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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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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.

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