Middle England. Late 1970s. Beleagured by a myriad of food allergies and epic cookery failures in middle school Home Economics, the author finally finds redemption in a sponge. An extract from the new memoir A Young Lady's Miscellany available now on Amazon
My worst performance was in the ‘girls’ subjects’ of needlework and home economics. I found threading the sewing machine baffling and the noisy jabbing needle alarming. On one occasion, I almost sewed a button onto my thumb. I’d spend months on a garment and the only item I remember ever completing, a crimson nightshirt in a rough synthetic material, fell to pieces the first night I wore it.
Home economics should have been called cookery for that was all it was. Just walking into that classroom was difficult for me because I’d always had an uneasy relationship with food. Much of it gave me the worst kind of nauseous migraine headaches that didn’t stop until I vomited whatever had brought them on. My mother would try to induce this dramatic finale by giving me salt water in a plastic cup but it only made matters worse. The main things I felt safe about eating were toast with peanut butter or bread with the peculiar Sandwich Spread, diced vegetables in mayonnaise, or ‘sick in a jar’ as we referred to it.
A typical meal at home was steak and kidney pie with a filling flecked with carrots that oozed out from under a gravy-logged pastry top. The heady bouquet was more than I could bear yet I was under a curse to finish everything on my plate. I would fake cough into my hand and surreptitiously transfer the revolting morsels into the napkin on my lap, which I would later deposit into the dog’s bowl.
My parents would retire to the sitting room to watch the news, to which I would listen tensely through the louvre doors, forgetting the food in front of me. Some of the frequent topics haunted my childhood and even seeped into my dreams: nuclear missiles, the warzone in Northern Ireland which I knew wasn’t far away, the despot Idi Amin with his exaggerated frogging and rows of shiny medals and ‘The Basque separatist group, ETA’ interpreted by me as ‘vast separatist’, which confused me further. I understood that the ‘group’ was based in far off Spain but still, the stern expressions of the dark-haired ‘ETA people’ in their televised mugshots, always unsettled me. In those days, the bleak news was often rounded off with an uplifting story, usually involving a baby animal, such as the birth of a fuzzy new panda with a rhyming Chinese name, but it didn’t fool even a child. We knew we’d been born into a fractured world.
Meanwhile, sentry-like, my parents took it in turns to observe me through the slots in the louvre doors, ready with volleys of berating if I paused in eating. Mushy carrots would make my mouth spasm into an involuntary gape, like the skeleton in an urn burial that had recently transfixed me in a school history book. My father would tell me to ‘Cut it out!’ but I had no control over it and, more often than not, it was a foreshadowing that the food was going to make me enormously ill.
On the other hand, even food that tasted wonderful sometimes did that in the aftermath. Against my better judgement, I’d once wolfed a slice of delicious cherry pie. That night, due to the unusual angle of my face as I slept, I’d vomited it up the wall. The line of pink stayed there permanently, blending in loosely with the carnation print wallpaper. There was another stain on the edge of a circular rug in the hallway, a result of my scoffing a cocktail glass of butterscotch Angel Delight garnished with a glace cherry. It was fortunate the rug happened to be woven, unusually for a design with roses, in russet hues. Easter was always a difficult time, with the alluring smell of chocolate in the houses of other children. I’d learned my lesson after sneakily downing half a chocolate egg at a friend’s and crashing into a door from the dazzling lights of the migraine that had ensued. I was sent home after that, under suspicion of having been at their drinks cabinet.
Given the lack of variety in the meal repertoire at home, I’d get so hungry that I’d offer to clean the car for fifty pence in order to blow the lot on sweets at the corner shop. I knew what would turn my stomach so I avoided the spongy sweets in shrimp and banana shapes, along with the Bakelite bar of Caramac. The necklaces threaded with chalky, pastel-coloured sweets were fun to gnaw on but they made my neck sticky and, as the custom at home was to bathe but once a week, this could be un-comfortable. Sherbet fountains and white chocolate mice likewise elicited no adverse reaction.
As a small child, I remember being drawn to the idea of making food, perhaps as some kind of attempt to take control and censor the ingredients. All my endeavors, alas, were ill-fated. On one occasion, I amassed some pastry offcuts, which I rolled out and stamped into star shapes. There was soil under my nails from an earlier al fresco culinary venture making mud pies in the garden, which had made the pastry turn grey as I squeezed it into a ball. Despite their being on the grimy side, my ‘biscuits’ were baked and slipped onto a saucer before my father at the dinner table. As he read The Daily Mail, oblivious to their greyish hue, he consumed the lot, at which my mother had raised a wry eyebrow.
Once I started at the comprehensive, I’d brace myself for the fortnightly cookery practicals which always seemed to go wrong for me. I probably should have entered May’s pantry more frequently to learn the mystical ways of baking. I lumbered along, carrying my ingredients the two miles to school in the obligatory wicker basket that bumped against my knees, puckered and red because I could never get my socks to stay up. I was a good girl who would never vulgarly eat what I’d made as I walked home, like I’d seen others doing, with chocolate mousse and such like smeared all over their hands. No, I wanted to impress my mother with what I’d created, but all too frequently, I returned home with an empty basket after yet another gastronomic disaster.
