I was reminded in a discussion with Mrs Bassman (yes, we do have them) that in our youngest days the only place you could lay your hands on olive oil was inside the medicine cupboard. Its sole function was to loosen earwax, working away beneath a layer of cotton wool. It was commonplace to see people in the street with cotton wool in an ear as it was to see a one-legged man, or a child with a blocked-out spectacles lens (National Health, of course,) to correct a lazy eye. I recall that my mother’s medicine cupboard also contained a dropper bottle of tincture of cannabis for relieving toothache. Absolutely no connection was made with narcotics. I digress. Not only was olive oil missing from the cooking repertoire, but I don’t recall the presence of any herbs apart from mint, the onlie begetter of mint sauce for lamb. Nothing alcoholic was ever sloshed into an aromatic sauce, Keith Floyd-style; no cream was ever whipped up, no pasta – well, no pasta. The nearest we came to the joys of the Italian cucina was a tin of Heinz spaghetti which, it has to said, I enjoyed on a slice of toast. I don’t want to lapse into a “lived in a rolled-up newspaper” contest. We are not quite talking post-war here, and although rationing existed in my childhood I don’t really remember it. In fact, things were probably improving as far as my war-weary parents were concerned. They were on the property ladder and my father had a good job. My mother’s problem – and I see this now in hindsight – was that she wasn’t a very good cook. I was aware that cooking could be of a higher standard, because her own mother, my nan, was better. Mind you, she had the wonderful produce of a Lincolnshire garden to play with. She also deployed brown sugar from a blue bag, something that seemed to elude my poor mum. So there we have it. My diet was constrained by the ingredients available and my mother’s lack of skill (and interest, I now think) in the kitchen. It must have been so boring for her to come up with meals from scratch every day. Shopping bags had to be made of durable materials in those days, so frequently were they used. There were flashes of pleasure: a lemon meringue, home-made chips, tinned peaches with condensed milk, but, alas, the picture was more one of boiling cabbage, plain cakes and indifferent pastry.
Ah, you say, that was only in the school holidays: most of the time you could fill up on school dinners. Well, I don’t know what yours were like, but let me be clear that the fodder served at my primary school was the worst I have ever been exposed to. Monday morning we toddled off clutching a half a crown for five dinners – just over 5p a day to you whippersnappers out there. I dreaded dinner time (please don’t give me this lunch business. People had their dinner at lunch time.) as I knew what to expect. The menu seldom altered from week to week. Rule one, no chips. Ever. Rule two, it was all – all – horrible. We sat at the same trestle table according to class year, and trooped up Oliver-style in turn to receive a dollop of watery, lumpy potato, indescribable vegetables and a piece of indeterminate meat. It wasn’t that I was fussier than anyone else, because few amongst us could tackle the whole plateful successfully. We had preferences and the wretched stuff was surreptitiously passed around accordingly. I became known as “meat boy” and so received several portions while off-loading other disgusting non-comestibles. On no-meat days it was possible for me to end up eating nothing. When you thought it couldn’t get worse, for pudding there would be semolina, or even more disgusting, tapioca. But wait – there was something else so appalling that my hand is trembling on the keyboard: custard. Our cook, no, I won’t name her even after all these years, used to concoct a large pot of custard which would be poured out into another larger basin. All eyes would be on this manoeuvre, frozen with horrified anticipation. As the pot tipped, a large glutinous layer of custard skin would slither purposefully down. A chorus of “Urrrrgghhhhh” would accompany its monstrous progress, rousing the cook to bang a ladle on the counter and threaten us with summoning the headmaster. She was a right hard case, cook. The original Fag-Ash Lil, she always glared at you through her one open eye, the other permanently closed with a curl of smoke. We used to sing a playground song about her, to the tune of “Out of town.”
Say what you will
School dinners make you ill
And Davy Crockett died of ——-‘ pie (insert cook’s name)
All school din-dins
Come from pig bins
Out of town
Between my mother ( I really don’t hold it against her) and school dinners my young palate was almost anaesthetised. Grammar school brought the opportunity to live on a diet of corned beef sandwiches with Branston pickle – a huge improvement in my book. Embarking on life’s culinary journey thereafter I find there is little I can’t face after the trauma of Old Ma ——-‘ (the cook’s) damn-near child abuse. I wasn’t a fat child – none of us were. I think I was unlucky as Mrs Bassman reports that her school meals were of ambrosial standards. I have to say that this modern fad for baking programmes makes me laugh. My poor mum spent her days up to her elbows in flour and would not have regarded it as light entertainment. I am glad that there is just so much variety out there now. I’m not one who wishes to visit my childhood experience on today’s youngsters, though I dearly wish there was footage of the custard episode with which to educate the younger ones. “Please, sir, can I have some more” would not be in it.