Gardening Magazine

School Dinners – a Blast from the Past

By Patientgardener @patientgardener


In search of inspiration for this ridiculous blogging daily challenge I have inflicted on myself  I came across some prompts and one of them was to write about your school lunches.  Strange I know but apparently it leads you to tap into your childhood, explore emotions etc and is meant to be a real cure for writer’s block so here goes…..

My school lunches occurred mainly in the 1970s and I can just about remember the free milk before Mrs Thatcher removed it.  I remember being a milk monitor and we had to hand out the little milk bottles and give our classmates blue and white stripy straws to push through the metal caps.  Then we had to collect up the metal caps and wash them and bag them up as I seem to remember that they went off for some form of early recycling.  As I write this I can recall the horrid smell of stale milk that hung around you all day when you were milk monitor.  Even now I am super sensitive to the smell of milk on the turn.

As for the lunches well school lunches are the reason why I don’t, well can’t, eat a number of things including mashed potato, scrambled eggs, baked beans, pilchards, spam fritters and tinned fruit.  We used to have sittings for dinner, for some reason it was called dinner, which always confused me as we also had dinner in the evening.  There were two sittings and one class from each year attended each sitting.  So in junior school there were 4 years (I think) with two pupils from each year on a table for 8.  The two children from the oldest year served the other children.  I remember the food used to be served up in what seemed to be vast metal containers – big bowls and trays.

Spam fritters - yuk!

Spam fritters – yuk!

So why don’t I like those foodstuffs above.  Well the mashed potato was full of bits and a strange shade of grey, the scrambled egg always seemed to be swimming in liquid, and as for the pilchards well…  I distinctly remember when I was in the top year my friend Jane and I were in charge of a table.  One day we had a large tray of pilchards to dish up but that day we had been taught some basic biology looking at fish reproductive systems.  So my friend Jane, who went on to be a doctor, decided we needed to find out whether each fish was male or female before we served it. Our poor table mates had to endure dissected fish that day and to be honest I haven’t eaten pilchards in tomato sauce since.

The puddings were always a little bit more enjoyable and maybe this explains why I still have a preference for pudding.  We had a wonderful pudding called chocolate crunch which didn’t appear very often and would always cause rumours to go around the playground building our anticipation. It was so popular that the school printed copies of the recipe.  Then there was the pink custard always a delight and often distracting from the dry sponge that accompanied it.  Pink blancmange, or shaving foam as we called, it was also popular – no doubt in the 1970s full of early colouring chemicals. But the one that really divided the vote was what we called ‘blood, skin and bones’ – don’t you love children’s humor.  This pudding was essentially a layer of pastry (bone), covered in jam (blood), and topped with a layer of cold custard (skin).  I hate cold custard so I would have to scrap that bit off.

pink custard

I remember we had Christmas dinner which always seemed a real treat as it was a proper turkey dinner and then steamed Christmas pudding.  We had to sing ‘ Bring us some figgy pudding‘ to the cooks (cooks not chefs then) before we were allowed the pudding.  I remember quite clearly staff holding up large sheets of paper with the words.

But there is always one story from your school days that stands out and for me it was when the school hall caught fire just as the first sitting were going in for dinner.  The exterior was being redecorated and the painters had set fire to the roof timbers with paint strippers.  The roof quickly caught and the whole school was evacuated to the playground.  For us, of course, it was hugely exciting but I can imagine now that the staff found it quite challenging.  They had to control a school of generally excitable children and find a way to feed us that day when the hall where we ate was on fire and I am sure the kitchens adjourning it were affected.  Luckily it was a sunny day so we were all taken to the playing field and food appeared which we ate sitting on the ground.  I have no idea what it was and I suspect we weren’t that bothered as the fire engines putting out the fire were far more interesting.  Due to the amount of water used to put out the fire the wood block floor was ruined and so we had what seemed like weeks of having to have our cooked dinners in various classrooms.  Looking back it must have been a nightmare for the staff and I can only admire their resilience but of course at the time we were less than helpful, complaining that our class room was being used for lunches, and generally moaning about anything we could.

Going to senior school dinners did not improve despite it being a private school.  I recall a lot of mince, a horrid curry which stank of curry powder and seemed to have a yellow glow about it (probably why I’m not that keen on curry) and something disgusting called chicken supreme which just looked bad.  The blancmange and tinned fruit continued.  Again we had tables with pupils from each year on and often a teacher, they were larger tables and the worst table to get was the headteacher’s as she made you eat everything or you were in detention – nightmare. I also remember pea catapulting competitions using the plastic flip tops to the water jugs. But I also remember dreading being on clean up duty as we had to scrap the plates into the pig swill buckets and wash the tables down with washing up cloths which stank.  I feel quite ill at the memory.

There were no packed lunches, the whole idea was alien to us.  Some children at junior and primary school went home for their dinners and you would think we envied them but children being children we always thought they must have something wrong with them to warrant special treatment.

Whilst I might have retained some aversions to certain foods it certainly didn’t do me any harm and there was rarely any fried food, well apart from the greasy spam fritters, so I presume it was relatively healthy for the time. There was also no real option to be fussy, you just went hungry.  It is interesting though the impact they had on my food preferences now.  My mother has never come to terms with me hating mashed potato especially as she makes very good, so I am told by everyone, mashed potato but then again she hates brassicas which goes back to her being a war baby and having to eat plates of boiled cabbage which smelt terrible; a memory that is still very keen for her.

And now I have written this I feel an overwhelming need for something large and chocolatey the remove the horrid smell and taste memories that have returned.

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