Category Archives: Jenny Ridgwell

Pink nylon overalls

In the 1970’s my cooking outfit is a pale pink nylon overall which just skims the hems of my mini dresses.

One sleeve  hides an armful  of elastic bands, essential for scraping back the fashionable long hair on boys and girls of the time. On rare visits to the staffroom, I must remember to remove my overall and rubber gloves before I collapse exhausted into one of the beaten up staffroom armchairs, and light a cigarette. Otherwise I might be mistaken for the school cleaner and may be asked to wash up the coffee cups.

Before we start any cooking, they must obey my chant.
‘Hair, hearings and hands – tie your hair back, and remove all jewellery except wedding rings. Since no-one is married, including me, bring me your precious things to lock up!’
There’s been a collective ‘ah’ from my new classes when I say I’m not married. Prying into the private life of young teachers is a popular diversion in most lessons.
‘Have you got a boyfriend, miss?’  Maureen loves gossip.
‘None of your business – aprons on please.’
‘Will you make your own wedding cake?’ Maureen persists in digging for clues.
‘Class, and that includes you, Maureen, let’s see your hands.’
They hold them out for inspection.
‘Liz– take off the nail varnish – the remover’s in my cupboard.’
Liz tuts with disgust. She’ll pay me back for making this fuss. Liz wants to cook and I’m stopping her with my stupid rules.

The class is checked so we can begin. Once they know I mean business, we speed through the Hair, Hearrings and Hands! eager to get on with cooking something to eat.

The TV cooks of the day never obey my hygiene suggestions. Fanny Cradock wears an evening dress, sparkling in diamond necklace and dangly ear-rings. She pokes long red fingernails into pastries and pies and I cringe at the thought of spitting out slivers of red varnish if I ever have to taste her cooking.

Comments Off on Pink nylon overalls

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

Macaroni cheese

It’s Thursday afternoon, and as I walk towards my room, the usual line of boys who squabble, jostle and push each other onto my wall, is missing. Thursday afternoon is spent teaching boys who have decided that cookery is the only subject they want to take. They have frightened off the girls who have chosen mucky metalwork or dusty woodwork instead of the fighting and spats in the jungle of a class of boys. There are days when I would like to take off my nylon overall and join the girls in a peaceful lesson.

But today, only Len and Sam are propped against the door looking rather sullen. Something has happened, but neither boy is offering an explanation.

I unlock the room and face the pile of ingredients that I have bought for macaroni cheese and baked apples. How will I make use of all of this food with just two students? The cheese is carefully cut into equal chunks, and the greengrocer has chosen cooking apples that look identical, and delivered some tiny tomatoes to cut down on cost. All to avoid squabbles of ‘His is bigger than mine – it’s not fair!’

‘Hello boys – it looks like you’ll get larger portions today if no-one else turns up. Where are the others? What’s happened? Are they bunking off or are they in trouble?’

Neither boy wants to talk. I might get information if we start cooking.
We busy ourselves coring the apples and pushing in a spicy mix of sultanas and raisins, then boiling extra quantities of macaroni. I know what they are thinking:
‘More food to take home for tea for me and my mates.’
But why are the rest of the class missing?
Students invent various excuses for not coming to lessons.
‘I’ve got to go to the doctor’s .. the dentist …the cat is dead.. ‘.

Walthamstow dog track is down the road and betting is a profitable school pastime. Many of the boys play up in maths lessons, but they can calculate the outcome of an each way bet as quickly as they say ‘yep’ to one of my lemon curd tarts.
‘So have they gone to the dogs or is it the horses today?’
Silence, heads down. Len stirs the boiling macaroni. His glasses steam up, but he doesn’t seem to care.
We concentrate on cheese sauce, using the quick all-in-one method invented by Stork margarine cooks.  Measure the milk, marg and flour into the saucepan and whisk and heat until it thickens.
‘Bring your saucepans to the dem table and we’ll finish the cheese sauce together.’
We grate in extra quantities of cheap Cheddar cheese.

