Category Archives: Jenny Ridgwell

Cookery practical exams in the 1970s

The summer term of 1973 brings the final test for my teaching skills – the cookery practical exam. I have to get 60 students to cook an elaborate, edible meal, with hot drink, flower arrangements and all the other silly exam tasks that they throw at us. This feat takes place over several days as each student is allowed their own cooker and sink, which is unheard of during the rest of the year. And I provide all the ingredients. The headmaster has agreed that since it is an exam, the school will cover the cost!
These are some tasks.

‘Cook a two course lunch for 4 people and prepare an evening dish for someone coming back from a fishing trip. Clean a pair of muddy football boots.’

‘Prepare a hot breakfast for a family of four who are going out for the day. Make a packed lunch and some cakes and a drink for them to take with them. Wash and starch some napkins.’

‘Prepare an evening meal for a family with a teenage girl. Make sure that the meal is rich in iron and calcium. Bake some pasties for a packed lunch. Wash and iron a shirt.’

On the day of the practical exam, I switch from helpful teacher to the role of THE EXAMINER and march round the room with my clipboard, watching my students peel and chop vegetables, prepare pastry, bake cakes, biscuits and bread. I take off marks for poor cooking skills, messy worktops and general flustered bumbling.

They’ve had lots of practice at learning what loses marks. I peek over shoulders, open up saucepan lids, bend down and peer into ovens, and rootle in the rubbish bin for food wastage.

During exam rehearsals  I bark out warnings.

‘Turn the pan handle in – someone could knock over the boiling water.’

‘Don’t cut away all that potato skin– use a potato peeler.’

‘Use your fingertips to rub the pastry fat into the flour – if you squeeze it anymore it will be a soggy lump’

‘Don’t throw those bits of pastry away – make some jam tarts – we have to use everything – no wastage!’

‘Don’t peel the apple with the cook’s knife!’

‘Don’t lick your food – I won’t taste it if you do!’

Licking loses loads of marks.

Privately I love licking. My favourites are spoonfuls of fluffy margarine and sugar, beaten to pale creaminess for Victoria sandwich. Then the foamy, whisked eggs and sugar which make Swiss Roll.

Savoury and sweet dishes have their own bizarre serving rules. Savoury flans and cheesy scones are cooked and cut with PLAIN rings and cutters.

Sweet tarts and lemon meringue pies must have FLUTED edges. These are the RULES laid down in some Victorian kitchen and they are not to be BROKEN.

Years later I am shocked when I see a Sainsbury’s savoury quiche baked in a fluted flan case. An unforgivable sin committed by the food product developers.

D’oyleys follow savoury and sweet rules – plain for savouries and frilly ones of sweet scones and cakes.

One mark lost for the wrong choice and a scowl from me.

On the exam day they work in silence. except for emergencies.

‘I feel sick miss.’

‘Just keep on cooking Angie – we can’t waste these ingredients.’

‘I’ve dropped my eggs on the floor miss.’

‘Dan, here’s a cloth – clear up and start again.’

I only come to their aid if there is real danger.

‘Paul – put the lid on your frying pan quickly and so that it doesn’t catch fire! And take that tea towel off the top of the cooker!.’

‘Please miss, it was an accident.’

I press my finger to my lips. No speaking, no excuses, this is the real test.

The exam lasts  two and a half hours. They must keep to time and follow their plan and produce edible food on the table.

‘OK class you have 20 minutes to finish.’

A class gasp of panic.

‘I’ve burnt the cake miss.’

‘Cut off the black bits and cover it with icing.’

‘My chocolate mousse isn’t set.’

‘Stick it in the freezer, quick.’

They scurry round the room,  tarting up the dishes with garnishes of parsley for savoury and sticky glace cherries and angelica diamonds for sweet desserts.

Suddenly it is over. ‘Time’s up – present your food.’

Amazing pies with crisp, golden pastry appear hot from the oven.

Steaming dishes of perfectly cooked cabbage and carrots sprinkled with chopped parsley and topped with a knob of melting margarine.

Soft mounds of creamy mashed potato, decorated with a sprig of parsley.

Pineapple upside down cake glistening with glacé cherries and rings of tinned pineapple served with a jug of creamy Bird’s Custard.

And a pot of tea with a strainer, jug of milk, sugar bowl and matching Beryl Ware cups and saucers.

And a rose in a polished vase.

And a clean pair of football boots.

They scramble out leaving sinks heaving with dirty plates, bowls, burnt pans and sticky baking trays.

