Before Home Economics was standard fare on the Northern Ireland curriculum, there was Domestic Science. Other than Physical Education, which I skillfully avoided with a note from my mother saying I “had cramps,” Domestic Science was my least favorite subject in school.
It involved the planning of meals, cooking, baking, and, for a brief period, knitting. There was even some sewing, during which I learned how to finish the edges of something, presumably a blanket, with blanket stitch. I vaguely recall stitching the six letters of my name in green thread on a red and white checkered apron and wondering why I hadn’t been christened, simply, “Eve.”
In the beginning, there were no boys in Domestic Science, nor were there any girls in Woodwork, Metalwork, or the rather exotic-sounding Technical Studies. Unbeknownst to me, however, there were some people who saw the fundamental unfairness of this situation. Apparently they had some clout too, because along came The Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order of 1976 which made unlawful the inequality of access for boys and girls to all areas of the curriculum. Landmark legislation, it enabled boys and girls in the same classroom, to partake of Craft, Design, and Technology (CDT), although it would be another 14 years before a National Curriculum would be implemented. For me, the “craft” component of both Domestic Science and CDT remained elusive. To be honest, two thirds of the latter course would have been beyond me unless the “craft” entailed extra-curricular knitting, which my mother would have done for me, bailing me out as she had done in Domestic Science when I had to knit purple slippers. Seriously.
In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, my country was investigating ways in which to make Domestic Science and Technical Studies curricula more gender-neutral while at the same time segregating its children. Catholics and Protestants were educated in separate schools in often bitterly divided communities, until finally, a small group of Belfast parents dared to change the course of history, to force the issue, to confront aloud what happens to the heart of a country and the identity of its children when they are educated in segregated schools.
Ordinary Catholics and Protestants, we already knew what happened. It was time for change, to demand an answer to questions such as those asked in 1957 by Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Lester Bowles Pearson:
“How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don’t know each other?”
There is no better place to learn about one another, to learn about humanity, than in the safety of a classroom. As I began my undergraduate degree in Education, in 1981, Lagan College became the first integrated secondary school in Northern Ireland to offer such a space for boys and girls, Catholics and Protestants. On the first day of school, under armed guard, Lagan College opened its doors to 28 children.
It is different today. According to the school’s website over 1,260 students are enrolled with a staff of 135. Together, a thousand families are committed to building a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
Now a 21st century school, Lagan College's curriculum includes Home Economics, the central focus of which is “the consideration of the home and family in relation to the development of the individual and society and is designed to enable students to acquire the knowledge and skills to improve the quality of life for themselves and others. During the three years, they will address the areas of Diet and Health, Family Life and Choice and Management of Resources, using a variety of teaching and learning techniques.” That sounds infinitely more important, relevant, and doable than the Domestic Science of my youth, which leads me back to where I started...
The one thing I retained from my spell in Domestic Science was the textbook, the Hamlyn All Colour Cook Book. A dust collector these days, it is of little practical use with its metric measurements and its courgettes instead of zucchinis, its turnip instead of rutabaga, but I cannot bear to part with it.
I remembered my mother and I poring over the pictures in the Hamlyn cookbook when it was brand new, ma delighted to find so many cakes and sweets she already knew how to make, without as much as a precise measurement, let alone a “method” like the one we had to write out in fountain pen in our Domestic Science notebooks.
When my brother and I were very young, my mother did not go out to work, and Friday was Baking Day. Like her mother before her, she did not measure, but she somehow timed everything so that by the end of the day, before our father came home from work, the square biscuit tins left over from Christmas and assorted Tupperware containers were lined with greaseproof paper and filled to their brims with caramel fingers, melting moments, fudge cakes, shortbread, and butterfly buns. For Sunday dessert, there was always a choice of apple or rhubarb tart, Pavlova, Trifle, a Victoria Sponge, or a Swiss Roll. Honestly, I am surprised we still have teeth. Most nights, before we went to bed, there was a cup of tea and a bun or a piece of fruit cake. So much for Oprah's doctor Bob Greene who insists that eating after 7PM is what makes us fat...
While she had actually copied down many of these recipes, which I stuck inside the baking bowl for future reference, ma never took much notice of them. She did, however, take one precaution while baking and that was to warn my brother and me not to be slamming the backdoor in case the fruitcake in the oven would collapse. I have resisted the urge to Google this; I want to believe it’s something only Irish mammies say.
I love fruitcake, not the kind that comes packaged in stores here at Christmas, but the kind that would collapse in the oven if we slammed the door. Homesick one day last year, I rang my mother to ask her for the recipe for her fruit cake. Pen at the ready, I waited for clear, step by step instructions. Verbatim, this is what she told me:
“Well now, you just put your ingredients in, boil them, and then let them cool. Add your egg and your flour, put in your margarine, sugar, and water or two cups of black tea, all your cherries, raisins, and sultanas. Be you careful when you bring it to the boil. Let it cool and then throw in two or three eggs. Stir it all up and put it into your loaf tin. That’s your boiled cake.”
Should I want to make a fruit cake instead of a boiled cake, she elaborated thus:
“Sure you know that for a fruit cake, you just cream your butter and sugar in the mixer until they are nice and fluffy. Put in your eggs and your flour and all your fruit. Stir it all up and throw it in the oven. It will take longer to cook than the boiled cake. Use a slower oven.”
I am none the wiser, and I think it would be fair to say that my Domestic Science teacher would have dismissed my mother’s fruitcake “method” as highly unsatisfactory without the obligatory list of ingredients and numbered directions that included the weighing of things.
Still, if this were a fruit cake throw-down with Bobby Flay on the Food TV Network, my mother would win hands-down. Every time.