Stories of 1970s food lessons in a London school
In the 1970s we never cook chicken in school lessons. It is just too expensive and is only eaten 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 drifts into my room with a plastic carrier bag containing a trussed chicken, some muddy potatoes and a block of dripping, wrapped in newspaper.
Christopher doesn’t do school.
He doesn’t do his hair or take his grubby anorak off.
And sometimes he doesn’t do his flies up.
Christopher never does my homework or any other teacher’s for that matter.
‘Christopher, we can’t afford to cook chicken. It’s too dear. Where did you get it from?’
I want to say ‘… nicked it from’ but that is a bit near the knuckle.
It’s 1972 and I’ve never ever cooked a chicken in my life so I can’t help him.
‘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. 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.
As the rest of us mash potatoes and fry beef mince in lard, the room fills with the rare, delicious smells of roasting chicken.
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 crunchy, 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 expensive.’
I scowl as Christopher brings over the roasting tin and holds out his sizzling feast.
‘Can you mark this miss, and can I eat it now?’
No sharing, no offer of the smallest taste. Christopher doesn’t even lay the table. He just carves off hot chicken chucks onto my green Beryl Ware plate and surrounds it with roasties. Then gobbles it down, wraps the remains in my foil and leaves.
‘Tada miss, thanks.’
That night I go out to Villa Bianca in Hampstead with Mark. You remember he dumped me for Sandy that long haired American woman we met on a Greek island? Who came over when I was away at half term and took over my double bed which happened to have him in it?
I order their latest dish on the menu – chicken Kiev. Mark is paying and he owes me! It oozes garlic butter as you cut through the crispy breadcrumbed shell. I reckon that could be popular with the public in the future.
So what was happening to chicken production, and what has happened to chicken production today?
The booklet, Chicken in the Kitchen, National Poultry Show Publication was produced just after the war. In the introduction, by the National Farmers’ Union, its President gives a clue about why chicken was so expensive in the 1970s.
‘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.’
‘Poultry may be a luxury to many of us, but one day we hope to make it at least an egg a day and some 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 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 everyday 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 and it is a common food in cooking and ready meals.