Stories from my 1970s food lessons in an east London school
Why, oh why do I have to teach Invalid cooking? Is it a spill over from Victorian days when women had the vapours and collapsed on the chaise longue to be attended by servants and nurses? If so, Invalid cookery ranks even lower than Awful Offal in educational pointlessness. We’re supposed to make our lessons real and relevant to teenage needs, but I’m teaching the skills of Mrs Beeton. And she died at 28 years old, so clearly wasn’t a great success at eating invalid food.
This is an exam task for my students:
‘Plan a meal for an invalid. Lay the tray with a starched tray cloth and serve the meal.’
So not only must we make a meal that will slip down the sick person’s throat but we must starch and iron a traycloth, stick a flower in a vase and arrange an invalid tray with food.
As a working woman of the 1970’s, I have little time for sick leave, and anyway, I’d be left on my own in my bedsit with not even a cup of tea. No invalid tray of food for me. Really serious invalids are hospitalised and attached to drips, providing rehydration and nourishment. And hospital food is notoriously disgusting.
‘The main aim of invalid food is to build up wasted tissue and give a supply of protective food’.
Invalids, it seems, start at the very sick stage with a liquid diet of beef tea and barley water. As a young child, when I was ill, my mother made me banana custard before she cycled off to work as a teacher. My grandmother would pop in and check if I was still alive, but I was otherwise left alone and we had no TV or phone for comfort. If I was really ill, the banana custard had a bright red glacé cherry on top and I might get a bottle of Lucozade wrapped in crinkly orange cellophane.
If my mother did that today she’d be charged with child neglect and struck off from teaching.
Onto today’s lesson. What shall we cook? Cookery for Schools has a list of desperate invalid dishes.
Egg nog, beef tea, lemonade, junket, egg jelly, savoury custard, baked fish, cheese pudding, apple snow and fruit fools.
For some reason the examiners think white food is best for the sickly. They gather round my table, unaware of my despair.
‘OK class – we have to plan a meal of soft food for an invalid. Something they don’t have to chew. I’m going to demonstrate steamed fish, white sauce and cauliflower.’
‘Don’t invalids have teeth miss?’ Jessica is always concerned about people, and will make a good nurse or social worker, so this lesson may have some purpose after all.
‘Me nan never puts her teeth in when she eats. Only when she goes out for Bingo and then she takes her rollers out and puts her teeth in.’
Bert is clowning again, trying to raise our spirits. I imagine his nan, reminding herself before she goes out.
‘Teeth in, rollers out, fetch the Bingo money.’
‘Look! Invalids need nourishing food that is easy to eat like steamed cod in white sauce with well cooked, soft cauliflower.’
I show them a picture from the Good Housekeeping recipe book
‘But that looks like sick miss – who wants to be served sick food when you’re sick?’ Jessica is alarmed.
‘Look – we’ve got to do it – it’s in the exam. But first I’m going to show you how to make the junket.’
I’ve never heard, eaten or seen junket. This is going back a hundred years.
‘Watch while I demonstrate.’
They like sitting on stools and watching me cook. It’s a time for jibing, poking and jollity and a chance to tease and test my patience.
‘Warm the milk to body temperature – dip your finger in the saucepan and when it feels warm, it is ready. Now add the rennet. That’s from the enzyme, rennin that comes from a calf’s stomach. It clots the milk and makes it set.’
Jessica is aghast. Why would anyone put the contents of a calf’s stomach into milk? Her mad cooking teacher has landed from Planet Pointless again, demanding that they use suffering animals to make inedible food that will be thrown into nearby gardens when they geo home after this crazy lesson. I spoon the junket into a cut glass sundae dish and present it on the pastel blue Berylware saucer with a frilly d’oiley. Always a bloody d’oiley!
Resentment is brewing.
‘ Miss, we ain’t making that – when do we cook cakes and stuff?’ Alan folds his arms defiantly.