‘Don’t grate your knuckles in with the cheese – bits of skin don’t look nice. Now let’s season it with mustard powder, pepper and a little Worcestershire sauce and taste it.’
Delicious – we like tasting.
The sauce gets mixed with cooked macaroni and some frozen peas. The room is warming up and cooking might have softened Len’s reserve.
‘Come on Len – tell me where they are.’
He heaves in frustration.
‘Most of them have gone to court miss.’
‘Why’s that Len? You can tell me.’
Sam is not happy that Len is giving away the group secrets.
‘Neil and Ray got caught after they broke into factory.’
Len grins.
‘Ray left his gloves behind after he’d climbed through a window and they had his name in them.’
We smile at the silliness. A boy burglar who still has his clothes labelled with his name in case they get lost.
‘And the others?’
‘George decided to borrow a milk float. The milkman had left the keys in it and George thought it would be a quick way to get to school. But the man ran after him and someone called the police.’ George is always late and rather dozy, so this spontaneous act is a surprise.
‘And Nick? Where is Nick?’
Nick loves cars and motorbikes but is too young to drive. Nevertheless he takes them for a spin and lives up to his name nicking anything that will speed along the highway.
‘Nick got caught for driving underage and without a licence.’
The list of petty thieving, borrowing bikes and cars and general mischief goes on. The consequences could be serious – a fine, probation or worse still they could be sent away to a young offenders institution and Borstal.

We pile the macaroni into foil dishes, grate more cheese, carefully arrange slices of tomato on the top with a sprig of parsley, then wrap them with instructions to heat in the oven with the baked apples for 30 minutes ready for the tea when they get home. I feel rather sad that it has been a quiet, gentle afternoon, with no challenges or jokes. What will the future hold? Will my class shrink to just two?

Next week I sit at my desk and watch to see who will turn up. It is like waiting for the contestants from the Apprentice – who will return after Alan Sugar has pointed and said ‘You’re fired!’? Neil and Ray come in first, perky as always. They dump their bags, pile duffel coats and blazers on top and tie on their aprons. George and Nick arrive looking chastened and more sullen. Others shuffle and push past the pile of coats and soon the room is noisy and bustling.
‘What are we cooking today miss? I’m hungry.’
The room has returned to Thursday chaos and I am pleased.

Comments Off on Macaroni cheese

Filed under Jenny Ridgwell, Macaroni cheese

Vegetarian cooking 1972

The 1970’s school cookery textbooks make strange, outrageous claims about vegetarian cooking, which I have to teach to get my classes to pass the exam.  At a time when large areas of the developing world eat a vegetarian diet, the books have odd things to say.

The Battersea College of Technology book of Cookery Recipes is one of our recipe books and sold for 3/6 – they haven’t accepted decimalisation yet.  Copies can ‘be obtained only from the secretary, Battersea College of Technology.’
Vegetarian recipes are suitable for ‘V.E.M.s – Vegetarians who include in their diet Eggs, Milk and milk products.’
This odd mnemonic is supposed to help us remember that vegetarians don’t eat meat.
It offers this advice for vegans:

  • ‘Replace milk with water in which vegetables have been cooked.’
  • ‘Replace cream with nut fat and butter with Nutter or Trex.’
  • Cheese must be replaced with Marmite and eggs left out altogether.

So there. That’s clear. When in doubt, leave it out.
Nut cutlets are my vegan recipe demonstration, made from chopped nuts and breadcrumbs, shaped into cutlets and deep fat fried.

If vegetarians don’t  eat meat, why have nuts shaped like an animal part? The fried, nutty bits are so unappetising that  even Bill, my food dustbin student, declines to taste.

O Level Cookery doesn’t help much on vegetarians either.