Now for my tasting session. All dishes have to be tried and my face must remains deadpan. The students are watching from outside the classroom windows. Once, when I tasted a really sweet kidney ragout, I realised the student used icing sugar instead of flour to thicken the sauce. The dish was inedible so no marks.

Are the bread rolls crisp? Is the shepherd’s pie well seasoned? Are the vegetables overcooked? Has the egg custard curdled? Is the cake properly baked?

I poke and prod, slice, taste and appreciate. It is delicious. They have done me proud.

The marking is over and they surge in to photograph and fuss. Friends come in to congratulate and commiserate.  But mainly to eat. Then pack up, wash up, and leave with a wave and ‘Thanks miss – I enjoyed that!’

I have taught them to cook and they have learnt well.


Filed under Cookery exams in the 1970s, Jenny Ridgwell

Pickles and chutney – lesson of 1972!

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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Filed under Boys cooking, Home Economics in 1970, Jenny Ridgwell, Retro recipes

Teaching bread

My first full time teaching job in 1970 was in a large north London comprehensive school, just east of Finsbury Park. Schools in inner London were under the control of ILEA – the Inner London Education Authority, and I’d been interviewed for the role at their vast headquarters at County Hall over the river, opposite the Houses of Parliament.

The walk down the endless, gloomy corridors to the interview room was long and daunting but my interview was quick and the result instant.

‘Do you want a job teaching home economics in London?’ said the people behind the desk.

‘Yes’, I replied.

‘Can you start in this school in September?’ said the people.

‘Yes’ , This interview was quick and easy.

‘Then we will find you a school and send you the letter of appointment with the details.’

No more questions, no interrogation, no ‘come back next week for your second, or third interview’, and certainly no ‘will you teach a sample lesson for us.’

I was ushered back down the corridors, past the benches of other interviewees sitting in the dim light and out into the summer sunshine, beside the sparkling river Thames, ready to start my new career.

No-one in authority had asked me if I knew how to cook, nor if I was good at keeping discipline in the classroom.

My new students challenged my ability to keep order, and my classes were known for being noisy, which I felt was just teenage excitement and my enthusiasm when we produced something edible. The families in the north London catchment area came from many parts of the world, especially Trinidad and Jamaica, and I wished someone had educated me more about the culture and recipes of the Caribbean. Students told me of their famous dishes of ackee and salt fish, rice and beans, jerk pork, curried goat and cassava dumplings, and I longed to try these out in the classroom. But I had to stick to the recipes from our class sets of Good Housekeeping Cooking is Fun with its endless cakes, biscuits and scones.

Good Housekeepings Cooking is Fun

The bread lesson is the one of the first tests of my limited culinary skills.

I’ve never cooked bread before but as the new teacher in the department, I don’t want to show my ignorance in front of the team of very experienced cookery teachers. They already find my miniskirts and noisy classes bothersome.

On my way to school I pop in for advice from the Jewish baker who works at the Manor House Bakery. He’s swaddled in large white overalls, and wrapped with a floury apron.

‘Help! Please help me with this class – how do I make bread,  how do I use fresh yeast and have you got any for sale?’

The baker knows many of the students I am teaching as they surge into his bakery before school, hungry for bread and cheese rolls and doughnuts for their breakfast.

He opens the huge fridge and takes out a beige yeast block carefully wrapped in soft white paper.

‘Just crumble a piece of this it into the bowl of flour and salt and mix it to a dough with warm water.  And keep all the windows closed. You need a really warm room for the bread to rise.

Good luck Jenny– let me know how you get on.’

Fresh yeast has a strange smell like the whiff of a damp basement. I break off beige crumbly lumps and line them up on a tray. In ILEA schools we provide all the ingredients and students pay ten pence a lesson. Everything must look the same in size and shape otherwise there is a squabble.

‘You chose the boys first, last time. The girls should be first this lesson.’

Grace lives up to her name, but she sometimes has a fierce side.

‘His is bigger than mine, Ma’am, it’s not fair.’

Tex is bigger than anyone, but he’s not going to bully me into a larger lump.

For some reason female teachers in inner London have to be addressed as Ma’am. If the entire class is calling for me, it sounds like a sheep field.

Ma’am, ma’am, mum….’

The class gathers around my demonstration table, waiting for instructions. There is the usual well meaning pushing, but they are eager to get on.

‘Weigh out your ingredients and take a piece of fresh yeast. Make sure your hands are really clean – any muck will get into the dough.’

They crumble the yeast into the flour, and add warm, sugary water which is carefully measured.

‘It smells like me dad’s beer kit’.