‘ Please class – it is in the exam – you have to know about it!’ I beg with increasing despair.
‘And why must sick people eat white food miss? I had mashed baked beans and Angel Delight when I had me tonsils out. And Lucozade.’
Bert is right. Perhaps the Victorians thought coloured food was too much of a shock if you were sick. Would the sight of bright red tomatoes raise blood pressure? Did green cabbage make them feel nauseous? The smell of it boiling for our school dinners at nine in the morning certainly makes me feel sick. I need to get this over. I tip the cauliflower florets into boiling water, put an enamel plate with a tiny piece of cod on top, and cover with a lid to cook. Bert helps me make an all in one white sauce and the room smells of boiled fish and overcooked cauliflower. Just like the school kitchens at nine in the morning.
I read them the Rules for laying a serving tray for invalids, using the gospel of Cookery for Schools. I read as Bert cooks.
‘When the doctor orders the invalid to have a light diet, the meals must be served punctually, as they are the main interest of the day. If the invalid does not want to eat at the appointed time, remove the meal and re-serve it later.’
Now that could make you ill, eating food that has been kept warm and then re-served. Imagine as your food is shuffled backwards and forwards all day and being told
‘Eat it! This is your main interest of the day!’
The invalid is promptly sick into a bucket, and their carer offers encouragement.
‘It’s OK. I’ll come back and serve you with it again later.’
The white meal is ready and I arrange the cod and cauliflower on a blue Beryl Ware plate. The book bleats on with advice on how to lay the invalid tray. Some of my students don’t have a dining table but they know about trays as they use them for their TV dinners. My invalid task must finally prove to them that I have landed from Doctor Who’s Time Machine. From an age long ago when we all lived on turnips.
‘Make sure the patient has all the accompaniments salt, pepper, butter and add flowers in tiny posies in small low vases which cannot be knocked over, or single blooms such as roses which can be tucked into the table napkin.’
Oh great. The school gardener will love his flower borders to be raided for the posies to plonk on the bloody tray. Perhaps they can snap off some rose stems from neighbouring gardens as they walk to school.
The CSE exam has one more horror story for them to practice. We have to starch a traycloth using powdered starch, blended with cold water and then boiling water. I can’t bear the screams of shock as they discover, once again we are practising homecrafts from a museum age.
‘First starch your traycloth. You dip it into this bucket of starch, wring it out, hang it in the dryer and then iron it while it’s damp.’
‘What! We’ve got a Formica table – why can’t they eat off a plastic tray!’
‘What’s a traycloth?’
Alan is fed up. He loves cooking but this phaffing to pass this awful exam just takes the biscuit. Please let this lesson end! I haven’t got a traycloth so I starch one of my tattered teatowels instead. The iron is plugged into a black overhead cables which dangle at head height from the cookery room ceiling. The boys frequently swing these clonking wires in the direction of their latest enemy. I read on.
‘We need a traycloth and napkin, matching china and cutlery, cruets, butter dishes and a small posy, and use a tray of suitable size and arrange all serving dishes so that they are ready for use. Tea pot and milk jug on right hand side, cruet etc on left hand side.’
So that’s a tray the size of a small table. And we’ve got flowers and food as well. Gawd almightly!I place the steamed cod and cauliflower, junket and a glass of water carefully on the tray and IT’S DONE. We’ve DONE invalid cooking. But there’s still two questions for their homework from the wonderful Cookery for Schools.
- State six points that should be kept in mind in the choice, preparation and serving of foods for invalids. Give reasons.
- What differences in diet would you suggest for a) a bed-ridden elderly person, b) a convalescent from pneumonia?
I can imagine some of the answers. Would anyone would like my cod and cauliflower? Alan sums up the feelings for the rest of the class.
‘Na thanks miss, no-one is sick in my family at the moment.’
I 1979 I became Chief Examiner for the London Exam Board for Home Economics. Invalid cookery was struck off the stuff we had to teach and examine along with starching and ironing a tray cloth.