It’s been in my ‘PC Topics’ file for some time, an idea to scribble something about institutional meals, as we have all eaten them at some stage in our lives, good or bad! The impetus to write now was triggered by something sad someone experienced last month. There is no doubt that coping with the current pandemic has created hardship for most of us, but more keenly felt by those at the bottom of the societal heap. I don’t think the UK is unique in the huge growth in Food Banks, where those out of luck and money go in order to survive. A veritable army of lovely individuals has stepped up to the plate, no pun intended here, and created places where food, drink and words of encouragement are available, using initiative in getting donations and support from a wide range of organisations.
But ……. and there is often a ‘but’ ….. some people picking up their bag of staples like bread, eggs and milk and a box of vegetables & fruit were obviously too embarrassed to admit not knowing how to cook the vegetables, as around the corner from this particular food bank were boxes of vegetables discarded on the street by the (un)grateful recipients. There are obvious cultural and educational issues involved here!
Fortunately I grew up in a privileged household, where there was enough food to satisfy two hungry teenagers, although school food will always bring back memories for everyone and most of the ‘yuk’ type! At my first boarding school we had to finish everything that was put in front of us; that included breakfast’s porridge and Macaroni Cheese. The former is difficult to cook in bulk and it’s inevitable that lumps proliferate; cold, dense, uncooked lumps of oats are hard to swallow. Not so good Macaroni Cheese, but at St Christopher’s the dense crust on top had tentacles stretching into the substrata – which when cold brought on an urge to vomit! I had been at this school for some three weeks when, in September 1955, my mother got remarried. My only concern was that I could get her to write a letter excusing me from having to eat these two foods; I was 8 years old.
The dining room at Dauntsey’s School, on the edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire and at that time a single-sex boarding school, was traditional. Large refectory tables and benches filled the main floor, while up on a raised area at one end a table was reserved for members of staff, including the Duty Master. Despite a Food Committee, the quality of food was constantly criticised and this led eventually to a strike. One lunch time we all filed into the Dining Room but refused to eat the food handed out by the kitchen staff, much to their bafflement; we sat in silence, hoping this would be enough to encourage better standards. The Duty Master was a David Burgess; having said ‘Grace’ at the beginning of lunch, he sat and ate his alone as his fellow masters left, and at the end intoned in his strong Scottish brogue: “What I have received, may you all be truly grateful.”
The food protest was reported in the William Hickey column in the Daily Express for no other reason I suspect than the chairman of the Governors was a Lord Tedder (ex-Marshall of the Royal Air force) …… and his son was in charge of the Food Committee! Sadly I don’t remember the food getting much better! (Note 1)
At The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst formal dinners, where we had to wear Mess Uniform, were held once a month; less formal weekly ones only demanded Black Tie. There is a saying: “The army marches on its stomach.”; the food was of great quality and quantity, needed when 1000 cadets sat down to eat.
The frequent formal dinners continued in commissioned service, a worthwhile tradition to maintain.
In the Officers’ Mess in the ex-Luftwaffe barracks in Lippstadt, Moritz, a grey-haired old chap with a bad back, shuffled backwards and forwards from the kitchen as a waiter. In the afternoon he was often to be found slicing sideways a piece of toast that could be then re-toasted and appear as Melba toast that evening.
In Dempsey Barracks in Sennelager, in Germany our regiment had a French exchange officer staying for a week. On his first evening we all dined in the Officers Mess. The starter was corn-on-the-cob, a wonderful opportunity to eat a single vegetable, with lashings of butter and S&P. Those who designed the menu hadn’t realised that in France corn from the cob is fed to pigs! Jean-Claude thought we were taking the Michael (and that’s pronounced Michael in English and not Michel in French)
Bored with what was on offer on the luncheon menu one day, I asked the waiter who was the duty cook. “Corporal Matthews, Sir.” “Well, would you ask Corporal Matthews to make me a large omelette please?” Corporal Matthews did as he was asked and the 12 egg omelette was delivered on a large platter. I met his challenge but it was a struggle!!
I have had my share of institutional food in our hospitals, the last here in Brighton in 2013 when I was asked what I wanted to eat and the chap made notes on his iPad, but the doctor was still using quill pen and dipping ink for her paper notes! Seemed a bit arse about face? Prior to my stay, I had had an Angiogram and was offered a healthy (?) lunch of white steamed-bread sandwiches and a bag of crisps.
In 2006 I stayed in a little barn overlooking the River Dart, just upstream from Dittisham in Devon. Unfortunately my appendix rumbled and I went off to Torquay Hospital. It was agreed to remove it, which was just as well as it ruptured during the operation and sepsis is a very real concern when this happens. My stay lasted two days, during which time I sampled the hospital fare. Green vegetables need careful handling otherwise they lose their vibrant colour. French beans do not like being transported from a central kitchen miles away so that by the time lunch reached my bed they are lukewarm and slightly brown!
Not sure much has really changed?
Richard 19th March 2021
Note 1 Simon, who had been educated at Lancing College, developed a hate for the school’s fish pie, particularly if it included an egg. At a dinner party some thirty plus years later, he vehemently refused a plate of gorgeous ‘fish pie’! Strange these memories that define us.
Jamie Oliver’s Happy Fish Pie – yum! yum! (not for Simon!)