Dan sometimes helps me clear up after school.

‘The yeast is fermenting with the flour, Dan, to make carbon dioxide and alcohol, so it’s like beer making.’

‘So can we get drunk on bread Ma’am?’

Dan and friends chuckle at the prospect of an alcoholic snack.

‘No – as it cooks the alcohol evaporates.’

‘Shame that.’

‘Now class, work this dough with your hands. The more you squeeze and knead, the better it will be.’

For boys this squelchy stage is magic. Girls would rather stir elegantly with a wooden spoon. Sticky, doughy hands are distasteful.

‘Tip it out onto a floury table and knead it.’

I demonstrate how to pull and push the dough. The room warms as they punch and stretch the mixture.

‘Ma’am, help it’s slimy.’

Tex as always has not followed the recipe, and has taken more than his share of flour, and then guessed at the amount of water he needs to make the dough. His great sloppy mixture oozes over the table. I shake on more flour as a rescue remedy, but this means that Tex gets more cooking for his money, something his classmates have come to resent.

‘Now divide the dough into six and roll into balls to make your bread rolls.’

I’d forgotten to say divide equally. Balls come in all sizes.  We end up with bread rolls the size of ping pong and tennis balls but it’s too late.

‘Onto the baking trays and cover with a wet teatowel. Then into the drying cabinet to let the bread rise.’

These are the days before tumble dryers. Schools have large gas fired drying cabinets where I hang washed teatowels and dishcloths each night to dry. One weekend I was sure I’d left the gas cabinet on and couldn’t get back into school to check. I was right and on Monday morning my teatowels were crisp and dry – but also burnt to a brown crisp. I was lucky the school buildings didn’t join them.

My recipe bible, Cooking is Fun, says that when the rolls double in size, they are ready to bake. Someone has scratched out the word Fun and written Cooking is Horrible on one of the book covers. By the end of this lesson I might agree.

Under the teatowels, nothing is happening, but we must get baking.

‘Put your rolls in the oven and sit round my table.’

In this stonking hot room inside a London school surrounded by busy roads, roaring traffic and concrete buildings, I bring out my bundles of wheat, barley and oats picked from the quiet Northamptonshire summer fields far away up the M1.

‘Class, where does the flour come from that we use for our bread?’

They gaze back silently. We can smell the bread baking.


I hold up the stems of wheat.

‘See the grains in the top?’

I squeeze them out and pass a handful of seed around the group.

‘We crush them to make flour.’

More silence.

‘Have any of you ever seen barley? It’s used in beer and whisky making.’

There is a mild rustle of interest.

Barley is golden and spiky and the spikes make good darts which stick to your clothes, but I’m not telling them that.

‘Do you know what this last cereal is called?’

This stem is tall and dangly, with the seeds hanging on tiny threads.

Not a glimmer.

‘Oats. You know about oats?’

They do, but they’re not letting on what kind.

‘Made into porridge which you might have for breakfast.’

Breakfast? What’s that?

Enough! The rolls must be ready. They take solid, crisp lumps from the oven and put them on wire racks to cool.

‘This bread ain’t much good Ma’am. It’s too hard.’

Dan is fed up. He is proud to take his cooking home and this time it’s awful. The whole class has baked awful, hard lumps of dough. And it’s my fault.

They bag up the hard balls, pack them in their satchels and shuffle out the room. I hear the boys scuffling in the corridor and see a lump of dough arching into the air.

On my way home, I pop into the bakers.

‘How did it go?’ he asks hopefully.

Sadly, I show him the lumps from my demonstration which I plan to throw out when I’m far away from school.

‘Jenny, you didn’t prove them properly’

I explain about the hot drying cabinet and the rush to get things cooked before school ends.

‘Turn the cabinet temperature down next time and don’t be in such a hurry.

Letting bread rise is like life. Take it nice and easy and you’ll get a good result.

Rush at it and it just gets hard.’

At home, I toss my bread rolls into the garden. Even the hungry pigeons peck and go.


Filed under Foods of the 1970s, Jenny Ridgwell, Uncategorized

Silly fussy salad from 1970’s

My 1972 salad lessons teach students how to make elaborate plates of over fussed food. We don’t have exotic things like avocados or alfalfa, so we fiddle about instead. Radishes become roses, tomatoes turn into lilies, cucumber is stripped and scissored and spring onions are converted into tassels. Nothing is served simply. Every item is mauled and prepared, plated and primped. And if we can stuff it we do – stuffed eggs, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed cucumber.

