Fettuccine carbonara and other culinary misadventures

I enjoyed this piece by Matt on Abstract Gourmet about rediscovering fettuccine carbonara years after boarding school nearly put him off for life. He writes:

“The list of things that boarding school food turned me off was actually fairly extensive. Among them, steak diane, ham steaks with pineapple, lasagne, meat pies, hot dogs, and pretty much all forms of vegetable. There was very little that the lovely ladies in the kitchen could not make taste disgusting and industrial. I’m quite surprised I developed any kind of food obsession at all after doing my time there.

“The carbonara of course was on its own existential plane of badness. A thin, watery, creamy sauce, with stodgy pasta and either thick chunks of mostly raw mushroom or a slurry of mushroom goo (depending on whether you were the first or last table to get your food). The older and wiser would pick out the bacon and chicken (or whichever meat they’d decided to add), and leave the rest, and then intimidate the young and new into handing over theirs.”

Matt’s post includes a recipe for fettuccine carbonara done well – with guanciale if possible (pancetta if not) and “no cream, mushroom, or watery goop whatsoever”.

I never had the dubious pleasure of going to boarding school, though I did eat the catered food in my first year of university when I lived on campus. It wasn’t great – I remember it generally came with a choice of cold chips or dry, clumpy rice. But at least I had a choice and I don’t remember any particular dish standing out as particularly awful.

Poutine (Canadian dish with fries, curd cheese gravy and meat) - is this what they eat in Canadian boarding schools?

Of course, you don’t have to go to boarding school to have bad experiences with school food. In Australia people either take a packed lunch or buy sandwiches from the school canteen / tuck shop. But in the UK, and I believe in the US too, it’s common to get a hot “school dinner” at lunch time even when you are a day student at a state school.

When I lived in London, the newspapers were full of stories about how little money was spent on school meals and how they were made up of awful things like reconstituted turkey fat and skin. Chef Jamie Oliver led a campaign to help make school dinners tastier and healthier via the Channel 4 series Jamie’s School Dinners and this did help matters.

Everyone I have ever spoken with experience on the matter has said that boarding school food and school food in general is awful. So what I don’t understand is why there is such a fad in London restaurants for “nursery food” – all the things an English person might have eaten at school – such as bangers n mash, bubble-and-squeak, toad-in-the-hole, or spotted dick – but done well. I understand that the dishes might be perfectly nice when done by a fancy restaurant with quality ingredients, but I am baffled why anyone is nostalgic for them in the first place, given the bad experiences they claim to have had.

Matt’s post got me thinking about dishes or foods that I hated when I was younger because I had only ever had inferior versions. I am lucky to have grown up around good food so there aren’t too many examples, but here are a few:

  • I’ve never been fond of canned beetroot, but in the UK I discovered the joy of fresh beetroot and I love it! Now I often have a few roasted beetroots in the fridge to have in salads or on sandwiches. (I also eat the cooked leaves like spinach).
  • I always thought corned beef was something that came in a can that tasted little better than dog food. We never ate this at home but I have a vague recollection of trying it once and being utterly disgusted. It was only in the past couple of years, that I ate homemade corned beef that someone had cured in brine from scratch. It was really quite good.
  • I always hated coleslaw but it turns out I only hate it when it’s made with commercial mayonnaise and too much of it at that. I actually quite like coleslaw when it’s made with just a little bit of good mayonnaise.

How did institutional or bad cooking shape your culinary appetites? Did any bad food experiences in childhood or early adulthood turn you off any dishes completely? Did you discover good versions of the dish later on or was it a permanent repulsion? Let me know in the comments.

Photo credits: “Poutine” by London Brad on Flickr.

“Red beetroot leave” by Net_Efekt on Flickr.

Both photos used with permission under a Creative Commons licence.

I owe you a post in the sustainable food series – I’ll have something soon, I promise! Let’s just say that most institutional food of the kind I’m familiar with is rather UNsustainable.

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  1. I *WISH* my school had served Pasta Carbonara. Well, maybe I’m not- because it may have wrecked me ;) Seriously- that is my all-time favorite pasta dish. Hands down. And I was in Montreal over a year ago and did not partake in the Poutine. Next time for sure.
    .-= My Mélange´s last blog ..Travel Tip Tuesday : How to Deal with Lost, Stolen or Damaged Luggage =-.

