The Smell of School Dinners in the Morning

A couple of days ago walking through Old Street underground station in London, I was assailed by what I can only describe as the smell of school dinners; that unique combination of cheap mince browning, cabbage and slightly warm milk that greeted me every morning of my school career.

It was unique to both the place and era, as school food was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten either before or since: overcooked vegetables, boiled potatoes like bullets, with black bits on the skin and steamed puddings with watery custard and skin on top.

At junior school the meals were actually cooked on the premises, by dinner ladies who wore unflattering nets on their hair and blue checked uniforms.  The mother of one of my friends was a dinner lady and each morning we went to wave at her through the kitchen window where she would be paring vegetables or washing up, and she would write a clue as to what was coming for lunch with her finger in the condensation on the glass.  I was always impressed by her ability to write ‘mince’ or ‘fish’ backwards, so that we could read it on our side of the window.

I suspect though, now, that my association of the aroma of stewed cabbage with school food dates me irrevocably.  What do dinner halls smell of these days?

It’s a topic of frequent discussion these days amongst the great and the good, what should children be given to eat at school. First there was the campaign by Jamie Oliver over the pre prepared junk food that was being served in schools with subsequent stories of either its success or failure, and then a quiet hiatus, until some new life was brought to it by the reporting of the banning of a child’s blog about her school lunches by the local council.  I caught a bit of the Food Programme on the radio in the car on this very subject.

It dawned on me that if these tales of meals are true, then children today aren’t met in the morning with the smell of  boiling vegetables, and that the aroma of the dining hall must be of chips and burgers frying rather than cabbage and custard.  And the smell of chips isn’t unique, you can catch a whiff of it on any street corner, whereas, at least for me, that of the meat and two veg school dinner from the 1960s and 70s was an aroma linked exclusively to school, it didn’t exist anywhere else.


(Except perhaps Old Street station every now and again…..)

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  1. Let us remember the ‘Gourmet’ Hermitage Academy luncheon from the little van by the side gate…Half a Vienna Loaf, hand in & pull out all the internal bread…(throw at friend or foe), crush an unopened bag of crisps then open, pour into Half V Loaf…eat, enjoy then away to the corner shop to BUY a single cigarette…I never did this!!!
    The rich & sophisticated children and Big Boys in smart Crombie Coats got Chicken & Chips from the local chip shop. I wanted to do that!!!

    • How funny…. Corroboration! I was just a couple of days ago telling some kids about the half V and crisps luncheon! They didn’t believe me. I can honestly say I never bought a single cigarette! (And mostly went home for lunch except on choir practice days when I had sandwiches). But the smell memory lingers!

  2. I attended the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus in Layton, Blackpool, from 1965 to 1968. Those school lunches were unappetising and smelt dreadful, but worse than that for me was the noise and bustle in the dining room. On my first day at school (I was just a bit short of 5), it was clear to me that a terrible mistake had been made by my parents, because they would never ever have knowingly sent me to a place where I was to be subjected to such chaos and racket at mealtime. I was 15 or 16 before I got over it.

    • I sympathise! I don’t specifically remember the noise, but bearing in mind how much the cacophony at the school I visited recently aggravated me, I think I may have suppressed the memory of clatter and bang so traumatic was it!

  3. David

     /  August 2, 2012

    Great to hear that my memory of half v and crisps was not a result of being hit on head by blackboard dusters by geography teacher, and he was one of the good guys. If you had a bit of spare cash you could go to the CB’s in Dumbarton high St and get a half v and pie! Where did it all go wrong ?

    • Ha! A pie!? There’s nutrition the old fashioned way! I don’t think we stretched to pies in Helensburgh! Great to know the memory can be shared.


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