Good Food Blog
Back to schoolPosted at 12:00PM, 01 September 2008 by Stuart Walton - Food and wine writer
Back to school! Were there ever three words more guaranteed to strike the deepest misery into the hearts of growing girls and boys? They screamed out from shop window displays to ruin what remained of August that the weather hadn't already ruined, and reminded you that even half-good things came to an end.
Going back to school meant returning to those unearthly meals they gave you in the middle of the day, and that didn't taste like any food you encountered anywhere else
As well as homework and chalk-dust and rainy autumn mornings trudging to the bus stop, though, going back to school meant returning to those unearthly meals they gave you in the middle of the day, and that didn't taste like any food you encountered anywhere else.
Much debate has been generated by Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school catering , but Jamie is too young to have been at primary school in the 1960s, when Turkey Twizzlers were nothing but a gleam in Bernard Matthews' eye. At my junior school in the north-west, we'd have given up our PE kits for the chance of a Turkey Twizzler.
There was no pasta then, other than the occasional decanted tin of Heinz spaghetti, which I could no longer eat as soon as another kid revealed, as he merrily filled his face with it, that his family called it 'worms', to distinguish it presumably from anything resembling foreign muck. There was certainly no salad, but we wouldn't have eaten it if there had been.
What we got most days was something resembling a roast dinner. That might sound all right, but the sliced meat was always of a uniform rectangular appearance, heated up, I imagine, in convection ovens, and served in a lake of chocolate-brown gravy that coated our throats so that no-one could hear us scream. Vegetables that had been boiled to hell and back completed the ensemble.
This was always followed either by a pastry raft topped with tinned fruit and squirty shaving-foam cream, or else a lump of sponge pudding in a lake of custard that was always colour-coded to the topping, so raspberry jam came with pale pink custard, lemon curd with yellow, and so on. There was no difference in the taste of these 'sauces', the predominant note being what I would now recognise as cornflour.
Apart from the odd kid who would have greedily devoured whatever was served up at the hatch, even mashed crayon in a colour-coded cornflour sauce, most of us couldn't finish these dinners. But here's the life-altering bit. The dining hall was patrolled by a formidable woman in a red headscarf, who had the angriest face in the world. You had to put up your hand and plead with her to let you leave what you couldn't finish. Sometimes she would refuse, and you had to struggle on to retching point.
Although I once played Oliver Twist in a school production, I can't remember anybody, least of all me, ever being so daft as to ask for more. Now if they'd offered us Turkey Twizzlers and oven chips, it would have been like feeding time at the zoo.