‘A vegetarian diet has limited choice and can be monotonous, bulky and unattractive.’
Well, to some people a bag of chips washed down with a can of cola unattractive too.
‘It is most difficult to supply protein as the protein in beans is of lower biological value so more must be eaten. This means the stomach is very full after each meal’.
Well good, isn’t that the point? Fill us up so we are not hungry?
‘This may lead to enlargements.’
Oh no! – enlargements of what?
And lastly
‘This vegetarian diet may be expensive.’
How so! Compared with rump steak or roast lamb? How much do they think a can of baked beans costs?
This textbook is written in 1971 and taught in cookery rooms throughout Britain, so how many children in our burgeoning multi ethnic society have to put up with this nonsense?

Cookery for Schools

Is Cookery for Schools more helpful on the textbook front? No.

  • ‘Meat and fish have distinctive flavours which stimulate the digestive juices and increase the appetite. In a vegetarian diet these flavours are sadly missing.’

Well, isn’t that the point! A vegetarian doesn’t want to eat meat of fish so they would hate these ‘distinctive meaty, fishy flavours’.

  • ‘Larger portions of vegetables should be served to vegetarians than to those eating a normal diet.’

So there we have it. Vegetarians aren’t normal, they must eat platefuls of vegetables which will fill them up and lead to enlargements. How am I going to teach that frippery?

At the end of the lesson, the class reads and answers the set questions in their exercise books.

Unfortunately the questions are as mad as the text – here’s the choice.

  1. Why are meatless dishes often unpopular?
  2. How can this be avoided?
  3. What are the difficulties in arranging and preparing meals for a vegetarian?

Here’s some answers that Cookery for Schools might expect from my kids:

  1. Meatless dishes are often unpopular because they don’t have any meat in them and me dad says he always has to have meat and two veg for his supper.
  2. Meatless dishes can be avoided by not eating them.
  3. The difficulties in arranging and preparing meals for a vegetarian are that you need lots and lots of beans and vegetables because they have to eat so many to get their protein and this can be expensive. And then they get really full and enlarged.

My class love to torment me with silly answers to my questions.
When I ask a test question ‘What are oats?’ Mick replies

‘Depends if you mean getting your oats, having your oats or porridge oats.’ I am careful with wording after that.

Changes in vegetarian cuisine are on the way. By the mid seventies, the financial downturn in the UK means thrifty cooking kicks in.  One day something big arrives on my desk. A bag of brown, dried bits that the sender suggests I use to make new, cheap high protein meals.  TVP has jumped into our food chain and the  company wants me to persuade the nation’s children that it is a delicious, cheap substitute for meat, which we can no longer afford.

My TVP lesson goes  like this.
‘This is called TVP – it stands for Textured Vegetable protein.’
I hold out a handful of dried, beige lumps which smell of damp cardboard. Next I pass a pudding bowl with larger, softer lumps.
‘I’ve soaked these chunks in water and now we are ready to make a meatless stew.’
Bill mutters first.
‘Looks like dried dog turds, miss’
‘Or bits of  old dishcloth.’ Len likes plain food that he can recognize. TVP is not plain.
‘Len this lesson is learning about vegetarians and we are going to cook something modern for them.’
They mumble and grumble and shuffle off to cook up some carrots and onions in a thick Bisto gravy.
‘Now we stir in the lumps of TVP.’
They pass round the bowl and spoon a pile of the soaked chunks into their saucepans.
I chivvy them along.
‘It’s very clever, this stuff. The soya  is extruded, texturised, then cut and dried into chunks. Come on class, what shall we call this new stew?’
‘Muck’ says Bill.
‘Brown muck’ adds Len.
They don’t want to eat it or take it home, and shamble out of the room clutching their out of date textbooks with the task of answering the impossible questions for homework.
That’s vegetarian cooking done for 1972.

History note

Vegetarian society

The Vegetarian Society was founded in 1847 and the first vegetarian hospital was opened in Ramsgate in 1846. It is amazing how little impact the society had on the things that were taught in school cookery lessons in the 1970s. The Vegetarian Society now has its own logo that goes on food labels and its extensive website ‘provides imaginative, creative and delicious vegetarian food.’