Salads in these days are not tossed or dressed. Heinz Salad Cream goes with everything. My mother is horrified when, during a half term visit to Kettering from my London school, I toss a bowl of freshly picked salad from her garden with some French dressing.
‘You’ve ruined it with that muck. Keep out of the kitchen with your fancy ways! We eat salad cream with our salads, and we don’t need the French to show us how to cook.’

Lettuce from my mother’s garden is a choice of crunchy Cos or the sweet leaves of Little Gem. The greengrocers in East London, send us soft, floppy, round lettuce with limp, tasteless leaves. All fur coat and no knickers I call it – it looks OK but underneath it is naked nothingness. No wonder students hate it. When Iceberg arrives on our shores to accompany McDonald’s hamburger buns, our lettuce eating habits change forever.
The aim of this salad lesson is to arrange a plate of colourful cold vegetables and serve it with some stuffed eggs. I provide all the ingredients, but this means everything must be the same size and quality.
‘His tomato’s bigger than mine miss!’

Girls like Alice always protest about the size of my offerings. I wonder if Alice will get a job for a campaign organization, or work in politics.
‘I don’t want them radishes – they’ve got weevils in them!’

Ian likes the best quality produce and might grow up to be a greengrocer.

Stuffed eggs
Hard boiled eggs are our protein food today – the truth is we can’t afford anything else. I arrive early at school and boil 25 eggs in a huge saucepan of water for 7 minutes, then plunge them into a sink of cold water to keep the yolk yellow.
‘I want the brown egg miss – me nan says brown eggs are best.’
Janice’s nan often has stern things to say about my cookery lessons.
‘You peel off the shell and don’t eat it, Janice, – the shell colour doesn’t matter.’
I get a glower. Nan is wise and old and always right.
Janice’s gran also says she must have hot food at lunchtime. When I suggest making salad for a picnic, I get a note from Gran explaining that it won’t be eaten as it is cold, so can Janice make a sponge cake for tea instead.
Tim, a teacher, has kindly bought the overfussed salad with stuffed egg that Janice will prepare today, so I must watch her health and hygiene so she keeps the food safe to eat. I’m sure she won’t spit in it to show her disgust at not being allowed to bake a cake, but Janice needs reminding that hands need washing before food preparation, despite Gran telling her that a bit of dirt never hurt anyone.
I demonstrate the new skills they will learn today. I crack and peel the egg shell – if the eggs are too fresh the shell sticks to the white, so I keep older eggs for this lesson. I slice the eggs in half lengthways, scoop out the yolk then mash it with salad cream – yum.
‘You can put this mixture back in the egg with a spoon, or if you are really skilled, use this piping bag and twirl it back into the egg like this.’
Janice lets out a squeal. ‘It looks like yellow poo. I’m glad I’m not eating that.’
I decorate the twirl with a sprig of parsley. This is fiddled food at its most extreme. Good enough for any hostess trolley.

Vegetable fiddling is next. Tomatoes are cut into lilies with pointed edges, and filled with salad cream and cottage cheese – a new ingredient on our shop shelves.
I cut the radishes into roses and slice spring onions to become tassels. This fussed over veg is dunked into freezing water to open up and lose its nutrients. We peel and slice the cucumber then scoop out the middle and mix with salad cream.
They are eager to get on.
‘OK – eggs then salad – we’ll do the lettuce later.’
They rush off to choose a tray of ingredients which has the largest egg or tomato. I dread this choosing stage. There’s always grumbles and swapping.
‘Miss, I don’t eat salad.’
‘Miss, her cucumber’s bigger than mine.’
‘Can I have tomato instead of this green stuff?’
‘Miss, my tomato is missing.’
At last they are sorted and busy. Eggs are twirled and salad chopped.
I dump the droopy lettuces, in a butler’s sink of ice cold water. Examiners don’t like this , so I warn the class that the Vitamin C which will leach out into the water, and the limp lettuce will not be so nutritious.
‘Come round and I’ll show you how to present the salad.’
I remove the lettuce, radish and spring onions from the cold water, and pat them dry with a tea towel. No fancy salad spinners here.
‘Place in colourful sections on a plate, sprinkle with bits of mustard and cress and serve with a jug of SALAD CREAM.’
What a fuss for something which today would be chopped, tossed and served in bowl!

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Filed under Foods of the 1970s, Jenny Ridgwell

Egg magic

Eggs are teaching magic. I can use my science knowledge to impress them – a little biology, some physics and a bit of birdwatching along the way.

