A Second Helping (of school dinners, darlings, if you remember)

You know, I think that there are things that really stir the memories. I feel sorry for the few children (even in my day) who grew up without television, because one has an immediate link to people of the same age as oneself. Another childhood memory that seems to hit a chord is school dinners, and that even links the generations as we can compare and contrast.

My sister started school in the year I was born (in Weymouth), which was the year that rationing finally came to an end over here. Yes, it took 8 years from winning the war for the government to relinquish that bit of control. Maybe that’s why, after so many years of making do on very little, the meals at her school were so dreadful, or so she assures me. Apparently, it got a whole lot better when, 5 years later, she started at the convent school in Lowestoft and was pleasantly surprised by the better food. I, on the other hand, had been dismayed.

However, it was not the quality of the cuisine that upset me. It was communal eating. We ate in the same dining room as the older girls, but earlier. It was 2 large rooms knocked into 1 – I’m trying to remember how many tables, but I suppose 100-150 people could all dine together at tables of 8. The serving area ran along one side of one of the rooms and then there was a smaller room where the puddings were served and we also took our empty plates.

I was, as I’ve said before, an exceptionally shy child. I was also very small. I wore the smallest uniform in the shop, but it was still taken up and in and still hung on me. I had been dressed up and taken to school twice (my mother got the day wrong) and taken down into a basement classroom – there was no such thing as playschool in those days and, as my sister was still in Weymouth for that term (we have no idea why) I was all on my own. Then I was taken to this huge room, a plate of food was given to me, cutlery put in my hands (what, no laid table? No napkin?) and I was expected to eat. I didn’t. I didn’t cry, I just sat there.

A few days later, my mother found out that these kind nuns were taking me to a room in the convent itself and giving me milk and chocolate biscuits. Now, I had no problem with that at all, and managed to eat quite nicely, but she decreed that I should eat with everyone else. So I sat there again. After quite a long time, a kind older girl came to help me and I remember her persuading me to eat – “open wide – down the red lane!” and I did. After a few days, I must have got used to it enough to just get on with it. I’ve no idea who she was or what she thought when she turned up for lunch one day and I wasn’t there – was she disappointed or relieved?

Now that I’m reminded, I do remember the Spam, which I didn’t mind. The salad wasn’t exactly inspiring, but it was fine. I remember diced mixed vegetables, carrots, cabbage and peas. When my sister was little, apparently she asked our mother once if we could have “nice brown cabbage, like we have at school”. Later, with more refined taste buds, she described it as “good food spoiled”. I also remember gravy served from a jug. It was all right – made with gravy browning of course (we used sherry, meat juices and vegetable cooking water for our gravy), but at least it moved around on the plate.* Wink says that we had fish cakes – yes, of course we did. They were quite peppery and not very fishy. She says that there was a monthly Friday rota, with fishcakes, fish fingers, the nasty cheese and potato pie and the hard yet watery scrambled eggs. I never noticed the rota part of it. I’m sure we didn’t have macaroni cheese, which other people have mentioned; I don’t remember pasta ever being served and the only rice we had was in pudding and there were various milk puddings; sago, tapioca, semolina. Each bowlful had either a blob of jam or of dark brown sugar.

It was after my boycott of the school meals that chips were introduced to the menu. My timing was a bit off there. I think I used to eat hard-boiled eggs, mostly, and orange peel. My friend Lynn used to take a satsuma every day in season and her mother washed it so that I could eat the peel. I ate apples, core and all. I had a small appetite but I wasn’t wasteful.

I haven’t even got on to my children’s school meals, which were far worse than mine.

*Thinking of Tony Hancock – “I used to think my mother was a bad cook, but at least her gravy moved around on the plate. Yours just lies there and sets.” Hattie Jacques, with dignity – “That’s the goodness in it!” TH – “That’s the half a pound of flour you put in it.” From memory, don’t quote me. I think the episode was called ‘A Quiet Sunday Afternoon at Home’.

Sandy has been kind enough to give me an award. I will have to see if I can import it. I had another a while back, but I couldn’t so it was never handed on. I owe someone an apology for that, because it wasn’t that it was unappreciated.

15 comments on “A Second Helping (of school dinners, darlings, if you remember)

  1. ephelba

    Help me out here- did they serve you cabbage and they also served you peas, or did they serve you a horrible side dish of “cabbage and peas”. I’m a little afraid of the answer.
    I can’t believe they gave you a whole bowl of pudding, and desert every day. We got a cookie once a week. Usually it was a canned peach or an apple.
    When I worked in the school I ate the same meal the kiddos did. It gave me a perspective. I felt so sorry for them on nacho day, because the cheese sauce counted for a protein, meaning their lunch was a handful of corn chips with velveeta on top and a canned peach. You try going all day on that. Especially if you’d also had school breakfast, which was two graham crackers and a carton of milk.
    I also remember watching a documentary on food they serve in prisons, and at one point they made a comment like “Oh they wouldn’t serve that in prison- we have to sell that sort of thing to the schools. The prisons have much higher standards than the schools.” Of course, that’s America I’m talking about…
    (Sorry to be a comment hog:)

  2. Z

    I’m sure mixed cabbage and peas weren’t served, Ephelba. It’s possible that diced carrot and peas were mixed, as I seem to remember that you could buy that frozen – maybe you still can.

