School dinners


Our school dinners are dismal, rushed affairs in a bleak dining room where students queue at the serving hatch to have food plopped onto faded plastic plates. Chips and beans are always on the menu and students smother their food in tomato ketchup, wolf it down and rush out to meet their mates. 

My meals during the school day have become grabbed snatches of food from the store cupboard and there’s rarely time for a sit down school dinner. Now that I’m living alone, funds are getting short and I’m paying for the ingredients I use in my demonstrations. 

Susan, the school secretary, visits my room with a money saving plan.

‘Jenny, there’s a new rule that if teachers help to supervise the school dinner room at lunchtime, they get a free meal.’  

Unions such as the NUT have won the battle that allows teachers to have time off at lunchtime. But a free lunch saves me 50 pence a day, and the dinner ladies are kind and serve teachers the best food on a special table with a cloth and vase of flowers.  My practical room cannot be left unsupervised if bread, quiches and cakes are still cooking, I must stay there until they are done, and my chance of a decent lunch will be lost. 

But the main reason for avoiding school dinners is the choice. Battered Spam fritters appear on the menu at least once a week, served with chips and globby tinned spaghetti. I’ve watched the cook open the oblong Spam can, give it a thump and a pink solid lump drops onto the chopping board.  She cuts it into slices, dips each piece in batter then deep fries them until crisp, just before the queues speed in. 

Bert loves Spam.

‘Me nan has it in sandwiches with a cup of tea.’ Spam was a London wartime favourite when food was scarce. I must ask for more stories when we have sit down lunch in my cookery room.

The school cook has told me her food budget is small so she must be thrifty – Spam fritters are a cheap source of protein choice and students like them. There’s no doubt that her school dinner ladies can cook. Their pastry making is legendary – sausage rolls with glossy puff pastry, cheese and onion pasties, meat pie, and perfectly cooked egg and bacon quiches. Liver and onions is one of our least popular dishes. We pick out the gristly tubes from the ox liver and line them up on the plate edges with lumps from the mashed potato. Friday’s school dinner is the best but you need to be quick – the Fish and Chips with mushy peas soon runs out.

When it comes to puddings – or afters – the school dinner ladies enter stratospheric cooking heaven. Who can resist their treacle, apple, jam or chocolate sponges served with thick custard? Steamed jam roly poly made with suet crust pastry, apple crumbles, jam and coconut sponges, treacle and jam tarts and in summer there’s jelly and custard and bowls of tinned fruit cocktail with tiny bits of bright red cherries. 

These ladies are skilled cooks and they could teach me a trick or two.

After their meal, teachers must check that students clear away their plastic plates and scrape uneaten waste into the pig bin as the room is transformed back into a classroom. Tables and chairs are wiped down and stacked, chunks of uneaten sausage roll and squashed chips swept away with the hard working school cooks clatter and clean leaving the school kitchen spotless for the next cooking session.

So, no thankyou. I won’t be swapping an hour of my free time for lunch and supervision! And one day, maybe someone will come along and change things for the better.

Back in the classroom it’s tricky teaching mealtime names. Cookery for Schools calls the traditional midday meal ‘luncheon’, afternoon tea is a posh snack at four o’clock and dinner is the evening meal.  

‘But in most working households this has been replaced with less elaborate arrangements now called midday dinner/lunch.’ 

The school has many students from working class families and men travel to London’s Dockland and the printing factories for their jobs. The main family meal is in the early evening from 5.30 – 6 pm. I’ll have to ask them what they call it!

2020 update

What is Spam?

Spam was invented in 1937 and became popular as a canned food during world war 11. It’s made from pork and ham, salt, water, modified starch, sugar, and  sodium nitrite – a preservative. It’s believed that it gets its name from Spiced Ham or Specially Processed American Meat. In the 1970s the Monty Python team did a sketch eating in a greasy spoon cafe where the menu was ‘Spam, spam, spam, a boiled egg, spam’ a bit like my school dinners.

Is the midday meal called lunch or dinner?

Iceland’s food company Bakkavör, did a survey on what meals are called – based on a sample of 1,000 Britons, it found that 53 per cent called the main evening meal dinner, 39 per cent called it tea and just 8 per cent called it supper. In northern England, 68 per cent of those questioned called the main evening meal tea, but in London, only 5 per cent followed the same custom.

Colin Spencer author of British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, referring to meal-time terminology says in an interview 

If you are a member of the lower classes or live outside London and the south-east, the midday meal is called dinner and is often the main meal of the day. But for the upper classes and metropolitans, the midday meal is called lunch. In the evening, the lower classes and northerners come home from work, school or shopping and sit down to another fairly substantial meal called tea at about 6pm.

In 2020 students stay for school dinners yet others can take a packed lunch!

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Filed under 1970 cookery recipes, Convenience food

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