The egg is the centre of my cooking world, the source of endless cheap dishes, and a good way to teach nutrition. ‘Go to work on an egg’ is an advert at the time, made famous by Fay Weldon. If I have an egg, I have a lesson, and even a breakfast to go to work on.

‘Gather round and stand in a circle – I’m going to show you a trick.’

I roll the egg gently on the floor. It curls, curves and circles back to me. They are so impressed, I do it again.

‘Look at that for magic – see how it rolls back to me. In nature it rolls back if it falls out the nest. That’s why seagulls have very pointed eggs, as they build nests on cliff edges and this way the egg rolls back in a very tight circle.’

My scientific brain questions this story, but they are intrigued and desperate to try rolling their eggs around the cookery room floor.  I’m thinking that seagull’s nests cling to the sides of cliffs and the egg would more likely drop over the cliff edge than stay near its nest, but I’ve got their attention and this stunning fact might stay with them for the day. Later I’ll tell them about the poor, bald battery chickens that lay most of the eggs that we buy in the seventies and never ever see a nest or daylight. Their eggs drop through the bars of their prison cages and down into collecting tubes. But we don’t care. It makes them cheap which is perfect for our cookery recipes.

Some of the eggs that I buy have a little red Lion symbol on them, from the Egg Marketing Board but there are no clues to show when the eggs have been laid. No date stamp, no worries about how old, but I know that there is a TEST.

‘How do you know if an egg is fresh Emily?’

I’m trying to give the girls more attention. I’ve been neglecting them as the boisterous boys shoot up their hands when I ask a question.

I wait for quiet, gentle Emily to give me an answer, but she’s surrounded by male cries of ‘Ask me, miss, ask me!’

I try to ignore the boy’s enthusiasm this time. My girls have equal importance in this thrusting, testosterone world, and I must give them a chance.

But Ray can’t contain himself any more.

‘Miss you can smell the egg – if it’s off it really pongs – a nasty smell but good for stink bombs.’

I give Ray a stern look. He’s right, an off egg has the disgusting smell of sulphur but it is the girl’s turn. They must not be bullied into silence.

‘OK Emily, come and help me with the egg test.’

Emily stands by the large jug of salty water on my demonstration table. I can see she is nervous as I hand her the three eggs. Two eggs have been bought recently and the other comes from the collection of old eggs that I keep hidden in the store cupboard to use for this age test.  Sometimes, I forget, and we use them anyway.

‘Emily, drop each egg carefully into a jug of salted water – the fresh eggs sink and the stale egg floats.’

One of the eggs bobs to the top of the water and the others hang somewhere in between.

‘See, this floating egg is stale so we don’t use it. Thankyou Emily for helping’

Miss, the Magician has done it again, and I’ve let the girls have a turn. This lesson is going well and I’ve got more egg tricks to share which will take this session into the stratosphere.

‘Did you know that whole eggs are passed over a light to see if they are clear inside with no bloody bits or chicks growing?


It’s called candling and you can do it with a candle. Emily, can you light the candle please?’

I hold an egg in front of the golden candle light. The eggs looks golden and the candle flame is bloody hot. This piece of magic is proving nothing. Just that the egg looks golden brown when I hold it in front of a candle, and that candle flames are hot. I’m no better at tricks than Tommy Cooper. It’s back to the lesson, before I lose my dignity.

I hand them each an egg and a saucer.

‘OK – you’ve each got an egg – go back to your places and crack your egg in the middle and then slide the contents of the egg onto the saucer. I’m going to give you a biology lesson.’

‘Aren’t we cooking today, miss? I hate theory.’

Dan struggles with his reading and writing. He’s small, neat and quiet for his age and he tells me that cooking is his favourite subject. He can ‘do’ cookery but he just gets bad marks in everything else and can’t do them.

‘Dan, we’ll cook when we’ve finished this bit.

‘Crack your eggs and look at the sac of air in the top of the shell. This is where the chick takes its first breath before it pecks its way out.’

The egg shell is lined with a thin, shiny white membrane and this air sac at the blunt end of the shell is one of nature’s mysteries.

‘Will we get a chick in our eggs then?’ Dan’s enthusiasm is returning.

Some of the girls look up from their shells with alarm. Once again, I forget these city kids think that milk comes from the milkman and fish fingers from the freezer in the supermarket. The rest of the food chain is unknown.

‘It’s OK – there are no chicks in these eggs. The hens have been reared in cages with no cockerels around.’

They stare back blankly. What have hens and cockerels got to do with chicks? Oh God, and I’ve got a sex education lesson next week with my form group.

They crack their eggs onto saucers and poke at the air sac in the shell.

