Mention school dinners to anyone and you will be met with either groans of disgust or moans of delight. For some, the phrase evokes memories of comfort: shepherd’s pie, cheese whirl, jam roly-poly and custard. Others are reminded of beige, bland mush: soggy cabbage, chewy liver and onions, lumpy rice pudding.
They seem to occupy a special place in the national psyche, more potent than mere nostalgia. Think Marcus Rashford winning near universal admiration for campaigning for the provision of free meals for schoolchildren during the pandemic, or Jamie Oliver’s crusade against the Turkey Twizzler during his school dinners campaign. What schoolchildren eat for lunch has become a litmus test for how we are doing as a country. In April last year, Aberdeenshire council was forced to stop serving grapes as part of an overall bid to save more than £20m. Slicing them was deemed too labour intensive and expensive. (When the council cut custard and ice-cream in keeping with new guidelines curbing sugar intake, two 11-year-old pupils successfully petitioned for their return.) Five months later, Lancashire county council announced its school menus would be temporarily reduced, with only jacket potatoes, soups and sandwiches on offer because of a shortage of lorry drivers. If school dinners are a commentary on the state of the nation, then the same societal issues – inequality, austerity, the pandemic – are often reflected in our canteens.
School dinners can also serve another, less recognised function. From my own experience and speaking with my family members and others from migrant backgrounds, a common perspective emerges. School dinners were our gateway to traditional British food and, in some ways, the wider culture. Memories are often fond. “So many good things to say,” says my uncle Nahid. “Everyone from my school will remember the name of the cook, Mrs MacIlroy. Her desserts were the best; the chocolate pudding with chocolate custard – just genius.”
The care and affection that came with mealtimes is remembered as much as the food. “She’d always go around the tables to see if the kids were enjoying the food. And it was back in the day when the kitchen ladies would prepare portions of eight, so each table would get their own serving to be dished out.”
My mother, a child of Bangladeshi migrants in Manchester in the 1970s, also remembers her school cook. “Mrs Lamb. Her mash was the best. And the cheese flan, cheese and tomato tart, and cheese pie.” The dairy-heavy memories are no accident; schools did not yet provide halal meals for Muslim students, so the savouries revolved around cheese and fish. And for afters? “The puddings were next level. My all-time favourite was peach tart with milky coffee,” she says.
Serving coffee to primary schoolchildren feels distinctly of the era, as does the well-intentioned attempt to diversify the menu. School curry plagued all kids but especially the ones who regularly ate the real deal at home and couldn’t fathom what was on offer. “The Asian kids were totally grossed out by the apple and sultanas in the curry,” remembers my mum, “and the overpowering smell of madras curry powder.”
School dinners were at their best when they focused on the cooks’ strengths: pies, puddings, roasts, homemade custard. For many, these dishes were an introduction to aspects of British life and were not just for children. My father arrived in Britain in 1983, shortly after marrying my mother. He left his job as a university lecturer in Bangladesh to become a secondary school teacher in a small West Yorkshire town. Amid the hardships of career change – notably the lack of discipline and respect among his students and the loss of teaching his beloved Bengali literature – came the unexpected delight of discovering English cuisine via the school dining hall.
Steamed syrup sponge with thick yellow custard, apple pie, cheese and onion savouries all joined my father’s list of favourites. Sometimes he would come home and describe something exotic he ate that day and my sisters and I would make it at home – cheesy baked leeks, puffy Yorkshire puddings, creamy fisherman’s pie. In time, his affection for these dishes and our own studying of cookbooks meant that we were able to recreate “traditional” Sunday roast dinners at home, albeit with a chicken smothered in tandoori powder and turmeric, and bake crumbles and cakes – even if we cheated by using Bird’s powder for the custard.
By the 1990s, the provision of school meals was outsourced to private catering firms, with education authorities under pressure to choose the most “competitive” provider. Menus had broadened to include vegetarian and halal options, as well as takes on “European” offerings that had made their mark on the mainstream British appetite: lasagne, pizza, pasta.
Like others of my generation, I remember floppy, cheesy pizzas with pools of grease on top, jelly with fruit in and a squirt of whipped cream, wilted fish fingers and mounds of pale yellow chips. We didn’t eat much pasta or lasagne at home so the novelty certainly contributed to one of my earliest childhood ambitions, which was to become a dinner lady. I imagined myself clanging metal trays of food around, doling out portions to hungry kids and having seconds whenever I wanted.
That nostalgia isn’t unique to me. The MyLahore restaurant chain, founded in Bradford, offers a blend of Pakistani and British classic dishes, “everything from samosas to shepherd’s pie, and karahis to cornflake tarts”, according to its menu. It has clearly struck a chord with generations of British Asians, with the chain expanding to Manchester, Birmingham and London during the past five years. “When we first opened MyLahore it was a traditional, normal curry house,” says 35-year-old Ishfaq Farooq, the director of the family-run chain.
The menu expansion was a result of his younger sister’s innovation. She made an apple crumble at home one day and her brothers took it to the cafe to serve to customers. It was so popular that they asked her to make another. As she was still studying at the time, she asked her school dinner lady for a recipe and researched others in books she borrowed from the library, adding cornflake tart, jam roly-poly, chocolate cake and chocolate custard to her repertoire. The menu at the family restaurant was changed for ever.
That was more than 15 years ago. Now the menu has a section devoted to “old school puddings”, including jam coconut sponge, apple crumble and sticky toffee pudding. “These were dishes we looked up to,” explains Farooq. “We usually went home for dinner, we couldn’t afford school dinners, but when we could have them, it was something really special.”
Buoyed by their success, the MyLahore team expanded into other school dinner classics of lasagne and pasta – but “with an Asian twist”, says Farooq. “This is how typical Asian families would make these dishes at home – it’s not the Italian way.” Green chillies abound, the mince is spicy, and the result is delicious.
Farooq is proud of his food. “We’ve always tried to showcase the British-Asian story. We always say we are British-Asian because that is who we are. And we look for opportunities to give back to the community.”
As well as donating meals to local care homes, food banks and key workers during Covid lockdowns, when the government was dragging its feet over school meal provision, MyLahore stepped in to ensure local pupils got at least one hot meal a day. Farooq says “it felt natural” that the restaurant chain stepped up. “Our parents and grandparents came to this country, and they worked hard.”
The continuing significance of school meals in our public consciousness is about more than just food; it’s an expression of care, of how much children and their wellbeing matters, and a reflection of not just the tastes, but the cultures and traditions that make up Britain today.
Shahnaz Ahsan is the author of Hashim & Family (John Murray, £8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com; @shahnazahsan