We sat at long tables, arranged by house. The housemaster sat at the head of the table, with the senior boys around him. They dished out bangers, mash and beans, or connective-tissue stew with colourless cabbage and crumbly over-boiled spuds. Or mince, or generic white fish in white gunge with tasteless white mash and cabbage – or occasionally something more exotic, like spag bol or curried beef stew or salad with bread and marge.
The plates slid like curling stones down the table towards the most junior boys, with the quantity of food increasing exponentially – the closer you sat to the top of the table, the higher you were, literally, in the pecking order. Seconds were, conversely, dealt from top to bottom: a double blow for the youngest, smallest and hungriest.
The sweet course was rarely a treat to look forward to. We never had rice pudding at home, so I had no idea what it was supposed to taste like. It was invariably accompanied by a dollop of golden syrup. There was tapioca – about which there is nothing I can say that hasn’t been said before. There was wallpaper paste they called “semolina”, garnished with a dollop of red pigment, officially described as “strawberry jam”. There was chocolate sponge with colour-coded custard we called Mersey Mud, and spotted dick, of course, (dry, but otherwise not too bad). Then there were various configurations of jam, dough and custard, one of which was a jam pastry sitting under a thick layer of congealed cold custard. This was known as Manchester tart, for no obvious reason. We gobbled it all up with gusto.
There were two dinner sittings. If you were allocated to the second, you would probably get more to eat since every morsel had to be finished up. Being teenage boys, we ate everything put in front of us. There was a lot of mashed spuds and custard, and some of it, inevitably, would end up on the elbows of your blazer. If you couldn’t wait for dinner, there was a tuck shop where you could purchase tasty and nutritious snacks, such as Quavers, Mars Bars and iced buns.
Despite all that, there were few overweight boys in my school
Maybe that was because we spent a lot of time playing sport, or perhaps the food that was thrown to us wasn’t so unhealthy after all. We never had chips, or anything fried. There was never a choice, so nothing got thrown away. Food was expensive.
Today food is cheap. It hardly needs saying that many people in “developed countries”, and especially in Britain, eat and drink too much, don’t eat much fruit, and don’t take much exercise. (I am one of them, and it’s all my fault.) Society has never been so obsessed with food. We are eating too much, and we are eating the wrong stuff: meat is bad, dairy is bad, fat is bad, sugar is bad, salt is bad, gluten is bad, alcohol is bad… and then, all of a sudden, fat isn’t as bad as we thought, sugar is still very, very bad and – a shock – even orange juice is bad. Bad for our bodies? Bad for the planet? Morally bad, because of how it is produced? Or a méli-mélo, as they say in France. I am all for sharing information and discussing important issues but it now feels to me like there’s a propaganda campaign, in which the BBC is complicit, to turn us into vegans. They would counter that they are responding to public interest. There’s certainly a lot of vegan options on offer in South London, so I assume it must sell.
Is it unfair to call it a fad?
I am not an expert on nutrition, but I feel that I am being forced into taking a view, and perhaps I should. There are some things I thought I knew about food. For example, salt is not per se bad for you – in fact, it is essential – although too much of it can be. Canned or frozen food is nutritionally sound. Nothing you eat will prevent you from getting cancer or make it go away. Because some people are allergic to molluscs doesn’t mean that they should not be eaten. The fact that some people have an intolerance to cow’s milk doesn’t mean that it is harmful to the rest of us. Human beings have been consuming these products for many thousands of years. (Was that a mistake, or are they now polluted in some way?) Protein is essential, for people of all ages, and you don’t get much from a serving of lentils so if you are not going to eat meat you need to do your homework. A diet that requires its adherents to take vitamin supplements is not for me.
But how much protein do our bodies really need? Have we been misinformed? We used to believe what the doctors and scientists told us but those days seem to be over. While there’s generally less respect for the “experts” than when I was young (as witness the “anti-vaccine movement” and the recent measles outbreak in the USA), let’s not forget that there is a massive clean-eating and detoxing industry out there, just as much as there’s a meat and a dairy industry. There are thousands of people keen to change your diet because they have something to sell. Cui bono?
Let’s take a step backwards
I’ve been reading Along The Enchanted Way by William Blacker, an Englishman who lived in rural Romania until recently. The peasants in the villages grow their own food. They eat a lot of bread and potatoes, and drink home-made plum booze, even for breakfast. There is milk, cream, yogurt and cheese from goats, sheep, cows and – best of all – buffaloes. And fruit or fruit pies, according to the season. Grigor the pig gets slaughtered in December and lambs have their throats cut in the spring. It may seem brutal, but nothing, and in particular no food, is ever wasted.
I wonder what vegan metropolitans would eat if they were made to live there for a month or two. How would they get on working in the fields from dawn to dusk, without stoking up with eggs or cheese in the morning, but with the consoling knowledge that their potato soup was organic and carbon-neutral? I suppose it would be possible to survive as a vegetarian, although it would be hard to explain it to your hosts. But as a vegan? I have my doubts.
When I’ve been to India on holiday I have eaten very little meat. Often there isn’t much to be had – not on the restaurant menu anyway. You can pretty well rule out pork and beef, and the chicken can be a bit tough to our palate. I am quite happy with a vegetable biryani and a chapati and cucumber raita, but I am definitely up for fish and seafood if I can get it. While many millions of Indians survive mainly on rice, grains and vegetables, the great majority (of Hindus as well as Moslems and Christians) are in fact meat-eaters. The strictest vegetarians are generally those who are better off as they can get hold of a wider range of food. As for veganism, can you imagine Indian cuisine without paneer?
Indian cows may not get eaten but they do get milked!
Yes, we should be aware of the cruelty that is endemic in the dairy industry but spare a thought for the thousands of creatures killed during the ploughing and harvesting of a field. And how many vegans keep cats as pets – responsible for the deaths of millions of garden birds each year? As for the thousands of gallons of water we are told are necessary in order to produce a kilogram of meat... I am not convinced about that. In some parts of the world, maybe. But apart from sheep and grass, what else will thrive on a North Welsh hillside? Welsh rain is hardly a scarce resource. Surely it makes more sense to farm sheep than to air freight quinoa from South America? So I say: try to eat local like those Romanians, eat better quality and – for most of us – eat less.
Having said all that, if someone tells you they feel better having given up meat, bread, dairy or what have you, it is pointless to tell them that they are wrong! As you can tell, I am thoroughly confused. But perhaps we can all agree on one thing: the greatest scandal is the perfectly edible food that is thrown away. Maybe an argument for keeping a pig.