Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Cold war and school dinners

It's not all sex, drugs and roll'n'roll with me and food, you know. Whereas the food I often crave is high octave stuff - not in terms of it complexity (Michelin star plates leave me cold somewhat), but its impact (fat, offal, cream); today I've had the most warm and cuddly lunch possible:

...a school dinner par excellence - the Roast dinner with (many) trimmings.

The bestest school dinner: Roast chicken with stuffing, roast potatoes, steamed broccoli and carrots, with gravy

Not just any old school dinner, a very special dinner of Norfolk free-range chicken with local veg and a beautiful oaty apple crumble with grapes grown in the school's own garden (the M & S ad voice seems somehow inappropriate here due to its overt sexuality, but you get the picture).

You see, I happen to work for a project that aims to 'transform' the food culture of this country. Yes, as grand as this. You probably remember Jamie's attempts a few years back to get kids eating 'proper' food, instead of the infamous turkey twizzlers (although I'm quite intrigued by the latter, actually makes me thing of the 19th century fad to make 'things', fabulous, magical things out of foods)? Well, Food for Life (the name of this grandeurs endeavour) started there with Jamie and school dinners. Then the grand dame of the British food world - the Soil Association - took over, got some funding, and made the whole thing bigger and better.

The most important people in the school: the dinner ladies.

Today over 5000 schools across England ate their Roast Dinner simultaneously, in an attempt to break the Guinness record for the most number of schools serving the same dinner at the same time'! These schools were also making a point, a stand if you like, to 'save the school dinner' in view of all the mortifying budget cuts so thoughtfully put upon us. Go dinners, go!

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to be a little helper for a morning, and boy did the smells and sounds of that bustling school kitchen bring a tear to my sceptical eye. Inevitably, I remembered the days full of buckwheat smells and the looks of the wobbly semolina porridge...

Soviet dinners, sans beer for the little ones.

In those far-away Soviet days of communist cheer and seemingly unspoilt ration feeder I would very often take my obed (a more substantial version of the Western lunch if you may) in the kindengarden where my mum worked as a teacher. In those days Soviet kids used to study in shifts in schools, ie either study from early in the morning and be done by early afternoon, or start at about 1pm and finish at 6. So I would come to visit my mum and be fed after my daily Lenin's 'study, study, study'.

Oh, the sweet memories of those wholesome meals...

I remember getting down to a bowl of watery but brilliantly red and delicious borsh, following it up with a plate of mash potatoes and kotlety (often translated as burgers into English, but really, how can you compare those little dense flat patties of course pork mince and chunks of onion to a mere burger?!) and finish it off perhaps with a bowl of zapekanka with kisel' (a warm baked cheesecake with raisins, served floating in a fruity, thick drink)...

The most quintessential English pud - apple crumble with custard.

I'm not going to go all nostalgic on you and say that the food in all schools and kindergardens were this good, but the food I remember was ordinary and boring, 'real' as we love to call such food these days, made without any pre-packaged sauces (they were none to choose from), totally from scratch on that day. There were no choices ('Vegetarianism does not exist in the USSR'), no allergies (you go a bit red, so what, a normal child reaction), no care for the provenance of your meat (you probably didn't want to know).

...'We have made extraordinary into ordinary' said the head at the school about their school dinners. Sounds damn pompous, but makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

I ate diligently my full plate of the Traditional Roast dinner, finishing it off with some crumble and custard - not far at all from my beloved kotlety and zapekanka, are they, really?

What is your favourite memory of the school dinner?


Unknown said...

Yellow split pea Kasha with pork crackling.Kefir.

Anonymous said...

сырныки aka syrnyki

Katrina said...

yeah, cheesey things are definitely on my favourites list...

Janis,a split pea kasha that's posh! And I hadn't heard of the crackling until I got to this country!

Unknown said...

By the `crackling` I meant `шкварки`(the fried skin(rind) of a pig).
Pea kasha is just one of my favorite memories,not suggestion :)
I couldn`t complain about my School lunches, honestly! Except `Kompot` (don`t confuse with Compote ) drink made of dried fruits,boiled in water with sugar, that`s just awful culinary invention in my opinion, but still loved in Eastern European countries,perhaps.