Following the BBQ warfare I talked about in my last article, Mike and I hung up our Chef Whites. There were more pressing issues, it was called Grammar School. Back in those days at age 11 or slightly older, everyone sat a test, it was cunningly called the Eleven Plus. In today’s political world it would take a stadium full of researchers and the Gross National Product of major country to come up with such a catchy name for this method of determining if an 11 year old can read, write, and be able to count beyond the number of fingers on both hands.

Mike and I had not maimed ourselves, well at least not very much in our adventures and so we sailed through the Exam. Wining is good, right?

It did not take us long to realize that our prize was 6 years of purgatory. We even had to go to school on Saturday mornings!

Name an Eleven or Twelve year old that wants to go to School on a Saturday morning to learn Latin? My mother in an attempt to be supportive explained that Latin would be helpful if I decided to become a Doctor or Lawyer. Hmmm

Mike was so fed up with translating ‘The Romans Have Long Spears’ which I seem to recall as Romanus Longus Fluvea (or something like it) that he was about ready to place that long spear in Mr Twilllzes nether regions.

I was facing an equally ugly situation with a teacher that thought he knew about books than I did. The problem hit critical mass when I was about 15. Mr Hogg announced that the next project was to read George Orwell’s 1984. “Oh no I groaned”. “Barrett, I heard that, would you care to elucidate your thoughts for the benefit if the rest of us”.

Feeling pushed into a corner, I had no place to go but forward. So I did.

I explained that 1984 was OK, but it was not reflective of George Orwell as a writer, it was over rated, and over picked apart in English Literature classes. You would be better of with Keep The Aspidistra Flying, or The Road To Wigan Pier.

Mr Tony Hogg gave me a look that needed no words. Needless to say I did not get great marks for any of my essays on 1984.

Back to food. Living in a Pub and Bed and Breakfast there was always food around. The problem was that it was always the same food. After a while the menu gets old. My father had become well know in the area for his Ham. Ham Plate, Ham Salad, Ham Sandwich, Ham and Pea soup. Everywhere you looked were Ham’s.

The Hams were not the squidly things you find in your local supermarket, these were monsters, so big that no oven could deal with them, instead, my Father had re-purposed a Clothes Boiler to become the Ham cooker. Yes, everyone loves a great slab of juicy ham, but trust me after a few years on a ham diet it does get a little tedious.

The major high spot in my life was the ‘mystery cupboard’. My father bought his hams from a large ‘trade only’ warehouse. There was a section for canned goods that had lost their labels. He would buy a random assortment and bring them home. Based in inflation rates, these cans cost about 5 cents each in today’s world.

You never knew that was in them until you opened it. The only rule was that if you opened it you had to consume it. Both my father and I were partial to either the Custard or Rice Pudding cans. If you scored one of these you had bragging rights! Less favorite were cans of green beans and what is known in England as Mushy Peas. Well at least it made a change from Ham!

My other epicurean experience during this period was School Dinners. These explorations into the world of health and nutrition were nothing short of amazing. How 320 kids survived the ordeal without a single heart attack amazes me.

A couple of dishes stick in my mind. Number one is Spam Fritters. These critters could kill a rampaging bull elephant.

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Obviously with 320 hungry mouths to feed the kitchen did not use the dinky cans of Spam that you find in your local supermarket. They used large slabs which were then broken down to kid size 6 x 4 x .5 inch portions. These were then dunked in a batter so heavy that if the Iceberg hadn’t got the Titanic, this batter would have!

The final cooking process was a tricky one. And to this day I do not think it should be tried at home. TV shows often have disclaimers, don’t do this at home, the people on this program are professionals. Well the ‘Dinner Ladies’ were indeed professionals.

They had perfected the art of ‘not quite deep frying’. It requires great skill. You want to make sure that the oil is at least ten to twenty degrees cooler than recommended. This provides the perfect environment for the batter and Span to absorb the maximum amount of oil.

The end result is something that I suspect is now banned by the SALT agreement, and I am sure would cause an international outcry if used in Afghanistan. The Taliban don’t stand a chance against Spam Fritters.

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The other favorite menu item was the desert of Prunes and Custard. While every school boy likes custard, the same cannot be said about Stewed Prunes. It was my secret theory that we were unwitting Guinea pigs when the school wished to stress test the plumbing.

Looking back at it, my teenage years were a gourmet desert.

The only oasis in this arid landscape was my annual escape to spend a month in Germany. No Spam, no prunes, and no bloody ham! Just great food and beer. Of course that is not to say that the country did not have its culinary quirks, I was taken by surprise the first time we purchased chips (French fries) from a street vendor and was introduced to the concept of adding Tomato Ketchup and Mayonnaise. I was more used to soggy chips cooked in 10 year old oil then drenched in salt and vinegar to kill the taste of the rancid grease.

It did not take me long to realize that German food far out-shined that of Jolly ole England. The meats were tender and flavorful, the sauces rich, velvety and luxurious, and even the vegetables were prepared in a fashion whereby you could actually identify and taste them. This was a very different world from the one I knew. The English cooking technique for meat (regardless of method) was to reduce it to a grey, dry lump of unidentifiable origin. Sauce came out of a bottle and was called HP.

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Vegetables came in for special victimization. It was as if the Brits hated vegetables as much as they hated the French.

About the only thing I can say about the Brits and vegetables is that they had perfected a foolproof cooking method that can be used for any type of vegetable.

Put it in a large pot of water add salt and boil it until whatever it was is a mush at the bottom of the pot. Exact cooking times are irrelevant, the rule of thumb is that if you put the veggies on at the same point you place the beef or pork roast in the oven, you can not go wrong!

This recipe works really well with Cabbage. After a couple of hours of vigorous boiling not only do you have the desired green mush at the bottom of the pan, but you have also created an aromatic that the whole family can enjoy.

Gosh honey, did you buy one of those plug in air fresheners, cos it sure smells good in here.

Next up, life on the road. With a tent, a sleeping bag, and no ham sandwiches what can a 14 year old hippie do?

Simon Barrett

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