School dinners, why, how ?

Can you imagine “sewing up” your children for the winter ?

That was a practice that was commonplace in pre-1900 Britain when parents would clad their children in flannel and sew the clothing around them for the duration of the winter to keep them warm, a lack of half decent food being a particular problem among the poor.

In 1892 during a survey of schools in Bradford it was noted that it was commonplace for children to faint from hunger at their desks in the poorer districts of the city and head teachers would often provide bread and jam to revive them paid for from the teachers own pockets as they were not allowed to spend public funds on food for the pupils.

In 1906 the national government had passed The Provision of School Meals Act, for an extra halfpenny on the town rates Bradford Council were able to provide a porridge breakfast with bread and dripping accompaniment and a two course lunch usually of pie and potatoes and a bread pudding – surveys from the time still showed that when children returned from school holidays they had lost weight and were generally ravenous, school dinners were usually the only meals they got.

Pardon ?
Bread and dripping ?
What is dripping ?
Fat, its the residue of what is left in the roasting pan when you cook meat of any description, cook a joint of beef, serve the beef, allow the gunge in the bottom of the roasting tray to solidify and then wipe your slice of bread in it and eat – disgusting isn’t it – and yet there are some folk who still to this day consider dripping to be a treat, those poor, deluded fools.

Sixty years after the passing of The Provision of School Meals Act and I sit at a little table on a little chair in the hall at my primary school in Burley and I stare at the grey lumpy stuff on my plate and wonder why school dinners are so necessary to my well being that a teacher or dinner lady has to walk around the hall and crack anyone who does not appear to be enjoying themselves over the back of the head in order to extol them to “Eat it all up and wipe that plate clean”.

My mother was not the greatest cook, when she threw the left overs onto the lawn for the birds to eat, even the birds whistled back to her “Its ok, we’re not that hungry today thanks anyway”, but at least my mother’s cooking looked like food and was partly edible when starving, not many of the school dinners that I ate in my school lifetime matched either of those criteria.

Our primary school didn’t even cook the food, it was cooked by goblins and evil witches at “the big school” up the road and brought to our little primary school in huge sealed churns so even our dinner ladies didn’t know what they were going to serve up to us kiddies until they’d taken the top off the several churns – and even then they weren’t always sure.

“This is the mashed potato” the head of our dinner ladies would state with confidence after opening the first of the churns

“Its mashed potato” the word would spread around the school hall where we all sat eight to a table, waiting

“Well theres a surprise, its always bloody mashed potato” one of the wags in our class would whisper under his breath.

“This one is yellow stuff” another dinner lady would call from a crouched position over another churn

“Thats custard” we’d all whisper

“Is it custard ?” the chief dinner lady would call

“Not sure Mrs Higgins, shall I try it ?” the first dinner lady would reply

“No, we’ll just assume its custard” and so we’d get a sponge pudding with what was assumed to be custard poured over the top, occasionally it was mustard sauce.

I have never seen or tasted mashed potato’s quite like school dinners mashed potato’s for the dinner ladies who made the school dinners mashed potato’s had developed a skilled way of making potato semi-transparent and including into it lumps of almost completely transparent substance that had no place at all in the natural product, where did those transparent lumps come from, has anyone ever cut open a potato and found a transparent lump inside ?

Plenty of salt and mash in some of the stuff that you had been told was gravy was the only way to polish off the mashed potato and avoid a crack around the back of the head from a patrolling dinner lady.

To accompany the mysterious grey mashed potato there was usually the treat of spam fritters and like most other substances that were served up at school dinners you will never find spam fritters on the menu at any restaurant or cafe who wish to preserve their Public Health Certificate, spam fritters were a classic example of food created to use up crap that otherwise would have gone in the bin, when you cut through the crisp fried batter layer of a spam fritter you were usually greeted with a circle of unyielding pink meat-like substance sitting in its very own pool of oil or semi-liquid fat, we were encouraged to eat this too as apparently it was good for us.

Some kids in my class must have been particularly malnourished at home for they even ate without hesitation the vegetable accompaniment which generally would be cauliflower cheese.

Cauliflower, and cheese.

Who on earth thought of that one, boil a pan of cauliflower , a perfectly practical vegetable, perfectly edible on its own, contains all sorts of good nutrients as long as its not boiled to death, its even fun for kids to eat as it looks like trees, “Eat the trees” you can tell them, and they do – what idiot would then go and ruin that perfectly good vegetable by pouring melted cheese over the top of it ?

What other vegetable is ruined by this exercise, none, have you ever heard of pea cheese, or runner bean cheese, no of course not, but cauliflower cheese was considered the height of sophistication in our school dinner hall, “Eat it all up, its good for you” the patrolling harridan’s would encourage with slaps while we sat there prodding it around the plate and hoping that Derek Maitland at the end of the table was still hungry when he finished his portion for Derek Maitland would eat anything and everything, including the stuff off your plate that you didn’t want.

And fish – where did they get the school dinners fish from ?

Have you ever in adulthood eaten a portion of fish with even one tenth of the number of bones that school dinners fish had ?

Is there a fish in existence that consists entirely of bones, the bonefish maybe, cut through its skin and all you find is lots of almost invisible, tiny little sharp bones with no flesh – thats the fish that was saved up specially for school dinners, thats the fish where, when deep sea fishermen haul in their nets their hearts sink as they see a couple of hundredweight of bone fish, “Ah bloody hell” they all cry, “Its bloody bonefish again, 30p a hundredweight from the school dinners people, why couldn’t it be tuna”

But a square of sponge cake with a jam and coconut topping swimming in Birds Custard, once a term , just once a term, and school dinners hit the pinnacle of culinary delight.


2 thoughts on “School dinners, why, how ?

  1. I’d quite fancy a square of sponge cake with a jam and coconut topping – and Birds Custard too. Yes very good.

    We used to get tapioca too and a strange synthetic whipped cream that we called shaving foam

  2. You’ve just dragged up the memory of tapioca, frogspawn with a blob of jam in the middle – what on earth did they think they were doing ?

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