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.