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.
A steak and kidney pie squatted ominously in the middle of the table, its filling, flecked with diced carrots, seeped out from under a gravy-logged pastry top. I was under a curse to finish everything on my plate. Surreptitiously, I transfered the terrible morsels into the napkin on my lap from which they would later be deposited into the dog's bowl. My parents had long since retired to the lounge to watch the Nine O'Clock News and were taking turns, sentry-like, to observe me through the slots in the louvre doors, ready with vollies of berating if I put down my fork. The carrots in the filling were making my mouth spasm into an involuntary gape, like the skeleton in an urn burial that had recently transfixed me on a school trip to a museum. They told me to stop it but I had no control over it and, more often than not, it was a foreshadowing that the food in front of me 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 cherry pie. That night, I vomited it up the wall next to my bed. The line of pink stayed there for many years, blending in loosely with the carnation print wallpaper. There was another stain on the edge of a circular rug in the hallway. That one was a testament to my not quite making it to the toilet after scoffing a cocktail glass of Butterscotch Angel Delight garnished with a glace cherry. It was fortunate the rug happened to be woven, unusually, with roses in russet hues. Easter was always a difficult time with the alluring smell of chocolate in the houses of other children. I learned my lesson after sneakily downing half a chocolate egg and crashing into a door due to the dazzling lights of a migraine headache. I had been sent home after that under the suspicion that I'd been at the drinks cabinet. Given the lack of variety in the meal repertoire, I'd get so hungry that I'd offer to clean the car for fifty pence then blow the lot on penny sweets at the corner shop. I knew what would turn my stomach so I avoided the pink shrimp and pungent bananas that had a texture like polystyrene. Thankfully, sherbet fountains and white chocolate mice elicited no adverse spewing reaction. I was drawn to the idea of making food, of somehow taking control and censoring 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 'al fresco' culinary venture making mud pies in the garden earlier in the day, causing the pastry to 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 where, as he read The Daily Mail, he obliviously consumed the lot at which my mother raised a wry eyebrow. When I started secondary school, I'd brace myself for the fortnightly cookery practicals which always seemed to go awry for me. I carried my ingredients the two miles to school in the obligatory wicker basket that bumped against my knees which were puckered and red because I could never get my socks to stay up. I was a good girl, I 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 I frequently returned home with an empty basket after yet another gastronomic disaster. The Scottish Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Shackleton, was an older lady in an apple dappled nylon house coat that served to enhance the classroom's fruity colour palette of lemon formica work surfaces and lime green lino floor tiles. She ran a tight ship, with the saucepans polished mirror-bright and utensils organized alphabetically by function in the drawers. Pointy pink-rimmed glasses were balanced on her bony nose, their thick lenses magnifying her eyes to give her a look of perpetual enthusiasm. "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 a teetering 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 had announced mainly to me, "Do I really have to say 'boil the potatoes in water', rather than just 'boil the potatoes'?" I walked home empty-handed again, taunted by popular girls behind me... 'Disaster Girl strikes again! Destroying all food in her path!' They were right. Like King Midas, any food I touched was turned into something inedible, only it wasn't pretty like gold. On Pancake Day, I accidentally brought in self-raising flour when it was "essential", Mrs. Shackleton had reiterated, that one's pancakes "turn out no thicker than a swatch of velvet, girls". Mine were the thickness 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, hardboiling 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 Rachel Robbins, who always had her hair neatly tied back on cooking days in a crocheted band she'd made herself. Her parents owned the bakery in the village. I'd been to her house once, where I had experienced the wonder of freshly-baked bread for the first time. I devoured the best part of a loaf, whilst her mother looked on compassionately. Rachel 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 Rachel 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," Rachel 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 bonafide 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 breadcrumbs were falling away in large flakes. I saw Rachel 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 Rachel'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 Rachel, hoping she didn't think me too much of an imbecile. She was 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 blackest bits off and put them on a plate on the table where my mother likened them to the frightful rock cakes of a spinster great 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 creaming 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 tray 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 flourescent light in the kitchen and found my grandmother's cookbook in the drawer. 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. I weighed the ingredients three times to make sure I had it right, and found just enough raspberry jam in the bottom of a dust-covered jar for the filling. While the cake baked, I crouched on the kitchen floor staring through the window of the oven and watched it swell up. Later, as the two halves sat on the cooling tray, 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 multifarious shapes and sizes lined every horizontal 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. Rachel 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 realize 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 Rachel’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. There were occasional comments about what a pretty cake it was and did I really bake that on my own? My father even said it was excellent and should have won. I was no longer disaster girl and my baking prowess prompted Rachel 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 Victoria Sandwich Competition. I expected to hear Rachel's name but instead heard my own, followed by Mrs. Shackleton's expostulating that it had been "Most unexpected!" when she saw my name on the slip of paper under the plate.
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 novels are 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. Both novels are currently undergoing translation and being made into audio books.