So, how were they for you? I was at school before the days of choice and one was expected to clear one’s plate regardless – mind you, one did have a choice as to what went on it; that is, yes or no to each item. I have an abiding memory of a boy called Gerald standing at the end of the line with an empty plate, having refused each item as he went past. It’s a snapshot memory, a mental picture, and I don’t know what was done about it.
There was always soup, which was served out at the end after you’d got your main course so that you didn’t spill the bowlful while your plate was being filled. I never ate this but once – it was made up from a packet and had no nutritional value and I had a small enough appetite without filling it before the main course. The time I did eat it was on a day when you could offer to have bread, cheese and soup and the rest of your dinner money went to charity. Because these were Roman Catholic overseas missionaries and I wasn’t RC, I didn’t usually opt in to it, but on the occasion I did I found that I had a much nicer meal than usual.
The main courses were not very appealing on the whole. On a Friday, we either had fish or a vegetarian meal. The worst by far was cheese and potato pie, which tasted sour. I can’t identify what if anything else went into it, it seems to me that it was lumpily mashed potato beaten up with cheese with some grated cheese sprinkled on top, but that sounds quite edible so something else must have made it so nasty. We were given fish but it has mercifully been banished from my memory. The fish fingers were nice – you can’t go far wrong with fish fingers, although a boarder swore that she had once, at a weekend meal, lifted the breadcrumb layer to find a thin streak of blue mould underneath. It’s probably the reason for my good health and cast iron digestion now.
On a Friday we sometimes had scrambled egg. This – we assumed it was powdered egg made up – came in huge stainless steel pans and the top was hard curds of egg which became more watery as you got further down. It was served out with a slotted spoon and if you were unfortunate enough to be at the back of the queue you watched the serving lady fish around to scoop out a few curds among a sea of liquid.
We did get meat most days. One of the better options was the meat pie. This was minced meat between two layers of pastry and was quite good. The stew was a different matter. Gristly meat, thickened gravy and no vegetables. I was used to lovely casseroles with tender meat and lots of veg, and a carefully seasoned, unthick gravy at home, and this unpleasant gloop with no texture except the gristle and unexpected blobs of fat was hard to choke down. We had sausages – made by a local butcher whose daughters attended the school; I suppose they were all right although they were obviously cheap with as little meat as the law allowed. However, they wouldn’t have contained the mechanically recovered meat which commercially manufactured sausages contained later, so we were luckier than we knew.
There always were vegetables of course, but I don’t really remember them. I remember the mashed potato, which could have done with a bit more mashing, and the baked beans, but I expect the greens were overcooked, I don’t see how they couldn’t have been.
Things changed right around when it came to the puddings. They were universally delicious. Indeed, the least interesting was the jelly and ice cream, the only bought-in item, that we had once in a while. We had steamed puddings with jam, steamed chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce, rice pudding with a dollop of dark brown sugar, fruit crumbles and pies with custard, treacle tart – every one a winner. Since we never had puddings at home, I looked forward to them.
My parents paid for the meals with the school fees. One could only opt out by going home for lunch and I didn’t live close enough. It was before the days of packed lunches, but when I got to about 14, I rebelled. I was a very quiet rebel and no one noticed. I started to take in packed lunches and ate them quietly on my own, and was never caught. However, the idea started to catch on among the other girls after a while and lunchboxes started to put in an appearance. I don’t remember that it ever became official though.
The older girls helped with the washing up. Although, by then, I didn’t eat school dinners any more, I took my turn with the rest. There was a machine for plates and dishes, but we washed the cutlery. I have been extremely fastidious about washing up ever since – I can’t bear using water that looks the least bit discoloured and it has to be scalding hot. I suppose it was seeing the murky lukewarm sinkful and finding bits of stuff still stuck between the fork prongs which was, as often as not, cheerily wiped off with the cloth rather than being rewashed.
In fact, I did better with my school dinners than my daughter and elder son at their prep school. I may come back to that.