‘Look at the egg you’ve cracked and on the yolk, can you see the germ, the tiny white circle where the chick grows?’

‘You said this egg won’t be a chick so how is it supposed to grow there?’

Dan is increasingly frustrated by my teaching methods and wants to get on with COOKING.

‘Look at the two chords which hold the yolk in place. And the thick and thin whites. ’

They peer at their saucers. What is the point in this?

‘Miss, what has this got to do with cooking?’

It’s Dan again. Frustrated Dan.

‘You might get asked to draw a cross section of an egg for the exam, so I’m showing you what it looks like.’

Here she goes again. The exam – everything is learnt to pass the exam.

Dan can hardly write but he’s still got to do the exam, and I’ll be judged on the grade that he gets.

Please try, Dan for both of us. If you get Unclassified because you only write your name on the exam paper, I’ll be blamed for poor teaching.

‘OK class, we’re ready to make Chocolate Mousse – it’s just raw egg and chocolate.’

These are the days before Edwina Currie’s egg and salmonella scare. By the 1980’s chocolate mousse made from raw eggs will be a pot of poison.

‘Scoop the yolk and put it into a glass. Then whisk the egg white until it is stiff.’

The room is busy with whirring rotary whisks.

‘When it’s ready you can turn the bowl upside down and the eggs whites stay in.’

This is the most stupid and wasteful test of all. If they turn the bowl over too early the whole lot plops on the floor, accompanied by screams of hilarity. The sticky, eggy mess which streams over the old, grimy wooden floor can’t be rescued and we must start again. Thank goodness eggs are cheap.

Chocolate mousse is easy to make. We use cheap cooking chocolate which is high in fat and low in chocolate and taste. But if it’s in the storeroom, I add it to my lunchtime speed nibbles of sultanas and angelica.

‘Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of hot water, stir in the yolk and then fold the melted chocolate gently into the whites – gently!’

Good mousses are light and fluffy. Bad mousses are just a runny mess which still taste delicious.

They pile the soft, brown mixture into glass dishes, top with a glacé cherry and bring to me for marking on a saucer with a frilly d’oyley. Someone should make Beryl Ware with an imprint of a frilly d’oyley. It would save so much time and exam marks.

This brown gloop does not leave the classroom. They must sit and eat it. I don’t want the local bus company complaining again of a strange stickiness spread over their bus seats after my cooking class has travelled home.

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The governor’s tea

The school secretary pops her head round my room door.

‘Jenny, will you be able to make the governor’s tea next week?’

This kind woman has nurtured me since I arrived and this is no time for me to be stroppy.

‘Normally about fifteen to twenty people turn up. Nothing fancy. We just need a few sandwiches and some scones, biscuits and homemade cakes.

Your predecessor used to get the girls to do it. We’ll pay you back for the ingredients you use.’

Well that’s alright then. The girls will do it.  On top of all the other things they are learning and cooking in my lessons, somehow me and the girls will find time to prepare a not-too-fancy homemade tea for twenty.

I curb my fury and wonder if anyone who visits my room has any idea of the planning and preparation it takes to manage my large classes of noisy teenagers who want to cook.

School starts when students bring in cooking baskets with ingredients for the day. I register my form group, then progress through several classes when students cook, clear up, pack up, eat, catch up on homework, find out what to bring next week and come in for help with revision. I prepare demonstrations, sweep and clean the room before the cleaners turn up – they won’t do it if it’s too messy. I manage my food storeroom, checking the eight sinks, twelve cookers, cupboards full of baking tins, saucepans, frying pans, drawers full of cooking tools, and my tiny cupboard holding the latest precious electrical whisks and Kenwood chef.

When the bell rings at the end of school, I wash dishcloths and tea-towels in the ancient twin tub and hang them in the gas driers ready for the morning when they must be folded and packed away.

I check that aprons are clean, the ovens and gas rings are off, and that the rubbish is ready for collection.

And long after everyone has gone home or to the pub, I collect my marking which must be completed that night then think about what food I must buy for my teaching the next day.

And all with no help.

In my first week, a lad brings over a pile of muddy football shirts and shorts.

‘Sir says, can you wash these and send them back folded up when they are dry? The last teacher did it, and he said you wouldn’t mind.’

Somehow, things must change, but for now I put on a sweet little woman act, and comply with their needs. I’m new and want to get on with people.

Of course I will find time to prepare the governor’s tea and wash the football shirts.

But I have dark thoughts ready for a fight.

In this school, does the art department paint the school walls?

Do English students write the school brochures?

