Friday, 28 August 2009

School dinners: the horror, the horror

Rediscovering crumble a couple of weeks back put me in mind of all the awful school food I endured in the early 70s. With the help of a scholarship and a kindly attitude towards clergy daughters, I spent a very happy six years at what was then called the School of SS Mary and Anne, Abbots Bromley. The name gives away its very high church leanings, and in my day there were around 500 of us, mainly boarders. Many things about the school were fantastic: it was generally very friendly, it was non-selective and while academic brilliance was recognised, it wasn't the be-all. The music teaching was excellent and the senior school choir, which I was lucky enough to be in, was international standard. But the food was utterly, utterly vile.
Breakfast wasn't too toxic because there's not a lot that can go wrong with cereal and toast - if you don't mind toast that resembles shoe leather. Every Saturday we got All Bran for breakfast (not sure why anglo-catholics should have a thing about young bowels) and on Sundays we got heated rolls in lieu of toast. Supper wasn't too bad either - no teachers around so it was quite relaxed but the baked beans always did taste metallic.
But lunch was my nemesis. I don't quite know what the kitchens at St Mary's did to meat (very little money? poor quality catering staff?) but it was a daily horror show. With a teacher at the head of every table and an ethic of eating everything on your plate because continents away, children like you are starving, it terrified me because I hated almost every main courses that was served up. Top of my hate list was stew: brown gunk out of which you picked through the gristly fatty chunks of nameless meat to try to find anything that didn't make you gag. Almost as vile was bone stew - probably mutton, but full of vertebrae. Every Friday we had white fish: evil little fillets of what may well have been coley. At least we got tinned peas with the fish, which I could eat. We endured four years of this until a new catering manager was employed. One of her innovations was the only meal I liked - a cheese flan, served with packet mash and my beloved tinned peas. By the time I was head of house, my nickname among the fourth formers was, of course, Cheesey Fran.
Her other innovation was a total disaster. It arrived in big bowls and smelled good - bones, yes, but some nice meat. But the Upper Sixth A-level Biology girls were piecing the bones together and the verdict flashed around the dining room: we were eating rabbit. Rabbit! This was the era of Watership Down and most of us were in love with Hazel and his quest to find a new home for his tribe.
And now we were being forced to eat our friends! All cutlery went down and rabbit stew never appeared on the menu again.
Puddings were a good deal less awful, even if crumble twice a week put me off it for 30 years. Floor Polish was the stiff and tasteless red jelly, Pink Rubber was the equally tasteless blamange. Dead Man's Leg was a steamed jam pudding and steamed pudding (again, tasting of metal) appeared at least once a week.
School tapioca really was like frogspawn with spooky globes of wobbly consistency.

My favourite pud was Ganges Mud and tinned pears. The Mud was chocolate semolina. No idea now how we all survived this vile muck. It was only in my last year that anyone went down with an eating disorder. We did once have a food strike, but I can't remember that it made any difference. In the upper sixth we got a tiny kitchen with a Baby Belling, so we gorged on Batchelor's Savoury Rice. Ah, the good old days.


Lickedspoon said...

I loved your trip down memory lane Fran. I don't know if this makes it better or worse, but rest assured at around about the same time, roughly the same meals were being served up 250 miles north at my all-girls CofE school. It's testament to how bad the food was that Spam fritters followed by Arctic Roll was considered a lunchtime of gastronomic delight...

fran39 said...

Spam fritters! You've jogged my memory - we sometimes got these for supper and you're right, they were downright delicious...