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.
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.