The Vegan Society

In 1944 a group of ‘non-dairy vegetarians’ formed a new society with a name to describe themselves – vegan derived from VEGetariAN. The Society wanted to show that ‘the use of animal products (such as meat, dairy, eggs, leather and wool) will be viewed as an inhumane and unsustainable practice from a much less enlightened age.’

Haldane Foods is one of the country’s oldest producers of meat and dairy-free produce. Some of their products are available under brands such as Realeat, Direct Foods and Granose which was established over 100 years ago, and some of its products were invented by a Dr John Harvey Kellogg.

Linda McCartney popularised a meat-free diet in Britain, published a guide to vegetarian cookery, ‘Linda McCartney’s Home Cooking’ in 1989, and launched her own range of ready-made vegetarian meals in 1991.


In the 1960s, there were fears that the world would run out of animal protein. In response to this, scientists set out to find an alternative protein source. The new protein was part of the fungi family and was called Mycoprotein after ‘myco’, the Greek for fungi.

TVP® – Textured Vegetable Protein – is a byproduct from soya beans, made after the production of soya oil. After World War 11 there was a huge demand for food, and sales of soya foods and soybean meal increased massively. In the 1930s the soybean meal had been used for animal feed, but by the 1940s it was ‘food grade’ and ready to use in soya products.

In the 1971 TVP was approved for the USA school lunch programme, and the product became an ingredient in many prepared foods, to reduce costs.

In 1973, in the UK, Cadbury’s launched Soya Choice which they claimed was ‘a roaring success’ because it was nutritious and half the price of meat. The UK economy was in a downturn, the price of meat had soared, so shoppers were looking at ways to reduce their food costs.

How is TVP made? When the oil has been removed from the soya beans, the remaining dough is cooked under pressure with steam and extruded. The extrusion technology changes the structure of the soy protein, resulting in a fibrous spongy matrix that is similar in texture to meat which is made into textured, dried granules, flakes and chunks. Add water and it swells up and is used as a meat replacer to extend dishes such as minced beef for pies and bolognaise.  It is low in cost, low in fat and relatively high in fibre as it is a plant food.

Today food producers around the world manufacture and sell extruded textured soy protein under a range of trade names, including soya meat. The modern versions come in many flavours including bacon, chicken, sausage, beef, ham and taco. One company website says that TVP can create some gas after eating, so maybe my early textbooks were true – a vegetarian diet can cause enlargements.

Today teaching about vegetarianism is a big topic in schools. Along with food allergies, e numbers and food labels, we have plenty of information and lots of delicious things to cook.

It is estimated that over 3 million people eat a vegetarian diet in the UK.

Brigid McKevith, Senior Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

‘Some large studies have shown that vegetarians have a lower overall mortality rate than the general population. A high intake of plant foods is associated with a reduced risk of some cancers and several studies have found an increased risk of colorectal cancer amongst those with the highest intakes of meat and the lowest intakes of fibre. However, there is no evidence that being vegetarian confers a protective effect.’

Vegetarian society

Vegan society


Filed under Boys cooking, Jenny Ridgwell, Retro recipes, Vegetarian cookery

The Gas Board comes

My 1970s rooms have a range of cookers hired from the Gas and Electricity Boards. Each company sends their finest equipment and we have an equal number of gas and electric cookers so that students can make a fair comparison and take information home to their parents. Well that is the idea. No sign of oil fired Agas or stoves heated by solid fuel to address this energy balance. In fact, teenage cooks couldn’t care less about the frills and fancies of modern cookers. What matters most is how quickly they can cook something to eat.
The Gas Board replaces the cookers every two years and also sends along home economists to show us how they work. These are the days of Gas and Electricity showrooms where helpful people guide you in your cooker choice.
The weirdest appliance I have to use to get this energy balance is a gas powered refrigerator and unsurprisingly, these fridges were rarely sold to customers and have now been discontinued.

