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School dinners, as satirised so accurately by The Simpsons (zoo animal meat, creamed corn, grease vats, et al), were a grim reality for most of the population of the UK at one time or another. Your typical school dinner involves either chips and beans, or various pieces of unidentified meat and grey boiled vegetables. Dessert was usually some kind of cake or pudding served in a blue plastic bowl with the option of custard or chocolate gloop from a truly gargantuan metal jug. Drinks were water or milk (water served in reusable plastic beakers).

Some amazing foodstuffs were sporadically sighted in school dinners which crop up nowhere in the outside world, such as the delectable cheese wheels. Scotch eggs and roast potatoes also featured heavily. (I once put away an entire buffet plate of roast potatoes on a school trip. And I'd do it again!) School dinners are a great example of skirting at the very boundary of health and safety laws, and flatly contradict the healthy eating thread of the national curriculum. And of course, they fund the machinations of that mysterious sect, the Dinner Ladies.

School dinners, like anything truly evil, inspired a great number of protest songs. By far the most famous of these was the cunningly titled "School Dinners", by person or persons unknown. Sung to the tune of Frere Jacques.
School Dinners,
School Dinners,
Mushy peas,
Mushy peas,
Slimy semolina,
Slimy semolina,
I feel sick - get a bowl quick.
It's too late - I've done it on my plate.
There were a thousand variations on this song, usually stating that the end result of vomit on a plate was indistinguishable from the meal you were served, but this was always the general gist.

School dinners at my primary school weren't excessively evil - provided a pupil had been properly educated about the dangers of Cowboy Hotpot (which looked, smelled and tasted like rotting baked beans) and knew how to avoid the dinner ladies obsession with coleslaw, they could usually keep their insides in.

In the bad old days of the 1970s and earlier, as evidenced by Law of the Playground and similar websites, school dinners were generally dreary gack that tasted like a tramp's hat, but were healthy. Nowadays, if Jamie Oliver is to be believed, they're all sub-fried chicken emporium nests of obesity. But in the early to mid 1990s, when I was at primary school, they were sort of half and half. They were playing lip service to the healthy eating bit of the National Curriculum as Fondue mentions but were at the same time inserting other things as a sop to actually making the little bastards want to eat it, and not sneak off to the chippy for a crafty battered sausage.

As a result, they were both deeply unpleasant and deeply unhealthy. There was also a large dose of "think of the starving children in Bosnia!" behind it, this being the era of the protracted breakup of, and subsequent humanitarian crises in, the former Yugoslavia. Saying "Well even they'd turn their nose up at this shite!" gets you a detention for answering back if you must know. But I digress. So what I'm going to do right now is to go through all the items I remember being on my primary school dinner menu with some suitable comments.

Main Courses

These generally fell into a pattern by the week. The highlight of the week was usually a Wednesday which was when the comestibles necessitated to feed several hundred hungry pre-pubescent mouths was delivered, usually in the morning. As such, we got roast usually then. All of them were sliced very thin, thinner than humanly possible, which was often because they were sliced by machine. Still, they were edible, and the beef, which was the best one, even had a rather nice pinkish tinge to the middle of the slices. Pork and lamb were next up. The potatoes were clearly frozen but extremely nice as well. However there was never Yorkshire pudding, mint sauce, apple sauce, or similar, and the other vegetables were obviously tinned. Obviously this was served the day it came in so that it didn't go off.

Thursdays were usually something slightly less fresh, such as gammon or sausages. The sausages looked as if they were about to burst forth from their skins and if one end was pierced in the right place it looked like a small brown penis. This caused us no end of amusement. Other times we'd get pizza (one slice each, thin crust, plasticky cheese, passable tomato, whatever stuff was laying around for topping) or similar. Other times it'd be kedgeree which wasn't bad.

Fridays were fish and chips. Always. We weren't a religious school but it made for something nice. The fish was variable but all edible. The best one was "Battercrisp Cod" which was almost M&S Gastropub Range quality - an actual fillet of fish, boneless, firm, tasty, not too many slimy bits, in batter that was crisp (duh), golden, and very low in grease. Yum. Fishcakes were generally good as well despite being obviously reformed. Next down the pecking order were fish fingers and at the bottom of the school's piscine offerings was Golden Tiddlers. These were whatever offcuts of fish were laying around reformed into the shape of a cartoon fish and then coated with iffy breadcrumbs. Still, at least they didn't make me retch.