    Yes, pudding was a major part of the meal in fact, as it was quite nutritious in itself. We always had our main meal in the evening, but a lot of people didn’t and school dinner was the most important meal of the day to many of the poorer children. Their parents relied on it.

    You’re giving a different side of the story about American school meals, so far they have sounded rather tasty. And never apologise for a long comment – comments are what turn a blog into a conversation!

    I’m trying to remember if we had canned fruit ever at school. Wink, did we?

  3. martina

    Spam! The first meal we learned to make in 7th grade home economics was fried spam with eggs and scones. Fisher flour used to donate flour and scone mix to the schools. Because of this the home ec. meals often involved biscuits, pancakes or scones. I think the school kitchen also got flour from this same commpany.

  4. Wink

    Apart from the appalling food, the other thing I remember was the queues – that was enough to put you off eating. Sometimes, especially in the summer term, we just used to slope off to the tennis courts. I also remember sliding away and going to the school library to read – once I missed about 2 lessons and I suppose I had so little personality that no one missed me!

  5. ziggi

    I remember the ‘jam tart’. One large aluminium tray of grey cardboard pastry and the thinnest scraping of jam it was possible to spread upon it, served with lumpy custard. No-one suffered from obesity at our school!

  6. PI

    We used to fry spam and with reconstituted egg powder it was a feast. School dinners for me started in 1941 at Grammar school with boys so we all scoffed everything in sight. Every day on the way home we bought chips and ate them in the street. Appalling I know:)

  7. MaryP

    Were these day schools, serving hot meals to elementary-age children? Do they still do that?

    Where I went to school (central Ontario, Canada), hot meals weren’t available until high school (grade nine, age 13), and only if you paid for it. Most of us continued what we’d done all along, which was to bring our packed lunches. It is the same in my children’s schools today.

  8. Z

    School cookery lessons! That’s a whole new post, Martina. Blimey, this could run and run. Who says nostalgia ain’t what it used to be?

    Wink, the queues were awful. I remember a tall thin boy called Andrew going to the person at the head of the queue with a pleading look and asking “can I come in? As he was refused, he came further and further down the line with the same question. Emboldened by the others, I refused too.

    Ziggi, the jam tarts were yummy too. Served with custard, I think we even had a choice, of 2 different jams or lemon curd. I’m warming to those long ago school dinners, if only for the puds!

    Pat, you had chips? I never had any money for chips. Oh, and I was brought home by car, which you couldn’t have been. Just as well, perhaps, I ate little enough as it was, but at least it was all nutritious. I never had chippie chips in my life until i was 16 years old.

    Mary, yes they do, right from Reception year (age 4-5). But they are not free unless you have a low income. In primary schools it’s usual for parents to pay the dinner money weekly and so it is not noticeable (a possible stigma) to have free school meals. In high schools, the pupils are more likely to have cash or a token in lieu which means they are less likely to take up free meals, from embarrassment, which causes some concern. The whole thing of queueing also puts a lot of kids off; it did Ro.

  9. Dandelion

    I used to like the queueing. It delayed the inevitable. My sense of dread and doom used to escalate the nearer to the front of it I got.

    The people at the front of the queue used to pass intelligence down the line as to what delicacy we were to be treated to that day. Bad news travels fast.

  10. badgerdaddy

    I don’t remember one single thing about school dinners. Nothing.

    Oh, except one thing, and it’s quite an odd memory. My first couple of days at junior school I didn’t know anyone, and I was quite shy as a young ‘un too. So I took a couple of my more discreet teddies in my school bag, one of which I had made a bed for out of a margarine tub. I talked to them instead of all the other scary kids who seemed to know each other.

    Apart from that, there’s not a sausage in there. No pun intended. Honest Guv.

  11. Z

    Now we try so hard to pander to all tastes, while still serving a balanced meal. O tempora! O mores! as Cicero so succinctly put it.

    Badgerdaddy, that is so sweet. What a dear little boy you must have been.

  12. Suz

    This post was nominated for this weeks BBRU 188 hosted on my site.

    Really brought back memories.

    Noticed it is appearing as a backlink after your comments.

    Happy reading


  13. Z

    Thank you Susanne. I wonder who nominated it? It’s the second of two posts on the subject, which is the reason for the various references back.

    You’re an Islingtonian, I see. That’s where I’ll be this week.

  14. luckyzmom

    I’m catching up here. When I was in the fourth grade, the school didn’t have a lunchroom. We ate in our classrooms.
    I had a friend in high school who ate all but the stem of her apples.
    Fisher Scones where famous at the Fairs and such in the Northwest where I grew up. The Fisher Flour Mill in the Northwest closed recently. So we bought a case of Scone mix. We have a few boxes in our pantry.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.