would knight Jamie Oliver for his services towards improved nutrition in school food.
School liver was an early lesson in life
Boris speaks from personal experience when he backs compulsory school dinners:
if that means nothing but liver, on some days, so be it. It would certainly mean less obesity
pies, and brown stew, and very well-cooked cabbage, and apple charlottes, and mashed potatoes with proper lumps in
See Naked Chef’s site here
[Wifey will approve – pioneer in spotting the value of the campaign early on]
In the course of a chequered educational career I briefly attended a primary school in Camden, and succeeded in making myself popular with the dinner ladies by having the elementary courtesy to eat everything.
“Ooh,” they would say, when they saw me in the queue, “you can give this one extra. He eats everything,” and they would dig deep into their vats of gloop, and give me double dollops of lumpy mashed potato, and superboiled carrots, and cabbage and kale and other indescribable English vegetables that covered the plate like a swampy old mackintosh.
I remember the yellow fat on the boiled ham, and a perfectly cooked cockroach, big and black and delicately seethed in its own juices, discovered at the bottom of a meat pie, with – such was the artistry of the chefs – only one leg missing. I loved it all. My infant heart would leap at the sound of the lunch bell, and every day I would fall on that school dinner like a ravening wolf.
Did I say every day? Well, the truth is that there was one menu that I found a bit of a trial. There was one distinctive pre-prandial smell, which, when it wafted through the school, used to make me whimper with dread. It was liver. When I say liver, I don’t mean the kind of liver you get in restaurants these days, pink and tender and derived exclusively from contented calves, and swaddled in bacon and onions. I don’t know what manner of cows supplied the livers to state schools in London in the early 1970s, but they must have been very old and suffering from advanced alcoholism. These livers had the texture (and something of the aroma) of an old Green Flash gym shoe. They were knobbly with cysts and evidence of bovine cirrhosis, which no doubt explained the mortality of the cow. And they were green.
Literally green. No doubt readers will tell me that green is the perfect colour for liver, evidence that the cow has been grazing free, and so forth. But nothing in my earlier childhood had prepared me for eating a part of an animal that was green, and I am afraid that I would sit there and fool with my food, and it may be that a tear of frustration ran down my cheek. I had eaten the two veg. I had drunk the radio-active gravy.
But still the pangs of hunger gnawed me. I had a hard afternoon ahead, gluing bits of spaghetti on paper; around me, my chums were guzzling their liver with frank enjoyment. So what did I do? Reader, I ate it.
Bit by retching bit, I forced that offal past the barrier of my teeth, because I concluded – and this is the point – that I had no choice. I learnt to eat that liver, nauseating as it was, and bursting with every vitamin and nutrient one could imagine; and no doubt it was that triumph of the will that made me what I am today.
And I think of that liver when I contemplate the heroics of Jamie Oliver, television’s wunderkind chef, and his struggle to make our children eat something good for them at lunchtime.
I am afraid I have seen only fragments of his programmes, but my desk is covered with letters from people who think he should be given a knighthood, or a hereditary earldom, for his campaign. As a bandwagoning politician, I am of course tempted to agree immediately. I am sure he is right, that there can be no finer investment for our society than putting the right kind of tucker on the table for our children. Arise, Sir Jamie, say I.
I just think it might be useful briefly to remind ourselves of how and why his efforts have become so vital. Whatever my childish opinion of liver, school food in the 1970s was far better all round. I talked yesterday to Clive Hallett, a distinguished primary head of more than 30 years’ experience, and together we reminisced about the splendour of school food. There was a time when every school kitchen had a special steamer, a kind of sauna device for the production of spotted dick, he said dreamily. “We had pies, and brown stew, and very well-cooked cabbage, and apple charlottes, and mashed potatoes with proper lumps in, and every school had a special staff in the kitchen preparing fresh food from scratch.”
There was none of your burgers and chips, and Turkey Twizzlers, and pizzas, and all this stuff the kiddies eat nowadays, full of salt and sugar and E numbers. The meals may have individually been a challenge, but collectively, over the week, they represented an excellent and balanced diet.
So what forces expelled us from this Eden? According to Clive, it was local management of schools, and the pressure to cut the cost of dinner ladies. It was far cheaper to buy in prepared stuff, and schools and education authorities were driven to make savings.
But there is another factor at work here, and I am conscious as I say this of the risk of arousing the wrath of parents. In my day, you were not given the choice of bringing in a packed lunch, and there, I think, we have the real problem. Given the choice between school liver and a packed lunch, I fear that most children will go for the packed lunch.
Imagine how the dinner ladies felt, on the liver days, when the whole school was able to turn its nose up at their offering! Imagine their sense of hurt and rejection. No wonder those involved in school catering tried ever harder to persuade the little blighters to eat what the school offered; and that, of course, meant chips, and pizzas, and Twizzlers, and the general collapse that Jamie Oliver has identified.
I am in favour of choice in education, if that means more choice for parents, and alleviating the burdens on teachers. But when it comes to children’s diet, I am an out-and-out paternalist. Bring back compulsory school dinners, I say, and, if that means nothing but liver, on some days, so be it. It would certainly mean less obesity.