Will Maths present the school accounts?

And does Science manage the school grounds and dig the gardens as part of their biology studies?

Get the boys to do it, I say – the girls are busy cooking governor’s tea while their teacher washes the school football outfits.

Enough of grumbling. My grandmother has told me that one good turn deserves another. And it is my turn to begin.

Carol and Vicky are a natural choice for the tea task.

This pair of school ragbags refuse to bring ingredients to my lessons, and spend their time dithering over worksheets, comparing their latest boyfriends, chipping off flecks of pearl nail varnish and picking the split ends in their backcombed hair. They’ve cooked their way through the cheap ingredients in my storeroom and are bored with making jam tarts and scones.

Any reprimand from me gets a tornado reply.

‘Miss, we’re leaving at Easter, you can’t make us do anything.’

I’ve failed to persuade other teachers to take them into their lessons, so the ragbag pair is mine, once a week, for a whole afternoon, and we need to get on.

‘Carol and Vicky – you’re going to make the Governor’s tea. Write a shopping list so that you can go out and buy the food next week. We’re going to impress them with your cooking. This is the menu.’

They glower as I give them my written list. There is a risk that the pair could sabotage and poison the food for everyone on the committee.

Governor’s tea menu

Egg and salad cream sandwiches

Asparagus rolls made from tinned asparagus and brown bread and butter

Fruit scones with butter twirls

Brandy snaps with whipped cream


Butterfly cakes with piped butter icing

Tea with milk and sugar.

This tea menu is fit for The Ritz tea rooms, but I’ve borrowed it from my days as a waitress in Wicksteed Park Tea Pavilion in Kettering.

The Park was famous for its brandy snaps, and sold them wrapped in crackly cellophane for teatime treats. On brandy snap baking days the chef offered me one piped with a swirl of fresh cream, topped with a squelchy red Maraschino cherry fished out from a jar in the cocktail bar. Brandy snaps are gingery and crunchy, and the cream oozes as you bite. They are a cake maker’s triumph, and a test for Carol and Vicky.

Carol and Vicky grumble in with shopping baskets laden with porage oats, tins of golden syrup, a glass jar of Heinz salad cream, boxes of eggs, punnets of mustard and cress and the very extravagant show off tins of asparagus. My elaborate governor’s tea menu is also a cunning plan to stock up my storeroom. After this first baking session, I hope we will have plenty of spare ingredients and I can save some fresh cream and use real butter instead of that fishy County Supplies margarine.

The rest of the class is busy making Swedish tea rings as I check the shopping list. But first Carol and Vicky must dress to impress. Someone might check the tea progress, and they don’t want to see this scruffy pair messing with their food.

‘Girls, hang up your duffle coats, take out your chewing gum, tie back your hair, and wash your hands. Then put on a clean overall before you start.’

Ha ha. I’ve got a couple of white cook’s overalls ready for smart occasions.

As they change and button up, Carol and Vicky transform. Gone are the short skirts with rolled up waistbands, and the half undone ties.

A pair of smart cooks emerges.

We prepare the hostess trolley. We need tea pots, milk jugs, sugar bowls, teacups and saucers, small plates and serving platters.

We need napkins and knives, cake forks and teaspoons, tablecloths and d’oyleys. And we mustn’t forget the tea strainer. We’re serving proper tea and need to make sure that all the china and cutlery is sparkling.

‘Carol and Vicky can you check that all the Beryl Ware and cutlery is clean?’

They glower at me.

‘Why can’t someone else do this, miss?’

‘Because, girls, they all want to get a CSE exam and you two don’t.’

This tea will test their stamina, and give them no time to gossip or sulk. As they start their baking marathon I keep a watchful eye knowing that at any time they could erupt, slam down their tools and leave the room with cries of

‘We ain’t doing no more! We ain’t school slaves!’

Into the oven go the scones, then a swift clear up ready for the sponges which they will transform into butterfly cakes. Then the flapjacks and finally our biggest cooking challenge of all – brandy snaps.

Dollops of gingery, sugary, syrupy dough go into the oven and out come golden brown craters which must be worked with speed. A snap is lifted, wrapped round a wooden spoon handle and held in place till it forms a roll. Your hands feel warm and greasy, but there is no time to enjoy this pleasure. There are trayfuls of snaps to roll and hold and more baking in the oven.

And on and on they come until the cooling rack is piled high.

I join team Carol and Vicky to finish off the horns with piped cream, glacé cherries and tiny angelica leaves. Wicksteed Park would be proud.

Then it’s on with the sandwiches.

