They’ve never had it so good

File photo dated 28/08/09 of a school dinner being served at a Primary School. Countryside campaigners today called for more British produce to be served in schools amid concerns many councils do not know where food given to pupils comes from.  PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday November 14, 2011. Buying British would improve the quality of school dinners, which would in turn help youngsters' health, concentration and behaviour, according to the Countryside Alliance Foundation. See PA story EDUCATION Food. Photo credit should read: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
File photo dated 28/08/09 of a school dinner being served at a Primary School. Countryside campaigners today called for more British produce to be served in schools amid concerns many councils do not know where food given to pupils comes from. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday November 14, 2011. Buying British would improve the quality of school dinners, which would in turn help youngsters' health, concentration and behaviour, according to the Countryside Alliance Foundation. See PA story EDUCATION Food. Photo credit should read: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
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I happened to overhear a snatch of conversation between two youngsters walking through the shopping centre the other day.

They were in complaining mode and the target of their attack was the lack of choice in their school dinner menus.

I only just resisted the temptation to stop the two lads in their tracks with a speech beginning “When I was your age …….”

I’m sure my memory is accurate in remembering that we didn’t have a choice to moan about – you ate it or went hungry.

At Henry Smith School, if certain teachers were on dinner duty, you ate it even if you didn’t like it.

It wasn’t quite forced feeding but it wasn’t far off, accompanied by veiled threats or a tug at our heartstrings with tales of starving youngsters abroad who would love to have our fine fare.

In any organisation, the quality of the catering, or lack of it, is always open to abuse, often as a substitute for something else you daren’t complain about.

My dad always said that, in his army days, the joint attack on the canteen grub did more to unify the men that anything the best officer could manage.

Like soldiers, we kids had nicknames for some of the offerings plonked before us, several of which are repeatable.

A dessert composed (we guessed) of weak sago and black bits was, of course, known as frog spawn.

Some of it really was so bad as to be inedible and various crafty techniques were employed to empty your plate so that you could leave the canteen without being ordered back by a teacher.

The easiest one was to lob it onto your neighbour’s plate when he wasn’t looking, giving him the awful task of getting through a double helping.

It said sausage and mash on the blackboard but we knew better.

A more extreme solution came from one table of mavericks who just couldn’t face a main course which was memorably terrible.

It had a colour I’ve never seen before or since and smelled like a mix of bad cabbage and sweaty socks, but much worse.

One Friday lunchtime in July these lads distracted the guards in the best prisoner of war camp tradition and dumped the lot under the hinged lid of an upright piano.

It happened to be the last day of term and the canteen was swabbed down and left for six weeks until the start of the new term in September.

The sheer stench of that lot after that long spell of Headland sunshine was apparently amazing and enough to stun a sewer rat.

We called it the canteen and dinner, the posh teachers called it a dining hall and lunch.

It was a prefab in the middle of the playground within sight of St Hilda’s Church and didn’t even have its own real cooking facilities.

The food arrived every mid-morning in a van from the central kitchens with the food packed in huge metal boxes which were then kept warmish until consumption.

One spring day, the tins were unloaded and put straight into the ovens as usual.

It was only when they were opened that the realisation dawned that this was the first salad of summer.

As luck would have it, the world’s fiercest teacher was in charge that day and I will never forget the taste of stewed lettuce, tomato and sardines.