My first teaching job is in a large north London comprehensive school, under the control of ILEA – the Inner London Education Authority. The job interview takes place in the impressive headquarters at County Hall beside the river Thames, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Endless, gloomy corridors lead to the waiting room but quick questions give an instant result.
‘Do you want a teaching job in London?’ ask the people behind the desk.
‘Can you start in September?’
‘We’ll find a school and send you the appointment letter.’
No ‘come back next week for your second, or third interview’, and no ‘will you teach a sample lesson for us?’
Back down dimly lit corridors filled with more interviewees, out into the summer sunshine beside the sparkling river, and ready to start my new career. No-one asks if I can keep classroom discipline or if I know how to cook. And I’m not sure of the answers.
Families in the north London catchment area of my new school come from many parts of the world, especially Trinidad, Jamaica and Cyprus and I wish I knew more about their culture and recipes. Students tell me of favourite home dishes like rice and beans, jerk pork, curried goat and cassava dumplings, halloumi cheese, pitta bread and olives and I long to try these out in the classroom. But it’s not allowed. I have to cook from Good Housekeeping’s Cooking is Fun with its endless pastry, cakes and biscuits. One day I’ll write a recipe book for schools with healthy multicultural recipes!
The bread lesson is one of my first tests of culinary skill but I can’t tell other teachers in the department that I’m a virgin at breadmaking. They already find my miniskirts and noisy classes bothersome.
My students surge into the local baker’s shop before school, hungry for bagels, cheese rolls and doughnuts and the nourishing aroma of bread baking surely means an expert is at the oven. Inside the baker is swaddled in white overalls, his floury apron tied with tapes round a large waist .
‘Can you help me? I need tips on how to make bread with my class. And have you got any fresh yeast for me to buy?’
He unwraps the soft paper round a large block of beige yeast from the fridge and cuts off a chunk. It’s like a treasured pet.
‘Crumble a piece of this into the bowl of flour and salt and mix to a dough with warm water. Keep all the windows closed. You need a warm room for the bread to rise. Tell me how you get on .’
Fresh yeast is moist and gooey and smells like a damp basement. I break off bits and line them up on a tray. ILEA schools provide ingredients for students and everything must be the same in size and shape to avoid squabbles.
‘You chose the boys first, last time. The girls should be first for this lesson.’
‘His is bigger than mine, Ma’am, it’s not fair.’
Female teachers in ILEA schools are addressed as Ma’am and 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 – there is the usual 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 salty flour, and add warm, sugary water.
‘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.’
‘Can you get drunk on it Ma’am?’
‘No – the alcohol evaporates as it cooks.’
‘Now class, work this dough with your hands. The more you squeeze the better it will be. Tip onto a floury table and knead it.’
The room warms as they punch and stretch the mixtures.
‘Ma’am, help it’s slimy.’
Tex as always has taken more than his share of flour and guessed at the amount of water so his sloppy mixture oozes over the table. I shake on extra flour as a rescue remedy, so Tex gets more dough than he deserves – something his classmates resent but Tex is rather big for an argument.
‘Divide the dough in six and roll into balls.’
I forget to say ‘divide equally’ so their rolls run from ping pong to tennis ball size but it’s too late.
‘Onto the baking trays and cover with a wet tea towel. Then into the drying cabinet to let the bread rise.’
School cookery rooms are equipped with gas-fired drying cabinets to hang my washed teatowels and dishcloths each night to dry. One weekend I remembered I’d left the gas cabinet on but the school was closed. I worried till Monday morning when my teatowels were completely dry but burnt to a brown crisp. Lucky the school didn’t join them.
Instructions in Cooking is Fun say when the rolls double in size, they are ready to bake. Someone has scratched out the word Fun and written Horrible on a book cover. By the end of this lesson I might agree.
Under the teatowels, nothing has changed, except some rolls are glued to the cotton fabric and the dough must be scraped off before baking.
‘Put your rolls in the oven and sit round my table. We need to get done before the end of school.’
In this stonking hot room inside a London school surrounded by roads, roaring with traffic and surrounded by high concrete buildings, I bring out my bundles of wheat, barley and oats picked from the quiet summer fields in Northamptonshire, far away up the M1.
‘Class, where does flour come from that we use for our bread?’
They gaze silently. We can smell the dough cooking. I hold up stems of wheat.
‘See the grains at the top?’
I squeeze them out and pass round a plate with a handful of seed.
‘They’re crushed to make flour.’
More silence. I pull out another wispy stem.
‘Have any of you ever seen barley? It’s used in beer and whisky making.’
There is a mild rustle of interest.
Barley has golden, seedy spikes that make good darts. Throw at your clothes and they’ll stick and itch, but I’m not telling them that.
‘Do you know what this last one is called?’
The stem is tall with dangly seeds hanging on tiny threads. No response.
‘Oats. You know about oats?’
They do. Getting your oats, having your oats ….Titter.
‘Make into porridge which you have for breakfast.’
Breakfast? What’s that?
Enough! The rolls must be ready. We take out solid, crisp lumps from the oven and put them on wire racks to cool.
‘Tap the bottom and if it’s hard, they are done.’
‘This bread’s very tough Ma’am.’
Dan bangs a roll on the worksurface. He likes to take his cooking home and this time it’s awful. The whole class has horrid, hard, awful baked lumps of dough. And it’s my fault.
They pack their duffle bags with hard bread balls, and shuffle out of the room. There’s a shout from boys scuffling in the corridor as a large lump of dough arches through the air.
On my way home, I pop into the bakers.
‘How did it go?’
Sadly, I show him my bag of lumps which I’ll throw in a litter bin when I’m far away from school.
‘Jenny, you didn’t prove them properly.’
‘The drying cabinet was hot and I had to get things cooked before the lesson end.’
‘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 and it just gets hard.’
At the bus stop, I toss my rolls into the bin. The bag sounds like it’s full of cannon balls.
In 1987 the cookbook Food Around the World, which I co-authored, was published by Oxford University Press. It included over 100 authentic recipes from the many different foods and cultures around the world, including some from the Caribbean.