Saturdays and Sundays we weren't at school and thus ate like civilised human beings.

Mondays were generally dodgy. This was the stuff that had kept for five days now. Macaroni cheese was one thing that often surfaced here. It looked like lumpy sick and smelt like bleach. Also quiche, which looked like overripe sick cut into squares. Spaghetti Bolognese as well, which tasted like knicker elastic. Generally I'd go for second serve on Mondays so I could pretend to eat whatever nastiness was on the menu and then sneak out when all the dinner ladies had shut up shop.

Tuesdays were the worst day for school food, and that you can quote me on. It was whatever was left over. So take the already suspect stuff from the other days, and add a spot of ageing, and you're onto what this was like. This was the day that something alleged to be "Turkey Burgers" was not infrequently served. For inexplicable reasons people liked this a lot. I didn't. It was basically a thin mess of reformed turkey bits (probably the wattles) and nameless slime, covered in breadcrumbs, and deep-fried. We were all slipped a mickey by the word "burgers" clearly - well, not me, I hated it. They made me retch and I also witnessed one boy being violently sick on one of the dinner ladies when upbraided by them for not eating them. This did not stop the school from serving them.

Side Dishes

Often with each item you had to have something with it, by dinner lady fiat. The accompaniments were just as suspect as the actual meals themselves. Roast potatoes were lovely. Chips were okay although a bit underdone, and every so often there was one that was green and blue in the middle (or was it blue and green in the middle?). Sautéed potatoes were very nice but rarely served.

Then there were the other vegetables. Carrots were most common. Always tinned baby carrots. Always hard and coated with a thin layer of the rusty water they'd come in in the tin. Mixed veg was best avoided, it stank and was always the stuff that they'd ordered in from the Jolly Green Giant and which was about to pass its date. Sweetcorn was vomit-inducing tinned dross.

But the crowning turd in the waterpipe was Potato. Note the lack of modifiers; not a roast potato, boiled potato, jacket potato, or suchlike. Also note the lack of an article. It was just chalked onto the menu as Potato. As if there was a huge vat of the stuff behind the counter (there was) of which there was an inexhaustible supply (there was). Potato was what pinch-hit for other menu items when they were unable to provide them like they expected to. Worse luck. It was mash. As produced by someone who'd never actually experienced mash themselves. The first thing that hit you was its odour, like cleaning fluid mixed with rotting cabbages. The stuff itself was in a giant aluminium tureen and removed with a special ice cream scoop invented for this task alone, as it had a special lever in it. A scoop would be scraped out and then deposited, usually with a whack, on your tray (we had those multi-compartmental plastic dinner trays as used in prisons). Where it would sit in a baleful hemisphere of death, watching, waiting. Often it had unwelcome visitors floating in it, like dog-ends of sweetcorn and the odd pea from where the tray had been insufficiently cleaned from having the mixed veg in it. Thomas James once alleged he found a pube floating in his, showed it to the teacher on duty, and was promptly put in detention for putting it there (he didn't - we were ten years old, our voices hadn't dropped and our balls hadn't broken so where would we get pubes from?!) so clearly someone had taken this too seriously. Potato was utterly nauseating and it put me off mash to this day. I can't eat it. Sorry. And that was almost twenty years ago.

The Dessert Trolley

Otherwise known as that dinner lady with a mouth the shape of an anus and her spatula. No, I'm not joking. Her mouth was exactly the same shape as an anus. Small, round, constantly pursed, and with loads of little wrinkly lines leading into it. People who've played The Witcher are probably thinking of a cemetaur right now. Speaking of which, the weirdness, monstrosity, and scariness of dinner ladies from our, the kids, viewpoint, could well be expounded on, but another writeup is that.

The best one of these was undoubtedly chocolate sponge. It was baked into a huge aluminium tray and divided into a grid of squares. The best bits were in the middle as they weren't as dry as the ones on the end. It was actually rather nice. Jam sponge and lemon sponge were also nice although the lemon bits tended to go all hard.