My favourite school visit from the Gas Board is the day they come to show us how to set the automatic timers and make a complete meal that cooks in the oven. This is chosen for some idyllic family that skips off for a country walks or goes on a collective fishing trip and returns for the ready cooked feast.
The Gas Board menu is usually a three course meal consisting of
Starter – grilled grapefruit topped with brown sugar,
Main course – baked potato with roasted lamb chop and frozen peas
Pudding – baked golden syrup sponge with rice pudding

My class and I perch on stools watching as the two home economists show us how to cut zig zags round the grapefruit to make a posh starter, then how to wrap the lamb chop bones in foil to stop them drying out and finally the magical ‘all in one’ sponge where you chuck all the ingredients in a bowl and give them a whizz with one of our new electric whisks. (There are no gas powered whisks available.) Everything goes into the oven at once and the timer is set.
The home economists come prepared with all their ingredients and tools, and at the end give us a chance to taste. All I have to do is keep the class in order, stop them thumping each other and make sure they ask polite questions with no double meanings.

While we wait for the automatically cooked feast to arrive, we are shown the wonders of the eye level grill with its smart rotisserie, and tools and spikes that we will never use. These are pre outdoor barbecue days – maybe the summers are too cold?  The home economists pass round the spoons for tasting samples and we all rush rudely to the serving table to get more than our share. Meantime, these two hard working ladies wash and pack up and head wearily home. We have had a brilliant time and these demonstrations are a complete treat for me as I have a few hours to relax and enjoy experts at work.
They leave me with a room full of automatic timers that boys with mechanical minds love to twiddle, with knobs that set the times to ping when I am talking or even worse, the cookers won’t warm up at all. It is hard to catch the culprits as a twist of a timer knob can take a second and creates loads of fun as I whirl round the room trying to get the lesson started.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gas Board demonstrations, Home Economics in 1970, Jenny Ridgwell

Sodium bicarb and green veg

Never put sodium bicarbonate – bicarb of soda – in your green veg!

When I’m teaching I’m up against strong traditions in the 1970s of cooking green vegetables for at least an hour, then brightening the leaves up with a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate. This pulps the vegetable but also destroys the vitamins and I have to teach them not to do it. But gran often knows best and if gran does it, it must be right, and what does this young teacher know anyway?
I have to persuade them that they can cook green veg in under 10 minutes, which conflicts with the smells coming from the school kitchen who cook their cabbage from 9 in the morning.

Along the way we learn how to use bicarb as a raising agent and make a bottle of fizz by mixing it with vinegar in a glass bottle, putting on the lid, shaking and releasing and fizz!

The cooking experience is to make Crunchy bars which use simply golden syrup, sugar and bicarbonate of soda which are heated and explode into a golden honeycomb as sold in the shops.

Comments Off on Sodium bicarb and green veg

Filed under Foods of the 1970s, Jenny Ridgwell

I never taught them how to cook chicken in 1970s

In the 1970s we never cook chicken in the school classroom. It is just too expensive and to be kept for special days like Christmas and Easter.
Cookery for Schools does not even have ‘chicken’ in the index. ‘Poultry’ only sneaks a mention in the section for invalids as ‘the main protein food.’
O level cookery says that chicken is ‘chiefly eaten for easily digested animal protein, especially for an invalid diet.’

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

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.

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

I want to say ‘… nicked from’ but that is a bit radical.

In 1972 I’ve never cooked a chicken in my life so I’m of no culinary help.

‘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 roast chicken is a nuisance, and a bit showy off, but this is a surprise visit to my lesson and he needs encouraging to cook.

Marguerite Patten’s Cookery in Colour takes him through the recipe in simple steps, and as the rest of us mash potatoes, the room fills with the rare, delicious smells of roasting chicken.

cookery in colour

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 golden, roasting potatoes which Christopher occasionally bastes with melted 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 now?’

No sharing, no offer of the smallest taste. Christopher doesn’t even lay the table.

That night I go out to Villa Bianca in Hampstead and order their latest feast – chicken Kiev – I reckon it could be popular in the future.

The facts
So what was happening to chicken production after the war, and has happened to chicken production today?

