I was chatting to a school-meals lady the other day. Pupils were eating healthier foods in Scotland’s school canteens, she said, because they didn’t get much of an option. It was either healthy eating or nothing, which meant that many teens headed down town for a pie and chips and a can of cola.
I can’t be sure, but I detected a wistfulness in her tone, as if she was sad that the days of good, hearty Scottish fare in school dining rooms had been replaced by salads, vegetarian fajitas and fresh fruit.
I loved school meals when I was a teenager. You couldn’t have prised me away from them, even although I was raised at a time when school meals were regarded by many of my peers as deeply uncool. Nobody who valued their street cred ate school meals. Since I have never had street cred, that bothered me not one iota.
The pinnacle of this culinary delight was the industrial-sized oblong heavy-aluminium pan (with rounded corners and handles at both ends) of macaroni-cheese. This was not just any macaroni-cheese. This was macaroni-cheese crafted by culinary goddesses. It had a thick leathery skin that drifted close to burned and tasted salty and cheesy when you chewed it. It made wonderful sooking noises at the huge spoon wielded by the dinner lady. She would size you up; judge your appetite and capacity, and whack an appropriate-sized chunk of her wares on your plastic plate. You would move along to her colleague, who would perform a similar ritual with an oblong pan of pickled beetroot. They were angels, both.
That love of school macaroni has never left me. I wrote a newspaper column about it in the mid-1980s. Two weeks later, I gave a talk in a secondary school in Aberdeenshire and the headmaster invited me to lunch afterwards in the school canteen. Imagine my delight when I realised that top of the menu was macaroni-cheese. “We don’t really do it nowadays,” he said, “but since it was you I asked for it specially.” He could have offered me a crystal trophy and a blank cheque and I would not have been more impressed.
It is well known in our extended family that if ever anyone wants to get me to do something I don’t particularly want to do, a plate of macaroni-cheese is the way to soften me up. It must be home-made to get that authentic leathery skin, however. I can’t imagine why anyone would buy a tin of macaroni-cheese or, worse, a packet of ready-mix, when 10 minutes’ extra work produces a dish at half the cost with 20 times the taste.
As for the compulsory pickled beetroot, it must not be sweet pickle, but proper vinegar pickle. Sainsbury’s is best. Baxter’s beetroot, I regret to say, is like eating round paving slabs.
If you want an extra favour, finish me off with school Eve’s Pudding and custard.
I am a man of homely tastes.