Peeled hard boiled eggs, mashed smooth with salad cream, mixed with mustard and cress then spread onto soft Mother’s Pride white bread and cut into quarters.

We lift precious mushy spears of asparagus from the tins and place them on buttered brown bread, then roll them up tightly and cut into small portions. Tinned asparagus is our most expensive ingredient, and portions cannot be too generous.

The sandwiches go on a plate with a plain d’oyley. D’oyleys matter in my cookery world. Plain for savoury, frilly for sweet, and these rules must not be broken.

We pile the hostess trolley with sandwiches, buttered fruit scones, crunchy flapjacks, brandy snaps, and butterfly cakes.

The rest of the class gathers to coo and ah over Carol and Vicky’s work, amazed that these two can produce anything edible.

The feast is finished with hot brewed tea and they wheel the trolley into the headmaster’s study. The governors smile sweetly, but I’m thrilled at the surprised looks from the teachers on the school panel who know this unruly, disruptive pair from their wanderings around the school corridors.

Carol and Vicky return with me to my cookery room. It is a tip, but I’m too tired to fight with them over clearing up. Instead I give them a bag of spare sandwiches and cakes.

‘Thanks girls – you’ve been great. Impressive cooking.’

They throw down their overalls, and resume their usual scruffiness as they wander off into the dark night, cackling through mouthfuls of sandwich.

Next morning I arrive early as usual, to start a busy day. In despair I see the hostess trolley, parked in my room, piled with dirty tea cups, empty plates, crumpled napkins and tea pots full of cold tea leaves. As my form group catches up on their gossip, I pull on my overall and rubber gloves and clear up the mess, before my cooking classes arrive.

Next week I prepare my case to present to the headmaster. I need help. This cannot go on. I cannot teach and clean up and be a drudge on my own.

I need a daily ancillary help and more funds to buy essential ingredients.

A few days later, I get a note telling me to come after school and interview candidates for the ancillary position. Help is coming.

The following week, my chosen angel, the marvellous Sylvia, arrives to be my right hand woman and saviour.

Later the school secretary pops her head round the door and leaves me a note.

‘The head will increase the capitation for your ingredients from £50.

Please provide evidence to show how much money you would like for the year.’

As my grandmother said, one turn deserves another.

A year later I get a pay rise.

The school kitchens agree to take over making the governor’s teas.

The PE department buys an automatic washing machine and tumbler drier, and I am free to soar ahead and teach my subject with no distractions

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Filed under Cooking for the governors, Home Economics in 1970, Jenny Ridgwell

Chicken – we never eat it!

‘Chicken! Chicken! You want to roast a chicken!’

Christopher has drifted into my room with a plastic carrier bag containing a trussed chicken, some muddy potatoes and a packet of dripping.

‘Christopher, we can’t afford to cook chicken. It’s too expensive. Where did you get it from?’

I want to say ‘..nick it from?’ but that would open a can of worms.

Chicken is for special occasions like Easter and Christmas.  We don’t have to learn anything about chicken. Teaching chicken would be as pointless as a lesson on beluga caviar. And I’ve never cooked a chicken in my life – or eaten caviar.

Christopher doesn’t do school much. He doesn’t do his hair or take his grubby anorak off. And sometimes he doesn’t do his flies up. And Christopher never does my homework, but it’s pointless chasing him.

‘ Find a recipe in my books for roast chicken and you can follow that.’

The rest of the class is busy making shepherd’s pie, and Christopher’s idea of roasting a chicken is a nuisance, but this is a surprise visit to my lesson and he needs encouraging to cook.

Marguerite Patten takes him  through the recipe in simple steps, and as the rest of us busy on making mashing potatoes, the room fills with the rare, delicious smells of roasting chicken.

Skin crispening to golden, breast softening to melt point, and legs ready to rip off and ooze juice. The chicken nests in a circle of roasting potatoes which Christopher occasionally bastes with melting dripping. Crisp, golden potatoes , with crisp golden chicken. Yum.

I comfort the class who are suffering from the roasting smells.

‘We don’t need to learn about chicken, you’ll never be asked any questions about it in the exam, and it’s in none of our textbooks. And there are no recipes for chicken in Cooking is Fun. It’s too dear.’

Christopher brings over the roasting tin and holds out his sizzling feast.

‘Can you give me a mark for this miss, and can I eat it here?’

No sharing, no offer of the smallest taste.

That night I go out to Villa Bianca in Hampstead and order their latest feast – chicken Kiev.

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Filed under Boys cooking, Jenny Ridgwell