Chocolate Crackle was inexplicably popular with us the kids. If you've not had this, it's basically a load of cornflakes smothered in chocolate sauce and then baked solid for a throat-lacerating taste injection. Now normally this is made with Rice Krispies or Coco Pops but the school kitchens used cornflakes. Probably cheaper.

There was then a few other things, lemon meringue pie was one, another was jam roly poly, and then there were the flap jacks which were clearly made on the building site over the road. Bottom of the heap, and VERY regularly served, was Angel Whirl. This is a sort of slug-shape of whippy pink colloidal sugar stuff with hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top. Deary me. Tastes of absolutely nothing.

Puddings were often served with custard. For "custard" read "radioactively yellow lumpy liquid that smelt of desperation."

Thankfully there was fresh fruit always on offer. You can't go wrong with a bit of fruit, surely? Oh you can! Lemme put it like this. I once got into trouble because I spent five minutes poking at the various apples on offer to find one that was neither teeth-breaking nor made of bacteria and maggots. This was apparently unhygienic and, more gravely, HELD UP THE LINE. I was told to have the next one I touched so I grabbed a hard one and attacked it with my knife and fork to soften it up once I'd sat down. There were also bananas on offer (always either green or black) and, occasionally, pears, which were often on the turn. Remember that bit about the deliveries being on Wednesdays? Well this made Fridays the best day for fruit quality.

The Salad Bar

Of course, you could have something else if you wanted from the cold side of the queue. This was your usual array of lettuce, tomato, sweetcorn, olives, tuna, cold pasta, etc., all slathered in mayo (I've never liked mayo ever since Thomas James told me that semen looked like it after a PSHE lesson. We were all pre-masturbation and thought that girls had lurgies at the time, so anything involving genitals, sex, etc. was an immediate squick. I'm just glad we never let him loose on the jam roly poly.) The salads were always overdressed. Filled Rolls were also available but your fillings were limited to what was on the salad section, so you got plenty mayo whether you liked it or not.

Also, let's go back to the cold pasta, because that's something I've never been compelled to eat under any circumstances.

Chef's Special

Occasionally we had themed days, such as Indian Day (boxed chicken korma and lemon sorbet) or Italian Day (spag bol and/or pizza) but these were rare. Chef Excellence would approve.

And that was dinner. Clearly we were still on the Eat What You're Given And Be Bloody Grateful For It way of doing things. Now while I understand the idea of trying to get the children to eat healthily, and have a balanced diet, and not bugger off up the chippy for their own bodyweight in lard, this is doomed to failure due to the terribad quality of the fare on offer. Now many years later, when I was seventeen, I went on a French exchange with a school in Toulouse, and we all ended up dans la cantoche as French kids called it. French school dinners, by comparison, also have the Eat What You're Given And Be Bloody Grateful For It ideology (or, should I say, mangez ce qu'on vous fournit et soyez gracieux, bordel!) but they actually make it edible, so the kids aren't tempted to go and eat their own bodyweight in lard on the way home because they've actually eaten something nice. It's for this reason that when Jamie Oliver reworked the school dinner menu in Rotherham he fell into that exact same trap - he put together nutritionally balanced meals but then let the dinner ladies order in the cheapest shite imaginable. Thus the kids hated it, and their mothers shoved burgers and pies and pasties through the bars at breaktime.

Nowadays, school dinners seem to be chippy-tea standard grease-outs, which means they're probably rather tasty but utterly devoid of nutritional value. And which is why when some of the schools kick out where I live, there's a river of aircraft-carrier-sized teenagers dribbling down the road to the bus stop. But if they were force-fed Turkey Burgers, Potato, and Angel Whirl, then they'd all stop off at the fried chicken emporia on the way home anyhow. What's needed are school dinners that are healthy but tasty and filling. If I were a school cook I'd feed the little buggers chicken and chorizo nightmare fuel with extra habanero peppers, because it is filling (lots of solid meaty bits), healthy (lots of vegetables), tasty (lots of chilli), and gives them free exercise as well. I'd probably then be fired for poisoning them and/or spending too much money, but meh.

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