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.