Mrs Shackleton, the Scottish home economics teacher, was an older lady in an apple-dappled nylon housecoat that served to enhance the classroom’s fruity colour palette of lemon formica worktops and lime green lino flooring. She ran a tight ship, with the saucepans polished mirror-bright and utensils organized alphabetically. Pink-rimmed spectacles were balanced on her bony nose, their thick lenses magnifying her eyes to give her a look of per-petual enthusiasm, right from our first lesson: ‘We’ll start off with something easy, girls...jelly!’ Everyone else had brought in neat little round jelly moulds but all I could find at home was a foot long mould in the shape of a carp. With the grace of an inexperienced tightrope walker, I edged toward the fridge with my brimming carp, but suddenly and inexplicably found myself splayed on the lino, my school uniform coated in half-set jelly. I lay there a while, amid the tepid gelatinousness, in the thrall of a nauseous wave. ‘Disaster Girl!’ Mrs Shackleton had shrieked and the accolade had stuck for good reason.
The next assignment was mashed potatoes but I hadn’t thought to add water, and stood wondering why everyone else was at the mashing stage when I was still waiting for the potatoes to become soft in the saucepan. Mrs Shackleton’s nostrils soon sourced the singeing smell but by then there was nothing to be done. ‘Surely everyone knows what boiling is!’ Mrs Shackleton announced mainly to me, ‘Do I really have to say ‘boil the potatoes in water’, rather than just ‘boil the potatoes’?’
On Pancake Day, I accidentally brought in self-raising flour when it was ‘essential’, Mrs Shackleton reiterated, that one’s pancakes ‘turn out no thicker than a swatch of velvet, girls’. Mine were the thick-ness of corrugated cardboard and, since I had also forgotten to add sugar, of a similar flavour too.
Scotch Eggs were the next disaster. I’d had a promising start, hard boiling the eggs in water and seasoning the sausagemeat while I waited. ‘Now, girls, when your egg timer goes off, plunge your eggs into icy cold water to eschew a nasty green yolk,’ Mrs Shackleton warned from the front.
I was sharing a table with Ruth, who always had her hair neatly tied back on cooking days in a crocheted band she’d made herself. As her parents owned the village bakery, there was always fresh bread at her house which I’d never had before and found astounding. On my first visit, I devoured the best part of a loaf, whilst her mother looked on compassionately. Ruth was already poised to take over the family business within the next decade, and was quietly absorbed in culinary perfectionism, folding her microscopically chopped parsley into the pink, fluffy sausagemeat. When the egg timer went off and Ruth stood up to take her eggs off the heat and douse them in cold water, I did the same. Together we peeled our eggs and began wrapping the sausagemeat around them, a fiddly process. I gripped one of my eggs a little too forcefully and my stomach churned when an ooze of yellow yolk seeped out.
‘You didn’t boil them long enough,’ Ruth declared matter-of-factly, ‘You took them off when you heard my egg timer because you forgot yours at home.’
I did my best to tentatively pat the sausagemeat, which had now become distinctly gooier, into place around my deflated egg, overcome by queasiness.
Mrs Shackleton made another announcement from the front, ‘Once you’ve rolled your sausaged egg in the breadcrumbs, girls, ensure that the oil in your deep-fat fryer is scalding hot before immersing your eggs using the wire basket.’
When I saw the oil starting to bubble, I dropped in my Scotch Eggs. It was all going so well apart from the minor mishap earlier. I watched my bona fide Scotch Eggs rolling around in the boiling oil at the bottom of the saucepan but, oh dear, they were starting to bump into each other and the bread-crumbs were falling away in large flakes. I saw Ruth remove her eggs in one fell swoop with a deft movement of her wire basket. Ah, the wire basket! I’d just put mine in loose and they were plainly doomed, whereas Ruth’s hadn’t lost a breadcrumb and were, as Mrs Shackleton pertly observed, ‘uniformly golden and perfectly spherical’.
‘How do I get them out if I put them in loose?’ I asked Ruth, hoping she didn’t think me too much of an imbecile. She was too deeply absorbed in arranging her eggs on a rustic board with wafer thin gherkin slices to answer me straight away. She sliced one of the eggs in half and propped it up at a shop-window angle ready to receive top marks.
‘You could try a slotted spoon,’ she finally suggested with a discernible sigh.
I rushed to the utensil drawer labelled S and tried to think which implement there might be a slotted spoon. By the time I’d selected it and returned, my eggs had blackened on the outside. Still, I arranged them on a plate, sawed one in half and propped it up on a chunk of cucumber.
‘You appear to have lost your yolk,’ was Mrs Shackleton’s laconic judgement as she noted my mark in her book.
