‘Class! Today we’re making a new dish – spaghetti bolognaise. I’ve seen it on the TV and the lady said to throw the spaghetti at the wall and if it’s cooked it will stick.’
A murmur of enthusiasm comes from the teenagers perched on stools around my table. They’ve been testing me as their new cookery teacher but they haven’t spotted that I’ve never cooked spaghetti before. There’s a lot else they don’t know me but I’m not sharing secrets.
‘You can’t buy dried spaghetti round here so I’ve bought some from a shop near me. You’ve probably eaten Heinz spaghetti in a tin, but this is different.’
Should I compare the choices in the east London shops by my school to the bountiful offerings from overspilling Turkish and Caribbean stalls near my Camden bedsit?
I tip out the long, golden strands from a cylinder of crinkly dark blue paper. The Italian label gives no cooking clues so the throw-it-at-the-wall technique will have to do.
“Not eating that!’ The mutter comes from the lumpen boy on one of the stools.
Bert is a name that I learnt in my first week. He told me he’d rather go fishing than come to school and never ever chose to be in my classes.
‘Listen Bert, just watch as I make the bolognaise. Just four ingredients – mince, lard, onions and tomato ketchup which we’re going to make into a sauce.’
Bert continues to grumble. ‘Me dad won’t eat that! He’ll give it to the dog!’
They gather round my gas cooker as I melt a lump of lard in a frying pan, brown the mince and onions, then blob in bright red tomato ketchup and enough water for the sauce. Lid on and simmer. Fancy ingredients like garlic, tomato purée and oregano are off the menu – I’m not risking more Yuks today.
The large saucepan of water is boiling on the gas ring.
‘Stand back and I’ll show you how the spaghetti cooks. Italians have been doing this for years. It’s easy!’
I push the two foot long stiff strands into the steaming water. Bits snap off and it takes ages to soften. It looked easy on TV.
‘Class – get ready to cook and I’ll call you when my spaghetti’s done.’
They clatter out equipment and measure ingredients. I hear the odd good humoured arm thump.
‘Come and watch!’
Just like the TV cook I fork out a long pasta strand and fling it at the wall, . It sticks into a satisfying S bend.
‘See it’s cooked. Strain the rest through a colander and keep it warm – let’s get on.’
The room fills with meaty, saucy smells and boiling pans of water steam up the windows.
Then it’s time for the Cooked Spaghetti test.
‘Miss, the water’s so hot – I can’t get it out.’
Bert sucks his hot fingers.
‘Use a fork, spoon, anything but your fingers. Boiling water scalds.’
Strands of pasta fly to hit the nearest vertical surface and soon my walls and stoves are coated in snakes of spaghetti while the stiff uncooked stuff falls behind cupboards and scatters over the floor. This may be fun but my spaghetti test is making my busy classroom looking like a modern artwork.
We’re ready to serve. Soft spaghetti is spiralled into a take home dish, topped with a mound of sauce and sprinkled with grated Cheddar cheese. It’s always Cheddar cheese! Parmesan is off the shopping list as it’s another exotic ingredient that would send the meal dogwards, and anyway, we can’t afford it.
They bring their dishes for a mark out of ten to reflect effort and more importantly, how much washing up is left in the sink. Then it’s covered with foil and put into baskets for collection at home time.
Except for the boys. Boys don’t bring baskets or cookery stuff to school. Boys rarely take their cooking home. If I want them to cook then I’ll need to shop and they’ll pay me back.
‘Can we eat it now? We’ll clear up, honest.’ Bert is coming round.
So while other teachers gossip, snack and smoke in the staffroom, Bert and his mates transform my cookery into an eatery. Tables are set with blue seersucker tablecloths, green Beryl Ware plates, forks and spoons, water jugs and glasses. This is a proper sit down meal.
‘Let me show you how the Italians eat spaghetti. Don’t cut it – Italians think that’s rude.’
I twirl my fork round the great long strands and slurp it into my mouth.
‘‘This foreign food is alright miss. I might cook it tonight.’
Bert and friends clear away and charge out the room as the bell goes for my next lesson.
The queue is jostling outside waiting to make lemon meringue pie and jam tarts.