MEat school dinners to anyone and you’ll be met with either groans of disgust or groans of delight. For some, the expression evokes memories of comfort: shepherd’s pie, cheese whirl, roly-poly jam and custard. Others are reminiscent of bland beige porridge: soggy cabbage, liver and soft onions, lumpy rice pudding.
They seem to hold a special place in the national psyche, more powerful than mere nostalgia. Think of Marcus Rashford who wins near-universal admiration for campaigning for the provision of free school meals during the pandemic, or Jamie Oliver’s crusade against the Turkey Twizzler during his school dinner campaign. What schoolchildren eat for lunch has become a litmus test of how we fare as a country. In April last year, Aberdeenshire Council was forced to stop serving grapes as part of a package deal to save over £20million. Slicing them was considered too laborious and costly. (When the board cut out custard and ice cream in accordance with new guidelines limiting sugar consumption, two 11-year-old students successfully requested their return.) Five months later, Lancashire County Council announced its school menus would be temporarily reduced, with only jacket potatoes, soups and sandwiches offered due to a shortage of truck 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 recognized function. From my own experience and speaking with my family members and others with a migrant background, a common perspective emerges. School dinners were our gateway to traditional British cuisine and, in some ways, to wider culture. Memories are often tender. “So many good things to say,” says my uncle Nahid. “Everyone in my school will remember the cook’s name, Mrs. MacIlroy. Her desserts were the best; the chocolate pudding with chocolate pastry cream – just awesome.
The care and affection that accompanied the meals are remembered just as much as the food. “She was always going around the tables to see if the children liked the food. And that was when the ladies in the kitchen prepared portions of eight, so each table got its own portion to serve.
My mother, a child of Bangladeshi migrants in Manchester in the 1970s, also remembers the cook at her school. “Madame Lamb. His mash was the best. And the cheese flan, the cheese and tomato pie and the cheese pie. Dairy-heavy memories are no accident; schools were not yet providing halal meals to Muslim students, so savory dishes revolved around cheese and fish. And for after parties? “The puddings were next level. My all-time favorite was peach pie with latte,” she says.
Serving coffee to elementary school children feels distinctly from the era, as does the well-meaning attempt to diversify the menu. The school curry tormented all children, but especially those who regularly ate at home and could not understand what was on offer. “Asian children were totally disgusted by the apple and raisins in the curry,” my mother recalls, “and the overwhelming smell of madras curry powder.”
School dinners were at their best when they emphasized the cooks’ strengths: pies, puddings, roasts, homemade custard. For many, these dishes were an introduction to certain aspects of British life and were not just for children. My father came to Britain in 1983 shortly after marrying my mother. He left his job as a university teacher in Bangladesh to become a secondary school teacher in a small town in West Yorkshire. 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 pleasure of experiencing English cuisine via the dining room from school.
A steamed syrup sponge with thick yellow custard, apple pie, cheese and onions all made my dad’s list of favorites. Sometimes he would come home and describe something exotic he had eaten that day and my sisters and I would make it at home – cheese baked leeks, puffy Yorkshire puddings, a creamy fisherman. Over time, her fondness for these dishes and our own study of cookbooks allowed us to recreate “traditional” Sunday roast dinners at home, but with chicken covered in tandoori powder and turmeric, and to make baking crumbles and cakes – even though we cheated by using bird powder for the custard.
In the 1990s, the provision of school meals was contracted out to private catering companies, with education authorities forced to choose the most ‘competitive’ supplier. Menus had expanded to include vegetarian and halal options, as well as “European” offerings that had marked the traditional British appetite: lasagna, pizza, pasta.
Like others of my generation, I remember floppy and cheesy pizzas with puddles of grease on top, jelly with fruit and a squirt of whipped cream, wilted fish sticks and mounds of yellow French fries blade. We didn’t eat much pasta or lasagna at home so the novelty certainly contributed to one of my early childhood ambitions, which was to become a canteen. I imagined myself slamming metal food trays, handing out portions to hungry kids, and having seconds whenever I wanted.
This nostalgia is not unique to me. the MyLahore restaurant chainfounded in Bradford, offers a mix of classic Pakistani and British dishes, “everything from samosas to shepherd’s pie, and karahis to cornflake piesaccording to its menu. He has clearly struck a chord with generations of British Asians, with the chain expanding to Manchester, Birmingham and London over the past five years. “When we first opened MyLahore, it was a traditional, normal curry house,” says Ishfaq Farooq, 35, manager of the family chain.
The menu expansion was the result of her younger sister’s innovation. One day she made apple crumble at home and her brothers brought it to the cafe to serve to customers. He was so popular that they asked him to do another one. While still studying at the time, she requested a recipe from her school canteen and researched others in books she borrowed from the library, adding cornflake pie, roly-poly jam, chocolate cake and chocolate cream. The menu of the family restaurant has changed forever.
That was over 15 years ago. Now the menu has a section devoted to “old-fashioned puddings,” including coconut sponge, apple crumble, and sticky caramel pudding. “These are dishes that we admire,” says Farooq. “We usually came home for dinner, we couldn’t afford school dinners, but when we could have them it was something really special.”
Building on their success, the MyLahore team have branched out into other school dinner classics of lasagna and pasta — but “with an Asian twist,” says Farooq. “This is how typical Asian families prepare these dishes at home – it’s not the Italian way.” Green chilies abound, the hash is spicy, and the result is delicious.
Farooq takes pride in his food. “We have always tried to highlight the Anglo-Asian history. We always say we’re Anglo-Asian because that’s what we are. And we look for opportunities to give back to the community.
As well as give meals to local care homes, food banks and key workers during the Covid shutdowns, when the government dragged its feet on the provision of school meals, MyLahore stepped in to ensure that local pupils received at least one hot meal per day. Farooq says “it seemed natural” for the restaurant chain to step up. “Our parents and grandparents came to this country and they worked hard.”
The continued importance of school meals in our public consciousness goes beyond just food; it is an expression of care, of the importance of children and their well-being, and a reflection not only of the tastes, but also of 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