Things that I think and do
If ever you’re looking for two simple words to start anyone on a moan-filled rant (and to be honest I’m not sure when you ever would be, but let that slide for now), give ‘school dinners’ a go. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone have anything particularly nice to say about school dinners, unless it’s a backhanded compliment like, “that wasn’t too bad”.
I myself never had much experience of school dinners throughout my educational career, preferring (not that I usually had the choice) a packed lunch. I can’t even remember clearly what that involved – probably fruit of some variety, a sandwich of indeterminate filling and possibly a cereal bar or something. I don’t know, the point is that I didn’t have school dinners.
My main exposure to this speciality cuisine has been at summer school, where we are treated to a gastronomic treat three times a day. Well, two, if you don’t count an offering of cereal and anaemic toast at breakfast time as a meal. Which I don’t.
Every year it’s something the students complain about, because sadly we cannot employ each child’s mother in the school kitchen for the duration of said child’s stay. You’d have thought that parents might have explained the simple idea that the food here will be mass-produced fare to cater for all, not anything haute cuisine painstakingly crafted in mummy’s kitchen at home. You’d have thought that, but apparently it’s an annual surprise.
To be fair to the students, sometimes the options are more prison-camp than high-end summer school. At the main centre, while we were having a management staff induction, there was pasta of some form on the menu for each meal three days running. One highlight was the chocolate cake, which they’d managed to make jet black somehow. It wasn’t burnt, it must have just come out that way.
The stuff at the centre I’m at is, I think, generally pretty alright. There is a choice of main meal (although admittedly the second choice is nearly always pasta or jacket potato), there’s a dessert (curiously enough, only for lunchtime) and there’s a full salad bar (which the kids are surprisingly enthusiastic about).
Apparently the management has changed in the kitchen this year, so it’s run by someone who actually knows about food (viz., a chef) rather than an administrator who prioritises costs over taste. It’s not cordon bleu but it’s not bad by any means. The cooked breakfast on the first morning we arrived was a pleasant surprise, as the eggs were actually yellow and white rather than orange and grey and the beans had been kept hot rather than unpleasantly left to cool.
For example, there was ham and cheese quiche on offer the other night. I’m sure it was one of the meals last year, and it was (and remains) unmemorable. This year it sticks in the mind because of the sheer power of the cheese they used – not some industrial, mass-catering, feeble cheese, but properly strong cheddar stuff. In a twist of culinary magic, they made it taste as strong as an old blue cheese even though it can’t possibly have been.
Of course, it’s still quite hit and miss. The pineapple and chicken balti (yes) tasted suspiciously similar to the “tasty sweet and sour chicken” of the next night, and neither of them was especially tasty. “Bland” would be the most suitable adjective.
Then again, unlike the students, I don’t expect food of mind-boggling quality. I know that the chefs have to cater for well over 100 people three times a day and therefore some quality has to be compromised. Culinary science, it appears, dictates that carbs are by far the easiest foods to mass-produce, and so it is that you can often have a choice of pasta (carbs) or potato (carbs) with a side offering of bread (have a guess).
As well as the sedentary nature of an office job at such places, this is probably the reason it is so remarkably easy to put on weight over the summer months. Food is constantly on offer and there isn’t a whole lot to do except eat and work.
So I’m now going to attempt to burn off some of tonight’s spaghetti by going for a run. At least the carbs will give me some modicum of energy to combat the sleep-deprivation.