Ah school dinners! When I was an attractively short-trousered small boy school dinners were generally agreed by my fellow inmates to be inedible. We speculated about what went into them - dog, cat, any spare groundsman who had got caught up in the drive-on mower etc. Most of the meat in the stews had been determinedly boiled to a dishcloth grey, mashed potatoes had mysterious hard lumps whilst boiled potatoes overflowed with water and collapsed under the fork to create something in many ways indistinguishable from wallpaper paste. After experimenting we decided that wallpaper paste did, in fact, taste marginally worse.

At my school, in preparation for a life which would be unfair, two boys on a table of eight were appointed Server and Vice Server. To them went the time hallowed right to dole out the food from the aluminium (the link to mental illness had not at that time been suspected) cases deposited at table by a variety of dinner ladies of indeterminate age and, often, sex. The right to be a server was based on years accumulated. Not only did this ensure that these two deities got the most of what was palatable, and the least of what was not, it also entitled them to perform arcane rituals. For example, should there be a surfeit of something nice - a roast potato, the jam that leavened the semolina - tradition required that they hold it aloft while announcing 'Quis?' (Latin, my dears) meaning 'Who wants? The response was 'Ego!' or 'I ' and the scrap was then tossed over to the fastest responder. Servers also doled out the jobs - First, Seconds and Swab. The former involved gathering up the used plates etc and taking them to be scraped into the swill bin (the contents of which were widely assumed to be then taken to feed the comprehensive schoolchildren) while Swab involved wiping down the table. Unfair perhaps, but when my turn came in later years to be Server I also gave the rotten jobs to the smallest and weakest. In many ways an English public school is an excellent primer for life in the army or prison.

But why, I hear you ask, are you travelling down memory lane dear Felix? My journey was prompted by articles in the popular press recently wherein various schools had come to admit the foolishness of modern school catering. Offering children a choice every day of burgers, chips and other items had led, perplexingly to the authorities it seems, to children gorging every day on burgers, chips etc. Who would have guessed this might happen? Faced with legions of school children indistinguishable from tethered barrage balloons, some authorities have now taken to hiring proper chefs to create wholesome meals for those in their charge. Despite being hampered by the necessity to cater for every religion and their often conflicting dietary requirements, (at my school all children were regarded as C of E at mealtimes no matter what they got up to during morning prayers), they seem to be doing a good job. The boys, of course, remain somewhat difficult customers but the girls apparently fall upon the fresh fruit and mineral water with cries of pleasure.

The point I suppose I am making is that it is sheer foolishness to give small children, especially small boys, what they want to eat because, as any parent will tell you, they only want what is bad for them. The food I was forced to eat at school was eaten because there was no other choice. I may not have enjoyed it overmuch, but I did get to eat appropriate amounts of vitamin-enriched vegetables and a fair deal of roughage. And any deleterious affects from the aluminium seem to have passed me by in the same way that drinking water that had travelled through lead pipes did not affect me. Indeed, my generation was making literate conversation and writing decent English essays at an early age, whereas today's children of the same age seem to have severe problems articulating anything sensible whether in speech or on paper. Lead pipes perhaps are not one of nature's evils, although modern teaching methods have yet to come under similar scientific scrutiny.

If it is true that schools now provide meals that are both nourishing and attractive to schoolchildren, we can only applaud the relevant authorities. Perhaps in a generation or two the benefits will trickle down and our streets may once again become safer and cleaner. It may even end bullying in public schools, although I doubt it.

Anthony Bourdain's "Les Halles" Cookbook

Illustration by: Al Stuart
al.stuartcreative@ntlworld.com

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November 2004
felix hunt
Felix goes back to school