The booklet, Chicken in the Kitchen is a National Poultry Show Publication produced just after the war. In the introduction, by the National Farmers’ Union, its President gives a clue about why chicken was so expensive.
‘We know that you would like to have more of our chickens and we are determined that you shall, but for the time being we are limited by the feeding stuffs available.’
It continues
‘Poultry may be a luxury to many of us, but one day we hope to make it at least an egg a day and chicken each week for all of you.’
In the fifties, Sainsbury’s produced All About Chicken, a leaflet which once again helped the housewife – clearly men did not do the choosing or shopping.
‘You can get a reasonable sized chicken from about 7/- at Sainsbury’s, which is because Sainsbury’s are among the largest buyers of chicken in the country. Roasting chickens are marked with a blue label; boiling fowls with a red label.’
It goes on to explain how to cook a whole chicken and use the leftovers, and explains how to use the new chicken halves and quarters on sale.’
Spaghetti chicken is one of the dishes, using canned spaghetti, onion and minced chicken!

In the 1960s chickens were farmed mainly for their eggs, and when the tough, exhausted birds reached the end of their egg laying days, they took on the new name of boiling fowl and were only fit to be stewed and made into pies. Young chickens which could be roasted were expensive to buy. But in the 1970’s the purpose-bread broiler chicken was introduced. Called the Cobb bird, this made chicken cheaper and suddenly it became a popular every day food.
In 2009, the website for the Cobb 500, the latest version of the breed makes the following claims

  • Efficient feed conversion and excellent growth rate
  • Thrives on lower cost nutrition and has the lowest production cost of chicken meat.
  • Cobb is the oldest poultry breeding company in the world.

Today, the vast majority of poultry is raised using intensive farming techniques and chickens suffer from lack of space, lameness, weak legs and lung failure. Each chicken has less floor space than an A4 sheet of paper. But the price of chicken is now affordable by the majority and it is a common food in cooking and ready meals.

Leave a comment

Filed under Foods of the 1970s, Home Economics in 1970, Jenny Ridgwell

How to gut a fish

In the 1970s we can’t afford to do fish. Cod, haddock and plaice are much too expensive, so we learn about it from books. Coming from the Midlands, fish and chips on a Friday night is the limit of my fish knowledge. But Trout and almonds are a speciality in the trendy bistros and restaurants of the 1970s.
According to O Level Cookery, there are white fish, oily fish, and crustaceans, fresh and sea water fish.
‘What about jellied eels, miss – where do they fit?’
Ah, the hideous, bony, thick skinned lumps of slimy, jellied things, served in a bowl down Walthamstow High Street. A much hallowed east end delicacy which I spat out in disgust.
‘Eels aren’t fish, Kevin – they’re … eels.’
The boys are expert fishermen, and they spend weekends in the Lee Valley catching fish from rivers and reservoirs.
Most of the fish that my students eat comes in John West tins – pilchards, mackerel, sardines, pink salmon and tuna.
But we have to learn to cook fish from scratch, and the cheapest fish is herring.
They are in for another dissection lesson. A whole tiny, shiny herring sits on the chopping board on my demonstration table. A large pile of herrings, wrapped in newspaper, is waiting quietly in the corner for them to prepare. The girls sniff, dump down their bags and wrinkle their noses, despondently.
The class gather on their stools for the start of the demonstration.
‘We’re going to learn about fish today and this is what the book says.’
I read from Fish Cookery written by the Ministry of Food, and issued to school cookery classes.
‘We are fortunate to be an island race. Our coasts have many fine harbours for ships, and the seas round our shores teem with fish. While many nations with little or no seaboard would give much to have this valuable supply for its larder, we do not always take the trouble to use of it as we might.’
This sounds like a speech by Churchill, who after urging us to fight on the wartime beaches is now persuading us to get on with the business of eating more of the fish which teem around us.