  2. I’m not a fan of poutine so much (oh, the horrors!), but that photo makes it look AH-mazing.
    .-= Camels & Chocolate´s last blog ..One Door Closes and a Gorilla Pops Out of Another =-.

  3. That’s the best looking Poutine that I’ve seen. Living just North of Canada in Detroit we have a soft spot for Canuck food.

  4. Really? Everyone so far seems to think the poutine looks appetising. I really do not! I picked it because I thought it looked suitably disgusting! I’ve had chips and gravy before and could just about cope with cheese but random bits of processed meat is a bridge too far!

  5. I’ve tried several times to make carbonara sauce, but, although it generally turns out tasty, it always looks like someone threw up over the pasta.

    But, we didn’t have this at school … my un-favourite dish was always served on a Friday; a tastelss, insipid, watery fish dish we called ‘Catholic Stew’. For years afterwards, it took a real effort to eat a fish cooked otherwise than deep-fried in batter.
    .-= Keith´s last blog ..The White Birds of Windermere =-.

  6. First of all, let me be the first one on this comment thread to say that the poutine looks like puke on a plate! Yuck!

    Growing up in the Philippines, we never really had cafeteria lunches at school. Most everyone will bring their own packed lunch from home. And since most middle-class and well-to-do families would have a cook (not necessarily Mom), food was, generally, good. The bad food experiences I can think of came from packaged dinners from the US…fake salisbury steaks, chicken fingers, meatloaf…all from fake, reconstituted stuff. Believe it or not, I HATED ketchup as well. And I hated McDonald’s burgers because they were tasteless and it contained that awful ketchup anyway!
    .-= Jen Laceda´s last blog ..A World of Inspiration =-.

  7. I’m going to have to go with the poutine lovers on this one… Fries smothered in delicious gravy and melted cheese curd has got to be the ultimate drunken misadventure… and I’d happily trade the Aussie kebab for poutine any day.

    Nice post Caitlin, I think we all have some experience with food from our past that has shaped the way we eat in the future… Mostly for the worse :) I think it’s an indication of true food appreciation to be able to overcome those things and look at food in a new way despite having negative connotations.

  8. sorry for the poutine but carbonara is way better. i am not only saying this cause i’m italian, maybe? :-)

  9. In my school years I used to survive on Rowntree’s fruit pastilles, a bar of chocolate and 3 fags. If I was really hungry I’d get a chocolate biscuit from the canteen, put it in a bowl and then drown it with so much custard it would look just like a bowl of custard and therefore I’d get the cookie for free!

    Those were dark days.
    .-= Lizzie´s last blog ..Chinese Turnip Cake =-.

  10. There’s definitely something in this. I’m still to try ‘real’ corned beef after being so put off by the horrible canned stuff you mention. Mind you, corned beef is relatively easy to avoid, whereas something like mashed potato (also yuck at school) is so popular that there have been many opportunities to get over the initial trauma and realise that homemade is good.
    .-= Sophie´s last blog ..Is osteoporosis on your radar? =-.

    I was served corned beef when I was a dinner guest, so I felt obliged to try it. It was good though! – Caitlin.

  11. Canned mushroom soup used in *everything*. Dear God, no. My pantry will never have canned mushroom anything. It’s really not that hard to whip up a quick, fresh sauce with things like cream or olive oil, or thicken a broth or pan drippings with some butter, egg or flour. It’s just not.

  12. Well I would never have skipped school, or made up being ill if I was eating Jamie’s menus. Now my mothers sandwiches were pretty good, but Jamie’s foods. Hmm. Lucky schools.

  13. eight years. Let me repeat that, just for emphasis and this time remembering to apply the shift key. Eight years.
    What it’s left me with is an abiding love of sultanas. Anything with sultanas in it is all right by definition. Whereas; junket, sago, semolina. Even writing the names induces nausea. Steak and kidney pudding. oh jesus christ. Why would you remember such things. Such memories, like giving birth, should be blotted from the mind. Sunday sausages. Enough! Begone wretch, back to the halls of memory.