I took them home all the same, picked the burnt bits off and put them on a plate on the table where my mother likened them to the frightful rock cakes of her spinster aunt.
The final cookery class of the year involved Mrs Shackleton’s demo on how to make the perfect Victoria Sandwich, which we were to replicate at home and bring in for the school competition. She cut the finished cake up into tiny triangles and each of us got to sample a sliver of the perfect sponge.
I tried to fix in my mind the exact hue of pale yellow the butter and sugar turned when the cream-ing was complete, and sought to learn by heart Mrs Shackleton’s admonition that it was, ‘Tantamount to sacrilege to tip the sponge domed side down onto the cooling rack first as it would thereby become blemished with an ugly lattice, thrown into sharp relief once dusted with icing sugar.’
No one was in the house on the evening I made my Victoria Sandwich. I turned on the fluorescent light in the kitchen and found a cookbook in the drawer, something May had given to my mother. The paper had worn thin on the pages of favourite recipes including the Victoria Sandwich. A colony of silverfish had taken up residence in the forgotten cake tins under the oven. Only two tins matched but, getting out my school ruler, I found they were exactly the right measurement for the recipe so I tipped out the silverfish and gave the tins a rinse. I weighed the ingredients three times to make sure I had it right, and found just enough raspberry jam in the bottom of a jar for the filling. While the cake baked, I crouched on the kitchen floor and stared through the oven door window watching it swell up. Later, as the two halves sat on the cooling rack, I was astonished to see that they’d risen beautifully and were a perfect cakey brown.
I carried the assembled sponge to school the next morning in a Tupperware container inside my wicker basket, and dropped it off in the room set aside for the cake competition. Victoria Sandwiches of multi-farious shapes and sizes lined every surface. I found that overnight I’d developed a discerning eye as ‘the faults’ in many of the others jumped out at me: that one didn’t have the domed side facing up, this one had the dread marks of the cooling rack upon it, someone had even forgotten the baking powder and had basically made a jam-filled frisbee.
Ruth strolled in and set down the largest and most miraculous Victoria Sandwich I had ever laid eyes upon right in the middle of the room. It was on a blue china plate, perfectly domed and dusted. ‘That’s a nice little one,’ she said with a tinge of surprise when she noticed mine, ‘Don’t forget to write your name on a scrap of paper and stick it under the plate.’
At the end of the day, I went to collect my cake. It was one of twenty or so that had a little slice cut out of them and I was thrilled to realise it had got through the first test. ‘The Victoria Sandwich must have a pleasing appearance, girls,’ Mrs Shackleton had said, and the judges were only going to sample those cakes that met this criteria. I couldn’t see any rosette on the winning cake. It must have been taken away already and, as Ruth’s had gone, I concluded that it was the likely winner.
I carried my sponge back home and placed it in the middle of the dining room table. I had made it all by myself and it contained no ingredients that turned my stomach. I had followed the recipe correctly and hadn’t dropped or burnt anything. It was a perfect cake.
The meal that evening—broiled liver with a topping of overly sauteed onions—was made slightly less unbearable with the wonderful dessert to look forward to. My father even indulged me in a moment of rare praise, saying my cake was excellent and should have won. I was no longer Disaster Girl and my baking prowess prompted Ruth to invite me round to her house again for more fresh bread and to see some kittens.
In the library a fortnight later, I overheard a group of girls asking Mrs Shackleton whose cake had won the competition. I expected to hear Ruth’s name but instead was stunned to hear my own, followed by Mrs Shackleton’s expostulating that it had been ‘Most unexpected!’ when she had seen my name on the slip of paper under the plate.
Following this, I became consistently adequate in cookery classes, but with some excellent peaks such as a distinctive Fruit Fool. Mrs Shackleton was at last able to relax when I walked into the room. I became a high flyer in other subjects too and suddenly excellent in French following my first ever trip abroad to the Loire Valley, where my father had, quite inexplicably, splashed out on a foreign holiday. Miraculously, none of the French food made me ill. I had no idea a soup made from potatoes could taste so marvellous. The simple act of asking for bread and cakes, fruit and vegetables in the little French shops made my confidence in speaking another language blossom. There was even talk among the teachers of elevating me to the clever pupils’ sphere until, quite suddenly, I had to leave that school.
In a former life, Auriel Roe was a teacher of art, drama and literature in secondary school. Now she is a full time writer and artist. Her new memoir a troubled adolescence and young womanhood, A Young Lady's Miscellany is set mainly in Northern England: The guideless and guileless narrator attempts to navigate life using a Victorian guidebook for young ladies which proves less than effective in a modern context. 'A wonderful account, perhaps the best I've ever read, of a female coming into her own' Tony Connor, Fellow, Royal Society of Literature.
Auriel's literary fiction is often inspired by her experiences as a teacher. Her debut novel A Blindefellows Chronicle was #1 in the humour genre in Amazon US, UK and Canada. It has been translated into Spanish and Italian and is an audiobook.
Author website www.aurielroe.com