They are not inspired. They hate fish and they’d rather be doing double maths, followed by physics, algebra and geometry.
‘Do you know why we are using herrings today, class?’
They don’t answer. They just glare at me. I read from the book again.
‘Of all the fish, herring gives best value for money. It can be bought fresh, salted, smoked, pickled or canned and there is no end to the variety of dishes that can be made from it.’
So that is why I’ve chosen it for you.’

They don’t care. And to make things worse, everything smells of fish.
‘We’re going to make this fish into soused herrings. But firstly, how can you tell if this fish is fresh?’
I hold the herring up by its tail for the class to inspect. A dribble of blood drops sadly from its mouth. The girls put their hands over their mouths and pretend to be sick, but the boys try their best to please me.
‘You look at its eyes miss, and feel it.’
‘Thanks John – look at its clear, shiny eyes.’
The herring’s eyes are dull and bloodshot. It has had enough.
‘And what about its gills?’
I thrust the herring towards them and pull open the flap that covers the rows of red fronds.
‘These should be bright and shiny and its body firm. Listen because you’ll need this for the exam.’
They are grumbling at my lesson plans, and the exam is the only reason for dragging us through this smelly, fishy lesson. It would be much easier to cook jam tarts.
‘Now look at its mouth.’ I pull open the bottom jaw, opening up a vast chasm which could swallow a jellied eel whole.
‘Ugh, miss – why don’t you chop its head off? I’m telling yer, I ain’t doing that.’ Jackie folds her arms and looks like the teachers in our strike meetings. Other girls join her in this defiant pose.
The boys shuffle on their stools, trying not to look enthusiastic at the chance of splaying out some blood and guts and using our sharp filleting knives.
I know that deep down, they all rather like these barmy lessons. While their friends have sat in a gentle, boring maths class, they come back with tales of guts and ghastliness. ‘You’ll never guess what we did today. We saw inside a herring in COOKERY!’
‘Look at this lovely fish – silvery scales and perky fins on the top and bottom.’
I scrape off some scales which glue themselves to the formica work surface.
Then swiftly I slit open the belly from its head to its anus, and the guts, blood vessels and liver spill out onto the chopping board.
‘Here is the roe – mine is a female with eggs, but you won’t know if your fish is male or female until you open it.’
The boys smirk – they like to talk of sex and food.
‘And this is the swim bladder which keeps it afloat.’
I take out a long silvery sac and squeeze the bubble of air backwards and forwards. The boys peer onto the saucer as it passes round the group. This is interesting.
Quickly I chop off the head, clip the fins and press the herring flesh flat on the board to remove the backbone. Then wash it under with tap water to remove blood and entrails.
‘Now we are going to souse it.’
‘Scouse it miss?’
My Midland accent sounds Liverpudlian to them.
No, souse it Kevin.’
‘Have you ever met the Beatles, miss?’ Kevin is trying to jolly me along and find out more about my private life.
‘Actually, Kevin, I saw them live in Hammersmith, and everyone screamed and climbed over their seats to get to the stage. Except for me.’
They stare in amazed silence. The Beatles are rather old hat, but I have seen them perform. My status has increased from cookery teacher to mildly interesting human being.
‘Let’s get on with things or we will never finish gutting and boning these herrings.’
I can feel that they don’t care. Why can’t we just write about  it like they do in other lessons? Why do we always have to DO things?
I chop some onion and place it inside the fish, then roll it up and push the tail through the flesh so it sticks up like a fan. I place the fish gently into the Pyrex dish with some peppercorns and vinegar, then cover it with foil.  And into the oven to cook until soft.
‘Bring me your roe and we can fry it for lunch, if you like.’
The class disperses to carry out their task and after a series of ‘yuk’ and ‘this is disgusting’, the fish are entombed in foil and a vinegary, fishy smell wafts from the ovens. My desk has two plates of beige, slimy roe, and the bin is full of fish heads, guts and backbones.
They wash and clear up and gather their bags. The herrings are sadly sousing in the ovens and I fear that no-one will return to collect them at home time.
Next week we’ll use tinned salmon and make fish cakes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jenny Ridgwell, Practical lessons