I was probably always a fussy eater. Early memories of food prior to going away to boarding school are practically non-existent so I can’t be sure. My father, who died a couple of days after my ninth birthday – hence the ticket to the Masonic School – was something of a gourmet though. The walk-in larder was dominated by mysteriously spicy smells: black puddings, tinned lychees and other such exotica were to be found there. For all that I don’t recall mealtimes except one traumatic one where my father was trying to force my sister to eat goulash (I don’t know how I knew that either) despite her tears.
What does make some experiences memorable? Easy enough to understand where strong emotions like anger or fear are evoked, as above, but some early memories seem absolutely random; my father mixing cement or my mother mangling clothes.
Food revenant nous mouton only kicked in to focus when I started at the Masonic School. A day at school could be defined by whether it started with god-awful porridge ladled out and passed down or glorious cereal (and within that a pecking order from Weetabix at the top down to Puffed Wheat at the bottom).
Food was prepared in the kitchens and handed out through the serving hatches to monitors who collected for each table. Most of it, to my perhaps overly fastidious taste, was horrible. Because you were expected to eat it all, mealtimes often became a challenge as to how to get rid of the bits you didn’t like, disguising them as acceptable leavings or passing them to somebody else: some boys would eat anything and were a godsend.
Boarding school life (at least when I was at school) had something of the intensity that I imagine life in wartime held. Perhaps this is why some people cleave to their time at public school because life afterwards is disappointingly grey. Ends of term were as intensely exciting as the returns to school were dreadful. Visits out, letters from home, private moments with friends – all had that quality that comes from the sense of a moment snatched but all too fleeting.
So too with food. When it was good, baked beans on toast, arctic roll, fish fingers and chips (my God was that it?), it was very, very good. When it was bad, greasy stews, semolina, welsh rarebit, and many more, it was horrid.
My nemesis came when my my two worst dishes – lamb and barley stew (all fatty meat and grease) followed by suet pudding with marmalade sauce – followed each other in the dinner from hell.
I failed totally in any attempt to palm bits off and was forced to return to the House with both plates congealing and, while the rest of the house had silent reading, the deputy housemaster tried, unsuccessfully, to force me to finish my dinner. A ghoulash moment.
Through the masters’ eyes, many of whom had come through wartime deprivation, I must have looked wretchedly ungrateful. I am still somewhat fastidious (tripe, liver, kidneys, fatty meat NOOOOO!) but food and the preparation of food is now a source of great pleasure.
But then England too is a different place. We have all moved on from the country of Martha Harrison’s observation “I’ll bet what motivated the British to colonize so much of the world is that they were just looking for a decent meal.”