While I was at junior school I was close enough to go home for lunch, except for a time when my mum had mumps and I had to stay… I have a pathetic memory of me sitting all afternoon with tears dripping into a bowl of pink Blancmange that I had to finish before I left the table.
At secondary school I was four miles from home and stayed for school dinner… and on the whole it was a good experience. Obviously not as good as home cooking, but I enjoyed it at the time, there was plenty of it and there was plenty of variety.
In the first two years of secondary school we were in the dining room, on long tables of maybe 20 or thirty girls sitting on benches. At either end of each table was a prefect, the girls either side of her went to the hatch to the kitchen to collect the meals, the plates, and to clear away afterwards. Dishes of vegetables were placed along the table, actually they were deep metal containers, and jugs of gravy or sauce. The main part of the meal was put in front of the prefect who served the lunch if anyone didn’t want what was on offer, they put up their hand and an empty plate was sent down to them and they had to make do with the vegetables… no choice in those days, no catering for vegetarians! Actually, thinking about it, the veggies might have had grated cheese or a hard-boiled egg, but maybe I’m imagining that.
We would file into the dining room, the teacher on duty would blow a whistle and we would all fall into silence. She would say grace, then blow the whistle and the serving girls would go to the hatch to collect the food. Once the food was served the whistle would blow again and we could chatter to each other. If there was anything left in the main dish, we could send our empty plate down for more. Occasionally there were seconds in the kitchen and the prefect would send the servers up to get them, but if everyone was finished, the plates would be passed back to the prefect and the servers would take them to a trolley and stack them to be taken into the kitchen later. Bowls would be collected, and the dessert; the prefect would once again serve and jugs of custard or sauce would be on the table for us to help ourselves. Once dessert was finished, the tables could be cleared and then we were allowed to go out.
The meals themselves were varied, a casserole of beef or lamb, sometimes with stodgy suet dumplings, sometimes with a topping of suet pastry, cottage pie, mince meat in gravy, if we were lucky we had sausages which were funny grizzled little thin things but tasty all the same, poached fish which no-one liked very much, liver casserole, meat pie, pastry top and bottom with meat and vegetables in a gravy. I don’t think we ever had chicken because it was expensive in those days, but we sometimes had sliced meat which I guess must have been roasted. We always had potatoes of some sort, mashed, boiled, roast if we were lucky chips if we were very, very lucky. I don’t think we had pasta apart from macaroni cheese, and I don’t remember having rice with the main course. We had the usual root vegetables, carrots, turnips, swede, we had peas and green beans, we had cabbage… and we may have had cauliflower, that has gone a little hazy! In the summer we sometimes had salad, limp whole leaves of floppy lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumber, beetroot in vinegar, boiled potatoes, slices of ham or boiled egg or grated cheese… and did we have a yellowy grey salad cram? Maybe that is just imagination.
Dessert were generally very good and everybody ate them with relish, fruit pies, fruit crumbles, fruit stodge (fruit under a suet top) fruit tarts; rice pudding, semolina, tapioca, sago – I loved all those milk puddings, and as a lot of other girls didn’t – calling it frog-spawn, I was always able to have second helpings. Jam tart, jam tart with a sponge top, jam sponge pudding, treacle stodge, chocolate stodge, ginger stodge, date stodge, all served with custard or a pale white thick sauce of indeterminable flavour. Cornflake crispies made with golden syrup…. maybe they were on a pastry base, treacle tart… Jelly, blancmange… Dried fruit – figs, prunes, apricots, and prunes on their own… I once had a prune eating competition with my friend Maaike; one of us ate 96 the other 89 and we only gave up because there were no other prunes in the dining room – bowls were smuggled from table to table to our table as prunes were not very popular… I have no idea which of us won, but neither of us was ill afterwards, what hardy constitutions we had!
I can’t remember how much school dinners cost, but whatever it was it was within the pocket of most ordinary families, and they were on the whole decent, nourishing, and tasty!