.

When the UK joined the EEC in 1973 it was still a major market for NZ sheep meat and New Zealand sheep exports were allowed preferential access as a transitional measure from 1973 to 1977, as New Zealand had voluntarily restricted exports. After 1977, meat exports were subject to the European Union’s Common External Tariff of 20%. In 1980, New Zealand agreed to limit sheep meat exports to the European Union.

Today more than 70 per cent of the New Zealand lamb sold in Britain comes from halal slaughterhouses  so that the New Zealand meat industry can sell its lamb in Muslim markets round the world.

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Rhubarb rhubarb

April 1971 – I drive the mini traveller back to Kettering for free food from my grandmother’s garden. She forces pink rhubarb  under old, metal buckets, with holes punched in the top to let in light. These tender delicacies are only for the family but now she’s happy to let me pick from the huge clumps  which thrive on her compost heap. I cut armfuls with leaves and all.
Grandma is worried.

‘Jenny- rhubarb leaves are poisonous. You can die if you eat them.’

She tells me about someone who ate the cooked leaves as a vegetable and was so ill with stomach pains that they had to go to hospital. Grandma boils rhubarb leaves in water to clean her saucepans. If they strip your stomach in the same way that they bring a shine to her aluminium pans,  that could be painful.

‘Don’t let those children have the leaves. They could get into all sorts of trouble.’

‘Don’t worry grandma – I’ll tell them all about it.’

Grandma knows about London children. During the war, evacuees from the east end were billeted with her, and they thrived on her cooking and helped with her garden. She’s proud of her certificate from  Queen Elizabeth 11 thanking her for this service which she keeps in a faded envelope with its official stamp.

Back at my London school, I plonk my huge pile of rhubarb with its massive leaves on my demonstration table.

‘OK class – first to warn you – these leaves are poisonous. They can give you stomach ache, make you feel sick and some people have even died from eating them.’

The death story may not be true but it’s  a good start to the lesson. I have their attention. They are curious.

‘How do they poison you, miss?’ Bert isn’t usually concentrating this early in the day.

‘The leaves contain oxalic acid which is toxic. That means they are dangerous. ’

‘But miss, why can you eat the stalk  and not the leaf – why does the poison just go into the leaf?’

There is no Google search for the answer, and Bert has a clever point. I’ll have to ask the biology teacher later.

‘Miss, what do you have to do to poison someone?’

Ah ha! I can see where this diversion is leading. Bert’s after my rhubarb leaf mountain. We’ve just had the school acid attack when someone sat a boy in concentrated sulphuric acid. It burnt the backside off his school trousers and he had to go to Whipps Cross hospital to have his bottom checked. Now it could be the rhubarb poisoning scandal. And it’s all my fault.

‘Bert, I’m taking these leaves home, so let’s get on. Today we’re going to make Rhubarb fool.’

‘First we wash and chop the stems and cook them in a saucepan with a little water and the lid on until they are soft.’

I’ve learnt to give clear cooking instructions after many disasters. Last week I told Robert to boil his potatoes and he stuffed them unpeeled into the electric kettle with some water and clicked it on. We had the devil of a job poking out the mushy bits. I pass round a dish of grandma’s soft, pink cooked rhubarb so they can see.

Now for the  custard. There is a magic moment when you mix custard powder with gritty sugar and milk. Suddenly as you stir in the milk, the pale peach powder turns to bright yellow  – a chemical mystery which probably holds its truth in tartrazine.

‘To make the custard, pour in the hot milk into this yellow mixture and stir until it thickens.’

A delicious, golden, glossy custard magically emerges in the bowl.

‘Add your cooked rhubarb, some red colouring then whisk an egg white and carefully fold it in. Spoon into the glass dish and top with a glacé cherry.’

I haven’t  told them that the cochineal red colouring is made from crushed beetles. Imagine the screams.

‘She’s making us eat beetles! Mad teacher from the north! We ain’t eating beetles!’

Tiny bottles of artificial colours and flavouring line my storeroom shelves to prop up our culinary skills and lack of tasty ingredients. Red for rhubarb and strawberry tart glaze. Green for anything made with gooseberries or cooked apples.
Vanilla essence goes in sponge cakes, drops of almond essence mix with the semolina that we use instead of almonds for Bakewell Tart and the ultimate sin, rum essence, is dribbled onto rum babas or into chocolate truffles. How I long to taste the real thing.

They chop, cook and stir and thicken and my table soon has a display of glass dishes in various shades from pink to plum. Each on a saucer with a frilly d’oyley. Always a bloody d’oyley!

The lesson is over. And we have  all made a potion of rhubarb with enhanced colours and flavours which richly deserves the name fool.

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Filed under Foods of the 1970s, Rhubarb fool